Somehow, it’s already been 30 years since anime auteur Hayao Miyazaki’s iconic My Neighbor Totoro first graced Japanese screens. This masterpiece first took flight outside Japan when it was dubbed for Japan Airlines, and for many gaijin (myself included) it provided a gateway into the wonderful world of anime.
The cultural impact of such a film may come down to the incredibly cute character design, deftly hand-painted backgrounds and fable-like quality of the narrative, but at its heart, My Neighbor Totoro introduced young people worldwide to a distinctly Japanese kind of ecological thinking.
The film kick-started Miyazaki's legacy of films with a strong environmental message, an element that became a cornerstone of Studio Ghibli's magic.
My Neighbor Totoro opens with the arrival of sisters Satsuki (Noriko Hidaka / Dakota Fanning) and Mei (Chika Sakamoto / Elle Fanning) to their new rural home in the Satoyama of Saitama Prefecture. Satoyama are unique to Japan: the word translates literally from ‘sato’ – village – and ‘yama’ - mountain or hill. This traditional style of agriculture dates back to the Edo period and utilises the natural bounties of a mixed forest landscape – leaf mulch, water purification, wood, grasslands – for rice production, livestock and vegetables. As a pre-industrial farming method, Satoyama communities see the forests as part of their livelihoods, and the inhabitants live in harmony as custodians and inheritors.
In the film it’s implied Satsuki and Mei grew up in Tokyo, where their father still works as an archaeology academic. However, with a sick mother in hospital, the family moves to the farming village Matsugo to be closer to her, and for the healing benefits they hope nature will bring her.
My Neighbor Totoro envisions this rural setting as intrinsically magical. I’d like to use the word oikos here: this ancient Greek term is the origin of ‘eco-’, and has a nebulous definition that includes family, home, setting, surrounds, and environment. The oikos in My Neighbor Totoro is distinct from many other animations. Sunshine, wind and rain drive the narrative forward. Rather than being static backdrops, the Satoyama, family home and forest are rendered in great detail, constantly moving and filled with a kind of Spinozan vitality.
Though Miyazaki does not identify as Shinto himself, he’s admitted in interviews that the animism and nature worship of Japan’s seminal religion is ‘rooted deep within him.’ We can see this throughout Totoro, from the soot sprites of the family home, to the intricate time-images of toads, snails, fronds and insects, and, of course, the titular forest spirits themselves.
The giant camphor tree in which Totoro lives is another nod to the Shinto-inspired pantheism. A recurring motif, the sacred tree – or, to use the Shinto term, shinboku – is decorated with shimenawa (a rope used to mark sanctity) and towers over Satsuki and Mei’s family home.
The idea that trees are sacred and protective is reinforced when the girls plant the acorns Totoro gives them in exchange for their umbrella. They hope to grow a “beautiful forest” for their mother, but though Mei diligently cares for the garden bed, they just won’t sprout.
Then, one night, the girls are awoken by a strong wind, and find the three Totoros dancing around the garden bed. In a kind of midnight ritual, the girls and the forest spirits are able to sprout the acorns, which grow into a giant new shinboku. When they awake, it appears to have been just a dream, but the girls find their first acorn has sprouted and there is hope that the sacred forest will be reborn through the girls’ enthusiasm and respect for nature.
Studio Ghibli is hugely popular with adults, but Miyazaki never loses sight of the importance of his younger audience too. Totoro’s Satsuki and Mei are able to connect with nature and the spirit world because of their youth, and also perhaps because they are girls. Kanta, their young boy neighbour, is instead afraid of spiritual activity, suspecting the house is haunted. But when the girls first see the soot sprites, Granny says she too was able to see them when she was young. When Mei tries to show Totoro to her family, the tunnel keeps spitting them out of the forest.
“You must’ve met one of the spirits of the forest,” Mei’s father tells her. “That means you’re a very lucky girl, but you can’t always see the spirits. You can only see them when they want you to.” Because of Mei’s innocence she is the first and only one able to see the Totoro, though Satsuki also gets to meet the spirits a little later.
Miyazaki perceives children as the future inheritors of the environment. Their youth enables the girls to have an authentic and mystical relationship with the natural world that adults - caught up in a world of progress, commerce and skepticism - are unable to maintain.
Declining health – of people and nature
The film not only captures a deep connection to nature but is haunted by the spectre of an increasingly industrialised Japan, where real-life Satoyama are becoming rarer to find. This is hinted at when Satsuki, Mei and their father visit Totoro’s shinboku:
“Magnificent tree!” their father says, “it’s been around since long ago, back in the time when trees and people used to be friends,”: a time that has seemingly passed.
While My Neighbor Totoro is persistently whimsical and uplifting, it centres on a family whose mother is seriously ill, and though we never find out if she recovers or not, seeing two such young girls deal with the prospect of their mother’s mortality is heartbreaking. And while this is a serious matter in its own right, it’s possible to draw parallels between the declining health of their mother and that of the natural world around them, especially when Totoro and the other forest spirits protect and nurture the girls in her absence.
This is epitomised in one of the final scenes, in which Satsuki turns to Totoro for help in finding Mei, saying “I don’t know where else to turn.” He summons the Catbus, who reunites the sisters and takes them to their mother’s hospital, where Mei leaves a hand-picked ear of corn on her windowsill in the hope that the fresh vegetable will help her mother get better.
Though there is precarity in the futures of both the girls’ mother and the Satoyama communities, there is a sense that the girls will be protected by their sisterhood and their connection with the natural, spirit world. This attitude within the film is not pure fantasy, but actually contributed to real-world conservation.
My Neighbor Totoro's original 1988 release date coincided with increasing concern for the future of these Satoyama communities and helped draw attention to their biodiversity value, at first in Japan and eventually, worldwide. In 2010, Japan’s Satoyama conservation movement culminated in UNESCO’s International Partnership for the Satoyama Initiative, which continues to promote dynamic and sustainable mixed agriculture methods worldwide.
This approach to conservation – that human civilisation and the natural world are inextricable and codependent – applies not only to Japanese landscapes, but to alternative farming practices globally. And perhaps this is My Neighbor Totoro’s real universal appeal: we all need the protection of the forest, and our forests, in turn, need us.