Director Hayao Miyazaki has come a long way since he took the helm of his first animated feature, Castle of Cagliostro in 1979. Since then, Miyazaki founded Studio Ghibli, and has been the creative mastermind behind a slew of Japanese animated classics. For some, few animated movies bring about such strong feelings of childhood nostalgia than My Neighbor Totoro. It tells the intriguing tale of young Mei and Satsuki, who encounter a mysterious spirit called Totoro. Featuring the dreamy art direction from Kazuo Oga and stirring music from composer Joe Hisaishi, the film has captivated the hearts of children and adults alike.
On April 16th, Tonari no Totoro officially celebrated its 29th year anniversary since the film’s original debut in Japan. The film starred Japanese voice actresses Norika Hidaka (Satsuki) and Chika Sakamoto (Mei). We recently reported that Miyazaki has officially come out of retirement, and intends on creating a new piece before 2020. While we eagerly await the next Ghibli masterpiece, here’s a little trivia about one of the most beloved animated Miyazaki films of all time.
Here are 15 Things You Didn’t Know About My Neighbor Totoro.
15. Some of the film was inspired by true events
While we’d like to believe that the Catbus is real, it was actually other instances of the film that were inspired by actual events. For My Neighbor Totoro, director Hayao Miyazaki drew from personal experience. When Miyazaki was a child, his mother was hospitalized for a severe case of spinal tuberculosis. According to the book Hayao Miyazaki: Master of Japanese Animation, “Miyazaki’s mother suffered from spinal tuberculosis and was bedridden from 1947 until 1955. She spent the first few years mostly in the hospital, but was eventually able to be nursed from home.” In the film, Satsuki and Mei’s mother suffers from a similar illness, which leaves her hospitalized throughout the movie. Although her illness remains undisclosed, many believe that she also has the same diagnosis as Miyazaki’s mother.
Another source states that in the novelized version of Totoro, Satsuki and Mei’s mother was staying at Shichikokuyama Hospital. The hospital was known for treating tuberculosis, and that is the reason why the family is shown moving to the town in the beginning of the film. In the novelization, it says that the house they move to was built by a man whose wife had tuberculosis.
14. The name Totoro relates to the Japanese word for “troll”
In the film, Mei follows a trail of acorns and discovers several mysterious spirits located in the forest. Overcome with curiosity, Mei calls the largest one of them all, “Totoro”. Some have noted that the name Totoro resembles the Japanese word for troll (Torōru), and think that Mei came up with the name after mispronouncing the word. Later, when her sister Satsuki learns more about the creature, she asks Mei if she is referring to the “troll in our book.” Their book is not shown directly in the film, but you can see it during the closing credits. In a touching moment, their mother is shown reading the book Three Mountain Goats, or Three Billy Goats Gruff, to them. Others have noted that the picture book for My Neighbor Totoro includes a troll beneath a bridge, looking up at a running goat.
According to Nausicaa.net, the smaller spirits are also Totoros. The first creature that Mei encounters is the smallest Totoro (“chibi-totoro“), which is white, and then later the blue, medium-sized Totoro (“chuu-totoro“). The largest Totoro (“oh-totoro“) is the most well-known, and usually the one that most people refer to when they talk about Totoro.
13. In earlier drafts, there was only one heroine
Part of what makes My Neighbor Totoro so appealing is the dynamic between the two young sisters, Satsuki and Mei. Surprisingly enough, in earlier drafts, Miyazaki had envisioned the main character as a single girl. For years, Studio Ghibli has delighted audiences with magical tales and My Neighbor Totoro is exemplary proof of their powerful storytelling. Miyazaki truly captures the youthful and energetic spirit of childhood, as shown through Mei and Satsuki’s unfiltered lens on the world. Throughout the film, there are plenty of heart-warming (and heart-wrenching!) moments between the two sisters. Also, the major conflict involving Mei becoming lost and Satsuki’s desperate attempts to find her simply wouldn’t have been possible with just one female character.
From when Mei first encounters Totoro, to when the pair become swept away with Totoro in the sky, there are so many aww-inducing moments in the film. However, the storytelling would be fundamentally different without the emotion-driven relationship between the two sisters. In other Studio Ghibli works, there is often one central heroine, but we’re glad they decided to opt for the charming pair of sisters in My Neighbor Totoro.
