“Here is a children’s film made for the world we should live in, rather than the one we occupy. A film with no villains. No fight scenes. No evil adults. No fighting between the two kids. No scary monsters. No darkness before the dawn. A world that is benign. A world where if you meet a strange towering creature in the forest, you curl up on its tummy and have a nap.”
– Roger Ebert, My Neighbor Totoro review
I experienced the first of Hayao Miyazaki’s films when I was four years old. My aunt took my cousin and I to go see Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind; it was one of the earliest times I actually remember going to the theater. The movie marked the beginning of Studio Ghibli, now a household name in Japan on par with Disney, and made a powerful and lasting impact on me.
Two decades went by.
Channel-surfing one late night, I stumbled upon Turner Classic Movies’ celebration of Miyazaki’s 65th birthday by premiering many of his movies. I immediately recognized Nausicaa and felt a wave of nostalgia wash over me. I went on to watch the rest of Miyazaki’s movies that week. One of them turned out to one of the finest children’s film I have ever seen: The unforgettable My Neighbour Totoro.
Ten-year old Satsuki and her four-year old sister Mei move into an old house in the Japanese countryside with their father. The move is intended to situate the family closer to the girls’ mother, who is recovering from an undisclosed illness at the hospital. During their exploratory adventures in their new surroundings, the two young girls soon discover that friendly magical spirits populate the nearby forest. Mei dubs them “totoros”, a mispronunciation for “trolls”.
Multiple adventures with the totoros ensue. While waiting at the bus stop for their father one rainy night, Mei and Satsuki befriend a giant totoro and are given a gift of seeds by the furry creature. Several days after planting the seeds, the girls awaken in the middle of the night to find several totoros performing a ceremonial dance in the middle of the garden. As they join in the ritual, the seeds sprout rapidly into an enormous grove of trees. When the girls wake up in the morning, the grove is gone, but the seeds have sprouted into seedlings.
In the third act of the film, Satsuki receives news of a setback in their mother’s recovery. An upset Mei runs off to the hospital by herself and gets lost. Her disappearance prompts a countryside search and Satsuki runs to plead for the giant totoro’s help. He summons a giant bus in the form of a grinning cat (the obvious solution, of course) to come to Mei’s rescue. The end credits show Mei and Satsuki’s mother returning home and the two sisters making friends with other children in the area.
My Neighbour Totoro is an unusual movie; there is very little in the way of plot and almost no source of external conflict. But as Roger Ebert notes, Totoro is “based on experience, situation and exploration — not on conflict and threat.” What drama that does exist feels natural and unforced. The two young protagonists act like real girls and real sisters. The movie has a special place in my heart, even though I first saw it as an adult. Beneath the cute characters and the gentle atmosphere lie important ideas that speak of humanity’s relationship with the environment, the restorative powers of nature, and the qualities needed in positive role models.
Reminders of Childhood
To me, Totoro portrays a world where an easy balance is struck between cultivated lands, human habitation, and untamed wilderness. I see images of this harmony throughout the film: Beautiful images of rice fields and bountiful gardens, houses embedded within the surrounding landscape, deep forests with huge standing trees. It conjures up a more leisurely existence, a time before the stresses and troubles of modern life. It reminds me of the experience of childhood and being a kid.
Some of my favourite moments in Ghibli movies are when the film is allowed to “breathe”. Totoro features several of these – a sweeping shot of a raining landscape, a pan up to a full view of the camphor tree. These sequences are wordless, beautiful, and tranquil; they allow me to the time and opportunity to contemplate not only the scene, but my own roots.
- What stories that bring you back to your own childhood? Do they involve nature in any way?
From Acorns to Giants: Appreciation and Respect for Nature
Satsuki and Mei, immersed in their new rural surroundings, are eager to learn about the environment. Exploration of their backyard helps them develop connections and affinity towards other living things. The forest to them, especially Mei, is perceived as a magical, friendly, and inviting place. They are intrigued by the gift of seeds given by the giant totoro. As they partake in the ceremonial sprouting dance, they are having fun while cultivating an appreciation for living things and the natural processes of life.
There are many connections between humans and the natural environment portrayed throughout the film. People are grateful for the bounty of food produced by a combination of hard work and the fertility of the fields. Shinto shrines are used by people to pay respect to the forest spirits. Satsuki and Mei’s father takes them to bow before the giant camphor tree. Through these active gestures of acknowledgment, the people in Totoro become aware of nature and the forces – whether they are mystical, magical, or ecological – that exists within it. They are mindful acts that speak to an understanding of the dependence culture has on nature.
Child’s Play: Nature as Nurture
“We are often not aware of the richness and uniqueness of our cultural heritage – from stories, traditions, rites, designs and tales of the gods. Surrounded by high technology and its flimsy devices, children are more and more losing their roots. We must inform them of the richness of our traditions.”
– Hayao Miyazaki, Spirited Away Production Information
In an interview in Japan Times, Miyazaki commented that he was deeply troubled by how disconnected modern children are from the natural world, fearing that they are becoming too immersed in virtual ones. He believes passionately that kids need the sort of outdoorsy, unstructured childhood that his own generation enjoyed in order to develop into healthy individuals. Miyazaki’s remarks remind me of author Richard Louv, who argued in his book The Last Child in the Woods that the human costs of “alienation from nature” could be measured in “the diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties and higher rates of physical and emotional illnesses.”
Totoro speaks to the benefits that nature and unstructured play can have on children. Whenever I rewatch the part where Mei goes off to explore for the first time, shovel in hand with dirtied knees, making up her own games, jumping around and spotting acorns, I smile. The scene connects with me on a very personal level because that’s exactly what I did as a seven-year old when our family moved from a metropolitan center to a more rural area. Prior to that, I had no notion of what a backyard was and had spent little time in a non-urban setting. Being able to play unsupervised in the garden, digging up worms, picking fruits, climbing trees, daydreaming on the grass, was a revelation to me. There were no man-made or structured objectives, no lesson plans or intended outcomes; imagination and personal thinking reign supreme in the outdoor space.
Mei’s exploration of her new surroundings allows her to develop the skills necessary for a healthy individual; she is able to develop her inner space by engaging with an outside one. Mei is allowed to be independent in her adventures; she practices creativity when inventing her own games. Mysteries and wonders await her at every turn in the outdoor environment, and each new discovery contributes to an internal sense of pride and accomplishment: She has no need for external praise or rewards. I am reminded that contrary to notions of modern society, children make their own fun and can live without a constant need for stimulation from the latest technological devices. In Totoro, a bit of unstructured time in nature goes a long way in supplying Mei not only with rich fulfilling adventures, but also in cultivating her imagination and in help her to develop deep, personal, place-based connections with her surroundings.
Totoro conveys the restorative powers of being exposed to nature. Although the film carries a very light tone, Satsuki and Mei are directly confronted with adult issues, namely the grave illness of their mother. The girls are able to seek solace from their exploration of the forest and their adventures with the totoros. Their escapades, in turn, prove to be beneficial even to the mother. By reading Satsuki’s letters about their adventures, she is relieved to know that her daughters are happy and healthy and focus on her recovery, returning home by the end of the film.
The restorative powers of nature are already accepted through in Japanese culture through the practice of shinrinyoku, or forest bathing. They are also grounded in a growing body of research that shows contact with nature can lead health benefits such as stress reduction, decreased mental fatigue, and improved recovery time from surgery.
- How can we overcome the cultural stigma of “stranger danger” in order to promote unstructured outdoor play for children?
Positive Adult Role Models
What is perhaps the most interesting to me is the portrayal of adult figures in Totoro. In many children’s films, fantastical events serve to divide young protagonists from unbelieving adults too busy to actually listen to their kids. This cliché annoys me to no end and introduces an unnecessary and generally unhealthy separation between children and adults.
The adult figures in Totoro are different. They listen. They do not judge. They do not seek control. They guide with advice, insight, and if necessary, action, but allow the children to embark on their own journey of learning and discovery.
Satsuki and Mei’s father is a great example. Portrayed as a loving but slightly absent-minded parental figure, he is accepting of ambiguity and different realities; just because he didn’t see what the girls saw doesn’t mean the event is not real. After listening carefully to their stories with an open mind, he responds calmly and with insight. On one occasion, he empowers his daughters to use the power of laughter to fend off uncertainty and fear. He takes an active role in conveying the importance of nature to his daughters, explaining to Mei and Satsuki that “trees and people used to be good friends. I saw that tree and decided to buy this house.” He then takes them to the forest to pay their respects to the great camphor tree.
Accepting, empowering, trusting, open-minded, tactful, and a leader by example: These are all qualities of a positive role model, a great nurturer, a memorable teacher, and a loving parent. I believe these traits are crucial in helping the next generation mature into well-rounded, healthy, and sustainable individuals.
Totoro is a fantastic children’s movie, but that is not all that it is. Great films, like memorable stories in any medium, are able to convey different meanings to different people at different stages of their lives. For me, Totoro’s respect for nature, coupled with its bittersweet awareness of the impermanence of innocence, childhood, and life elevates the movie from a great children’s film to a poignant and meaningful story that should be seen by everyone.
Next Up: A story worth 7000 words.
- Nostalgia Distilled: Ghibli’s Only Yesterday
- Before Cameron’s Avatar: Princess Mononoke
- The Greatest Ekostory Ever Told: The Nausicaä Project
Louv, Richard. Last child in the woods: Saving our children from nature-deficit disorder. Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books, 2005.