12. Inspired by Alice in Wonderland
There are some clear parallels between the classic tale of Alice in Wonderland and My Neighbor Totoro. For one, young Mei first encounters the chibi-totoro, or the small white Totoro spirit, just as Alice began to follow the white rabbit. Soon after, Alice ended up traveling down the rabbit hole into wonderland, similar to Mei falling down the inside of the camphor tree. Luckily enough, there aren’t any bottles reading “Drink Me” nearby to tempt Mei.
There are plenty of scenes that are the inherently Ghibli, but there are a few characters and situations which are similar to Alice in Wonderland. Another interesting similarity found in the film is the Catbus, which boasts a cheeky grin and a strong resemblance to the Cheshire Cat. With wide set eyes and a large smile, the Catbus might appear to be like the Cheshire Cat in some ways, but the overall design of the bus and the fluorescent rat lights are definitely a Miyazaki creation.
11. The story takes place in Tokorozawa City
Did you know the story of My Neighbor Totoro takes place in an actual city in Japan? The story is set in Tokorozawa City, to be exact, which is located in the Saitama prefecture. Director Hayao Miyazaki reportedly lives in Tokorozawa, which used to be a large community of farming areas. Although there is still some undeveloped land in the region, there are people who work towards preserving the remaining natural areas. A book named Totoro no Furusato (Totoro’s Home) National Trust Movement features Totoro as a symbolic character for the movement. In support of the movement, Miyazaki donated Totoro artwork and an additional $3 million to Tokorozawa City to buy the land for preservation.
If you’ve seen some other Studio Ghibli movies, Miyazaki’s generosity to the cause should come as no surprise. Many of the films, such as Princess Mononoke and Ponyo, feature strong themes of environmentalism and a reverence for the natural world.
10. Dark conspiracy theories
Recently, we covered the craziest Studio Ghibli fan theories, including a disturbing conspiracy theory linking the Sayama Incident to My Neighbor Totoro. According to Kotaku, there were also other rumors circulating that Totoro is, in fact, the god of death. This theory states that only people who are close to dying or dead can see the creature. Towards the film’s conclusion, Mei gets lost and townspeople find a small sandal from the pond. The villagers ask Satsuki if it is Mei’s sandal, but she says no. Some believe that this isn’t true, and instead, Satsuki is denying the terrible thought that her sister might be dead.
Satsuki desperately runs to find Totoro, and theorists think that she journeys to the world of the dead. Eventually, the sisters are reunited and they go to a large tree outside of their mother’s window at the hospital. In the film, their mother thinks that she might have seen them in the trees, but their father doesn’t. Because their mother has been severely ill, some believe that she can see the girls because she is also nearing the end of her life.
Strangely enough, towards the end of the film, both Satsuki and Mei do not cast any shadows on the ground. Before you panic, Studio Ghibli issued an official statement denying all the claims.
9. Mistakes in the animation
According to some eagle-eyed fans over at IMDB, there are a few inconsistencies found in the movie. In one scene, Granny brings Mei to Satsuki while she is at school. Inconsolable, Mei rushes to her sister and refuses to leave her side for the rest of the day. While at Satsuki’s school, Mei happily colors a blue drawing of Totoro with some crayons. Some noted that Mei’s drawing of Totoro changes from scene to scene, with one shot showing whiskers on Totoro’s face, and none in the other.
Another error can be found in the scene where Mei and Satsuki head home from school. After getting caught in the rain, the girls try to take cover in a small shrine by the road. Their neighbor, Kanta, initially passes by with a wide umbrella but then decides to return and offer the umbrella for the girls to borrow. If you look closely, the color of the umbrella handle changes in a few scenes. When the pair run home, Mei trips and her skirt becomes covered in mud. Some viewers have noted that the mud on her skirt is not visible after a few scenes later. Regardless of the quirks, many consider My Neighbor Totoro to be one of the most best Studio Ghibli movies of all time.
8. Meaning of names
In several other Studio Ghibli films, such as Spirited Away, names have great significance. In My Neighbor Totoro, the names of the two sisters are actually a play on words for the “month of May.”
The most blatant reference is from Mei, the younger sister, which sounds similar to the English word “May.” In Japanese, Mei (めい) can be written with various kanji characters, and can mean sprout, reliant, or bright. In Chinese, some have noted that mei (美) means “beautiful” while a similar pronunciation of 梅 (méi) means “plum.” In the film, Mei is certainly bright, beautiful, and cute as a plum.
The name “Satsuki” is a more traditional Japanese word for the fifth month of the year, May. Interestingly enough, it can also refer to Satsuki azaleas, a type of native azalea plant which is found in the mountains of Japan. When written with different kanji characters, it can mean blossom, moon/month, sand, or happiness.
7. Totoro easter eggs in other films
In the animation industry, Totoro has become something of a cultural icon. Round, fluffy, and adorable, the forest spirit is beloved by many. In fact, certain animators and directors have been so fond of him, that Totoro (Oh-Totoro, to be specific) has made appearances in other movies Several fans have spotted Totoro in movies like Toy Story 3, along with an appearance in shows like South Park and Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman: Brief Lives.
Totoro has also appeared in some major American cartoons, including SpongeBob SquarePants, The Powerpuff Girls, an episode called “Jack and the Creature” of Samurai Jack, and the episode “An Indecent Thanksgiving Proposal” from Bob’s Burgers.
In Studio Ghibli films, Totoro easter eggs have been sprinkled throughout multiple titles, like Pom Poko, Kiki’s Delivery Service, and Whisper of the Heart. For one, the adorable soot sprites (susuwatari) that were first shown at the beginning of the film also make another appearance. Mei and Satsuki discover the small soot spirits when they first move into their new house. The sprites also appear in the boiler room with Kamaji in Spirited Away. Totoro has been such a beloved character that he became the official mascot for Studio Ghibli, and he appears as the main logo before the introduction of all their movies.
6. It was originally a double-feature with Grave of the Fireflies
According to Team Ghiblink, Totoro was considered to be too big of a financial risk, so it was initially released as a double-feature with Grave of the Fireflies. Some felt that no one would want to see a movie “about two little kids and a Monster in rural Japan”, but Miyazaki still strongly believed in the film. Grave of the Fireflies was based on a book, and therefore, some felt that it would be better received by audiences. Toshio Suzuki, who later became a producer at Studio Ghibli, approached the publishing company of Grave of the Fireflies about a possible double-feature. They reluctantly agreed, yet despite losing money at the box office, we wouldn’t have seen My Neighbor Totoro without Grave of the Fireflies. Celebrating their 29th anniversary this year, both movies were originally released as a double-feature on April 16, 1988.
In 1993, Fox Video created a dub of My Neighbor Totoro for VHS. After being severely disappointed by the English version of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, Miyazaki refused to make any major edits to the film in terms of translation. In 2005, Disney created an English dub of the film, starring sisters Dakota and Elle Fanning as Satsuki and Mei, Lea Salonga as their mother, Timothy Daly as their father, Pat Carroll as Granny, and Frank Welker as Totoro and the Catbus.
5. Never nominated for an Oscar, but it won several other awards
Not only was My Neighbor Totoro somewhat of a flop at the box office, but it also didn’t receive any Oscar nominations. However, the film’s expressive animation style and strong themes of conservation didn’t go unnoticed by others. In fact, the film won Best Film at the Kinema Junpo Awards in 1989, along with the Best Japanese Film for the Readers’ Choice Award in the same year. After the film’s release in 1988, My Neighbor Totoro was voted as reader’s choice for fans of the anime magazine Animage. My Neighbor Totoro was also awarded Best Film at the Mainichi Film Concours and Ofuji Noburo Award in 1989. The film was also nominated for “Best Genre Video Release” Saturn Awards.
In 2003, Hayao Miyazaki was awarded his first Academy Award for Spirited Away, which took home Best Animated Feature. At the time, Miyazaki refused to attend the awards ceremony because of the US involvement in the Iraq war. His film The Wind Rises was given a nomination for Best Animated Feature Film of the Year, and in 2014, Miyazaki received an Honorary Award at the Academy’s Governors Awards.
4. Influences of Shintoism in the film
“Trees and people used to be good friends.” – Mr. Kusakabe. One of the most poignant lines from the movie represents the themes of conservation and environmentalism. In a similar vein, a traditional Japanese belief system called Shinto also influenced the movie’s development. Shinto belief focuses on a strong reverence for the natural world. In My Neighbor Totoro, the film highlights the connection between nature spirits known as kami and humans. Mei and Satsuki are shown as being insatiably curious, excited by seeing everything from tadpoles to forest spirits. The deep respect for nature and the philosophy of Shintoism is apparent when the family visits the shrine together, and also later when Satsuki prays to Totoro to help find Mei.
The article, “The Animated Worlds of Hayao Miyazaki, Filmic Representations of Shinto” from Metro Magazine, explains this in greater depth. “My Neighbour Totoro (1988), exemplifies the benevolent relationship that can be enjoyed between the kami and humans. Through their pre-intellectual fascination with nature, two young girls are connected with a gentle, teddy bearish woodland kami, O-Totoro, (King Totoro) who provides them with solace and guidance during their mother’s illness.” The article continues to explore the symbolism found in the film, including the balance between the natural world and modern urbanization.
3. Inspired the creators of Disney films like Toy Story and Up
For decades, My Neighbor Totoro has had a profound cultural impact on animated films and popular culture as a whole. John Lasseter, the Chief Creative Officer at Pixar, has often cited Hayao Miyazaki and his work with Studio Ghibli as a massive influence on his own movies. When he was first getting started in the animation industry, Lasseter visited Miyazaki in Japan and was able to see some early drawings for My Neighbor Totoro.
Moved by Miyazaki’s hand-drawn animation style and poignant storytelling, Lasseter credits watching Miyazaki films with giving him inspiration whenever he’s in a rut. Their friendship has continued for years, and Lasseter eventually helped bring the English adaptations of Miyazaki’s films to the US.
The animation industry certainly feels the effects of My Neighbor Totoro and other Studio Ghibli films, even decades later. In fact, Pixar animator Peter Docter has expressed the major influence from Hayao Miyazaki and his imaginative works, and without them, there wouldn’t have been Disney films like Toy Story and Up. Keep an eye out for some possible easter egg references to Totoro and other Ghibli films in the upcoming Disney film Coco, set for a November release.
2. There will not be a sequel
In a day and age where it seems like every new film is set up for a slew of sequels, thankfully there will no follow-up to My Neighbor Totoro. However, for Studio Ghibli fans that simply can’t enough of the charming tale, there is one way to explore the world of My Neighbor Totoro again. At the Studio Ghibli museum in Mitaka, Tokyo, there is a short animated film involving Mei and the Catbus. Amusingly enough, there is also a Catbus Room located in the museum, featuring an actual Catbus designed for children ages twelve and under.
Although it definitely looks like the tale of My Neighbor Totoro has come to a close, sharp-eyed fans can still look out for cameo appearances by the character in other works. Just this year, Hayao Miyazaki announced that he’s no longer in retirement and Studio Ghibli is has begun working on another film. Be sure to keep your eyes peeled for any additional Totoro references!
1. Totoro is a spirit of the forest, and his shape is inspired by several different animals
In the film, Totoro is known as a spirit of the forest. Some have noted that his unusual shape stems from several different influences. The character design for Totoro seems to be inspired by various animals, including Japanese raccoon dogs called tanukis, and cats. The flying scenes and the moment where Satsuki and Mei play ocarinas at night suggest that Totoro was also inspired by owls.
While most modern animated films are action-packed and jump from scene to scene with lightning fast speed, that isn’t quite the case with Studio Ghibli films. In My Neighbor Totoro, like many of Hayao Miyazaki’s works, it is the subtle, quieter moments that display a paramount amount of power. Studio Ghibli films are known for capturing the beauty of the natural world. From the scene with Mei, Satsuki, and Totoro at the bus stop in the rain, to the whimsical moment when Mei dozes off in the forest, the film is filled with subtleties that encompass the carefree essence of childhood nostalgia.
Themes of conservation and environmentalism are a common thread found in many examples of Hayao Miyazaki’s work, including Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, Princess Mononoke, and Spirited Away. We can’t wait to find out more about the next Studio Ghibli film currently in development!
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