When I was Young, I Didn't Like the Movie My Neighbor Totoro (1988)

Updated: Dec 3, 2020

I didn't like this movie when I was younger. I thought...

(A.) The sisters were immature.

(B.) There was very little action.

(C.) And nothing was resolved at the end.

I'm sure most of you know the plot of this movie, but in case you don't... In My Neighbor Totoro, the Kusakabe family move to a big old house in the countryside to be closer to their mother's hospital.

The mom has a long term illness. Tuberculosis, according to the novelization of the movie.

The girls start out excited to explore their new 'haunted' house. They play in the yard, and explore the woods near by.

They put on a brave face, but the whole time their singular focus is on one question:

"When will mom finally come home?"

For a time it seems their wish will come true. Their mother has been doing well. And the house in the countryside has plenty of fresh air, making it suitable for her recovery to continue at home.

But then, unexpectedly, the mother's health declines again.

Satsuki and Mei reach their breaking point, faced with how helpless they are in this situation. No amount of bravery, or hoping, will guarantee their mom comes home.

Totoro, the forest spirit, shows up throughout the movie. He helps the girls pass the time. When Mei runs away after Satsuki yells at her, it is Totoro who calls in the cat bus to save the day.

Then the movie ends.

Nothing terrible happened to Mei. But their mother is still in the hospital.

When I was younger, I thought the sisters were immature.

The main characters Satsuki and Mei were little girls who actually acted like little girls. They were loud and scared. Any of their attempts to act like the adults failed.

This was different from what I was used to seeing.

Western media, especially during the years I was growing up, tended to show children in an idealized way.

They were boy geniuses, master pranksters, super heroes, or had magic at their fingertips. In most cases, they solved their own problems. The adults were often portrayed relying on children.

When I was younger, I thought this movie had very little action.

Aside from the scenes where Mei was missing, this movie had very little action.

Seemingly, this was a movie about playing with nature spirits. Going to school. Wondering when mom would finally come home. Getting to know the new neighbors. And chores.

When I was younger, I thought this movie ended before the story was over.

What? Their mom is still in the hospital?

The story isn't over! This whole time all these poor girls wanted was for their mom to come home, but she still hasn't.

Nothing changed. The girls didn't save the day.

I didn't want the mother to die, but if she had died it would have given the story a resolute (sad) ending.

That was what I thought then. But, I rewatched the movie as an adult...

And I loved it 😊

So What Changed?

I changed.

I familiarized myself with Japanese media. I grew accustomed to the tendency in eastern storytelling to explore themes through depictions of the every day, and to include ambiguous endings. I began to enjoy the genre of Slice of Life.

I learned about Shinto.

I also learned more about Hayao Miyazaki's personal philosophy on art.

As an adult, I was able to pick up the true message of My Neighbor Totoro.

The Essence of My Neighbor Totoro

Life is uncertain. Sometimes a loved one gets very sick. Sometimes you move some place totally new. Sometimes things go wrong. You cannot always control your external circumstances.

At times like these all we can do is endure. Just like Satsuki and Mei, we must carry the burden of uncertainty and fear with us daily. But we can adapt to new challenges by transforming our inner world.

Developing a resilient mindset that can flow with the ups and downs of life.

We can learn the lesson that Totoro teaches the girls: how to be patient during the long waiting periods. How to laugh when fear could crush you. How to keep adjusting.

The acorns, which they collect and cherish in the movie, are the seeds of trees. They can be planted right away, but they will take years to become a forest, no matter what we do.

At the end, their mother is still in the hospital, but our main characters Satsuki and Mei have arguably grown a bit more resilient from the experience.

So there is a resolution. A small, inner, triumph for the girls. Just one of many more to come throughout their lives.

It's an ending which is very true to life. As humans, we don't triumph indefinitely, we endure.


Now, please bear with me...

Shinto is notoriously misunderstood by westerners. And I, as a westerner, who has been trying to learn more about it can totally see why.

In the west we call it a 'religion'. But in Japan it is more so referred to as 'The Way of Kami'.

Kami being God(s), being the 'energy' or 'force' that animates or ignites all. And therefore, connects all.

In Shinto, you can pay your respects to a certain God, a rock, a mountain, a historical person who really lived, or family ancestors. All is an expression of Kami.

Outsiders have trouble understanding Shinto because it has no set dogma. No rigid classifications. And quite paradoxically, can be practiced along side any number of other religions. Most often Buddhism.

Rather than calling it a religion, it would be better to call it a 'living tradition' as it has evolved over millennia, without interruption, to the present day. From prehistoric 14,000 BCE - to present, technologically advanced, Japan.

Pretty cool, right?

The Way of Kami is entwined with the mindset of the Japanese people, and thus it influences, or is expressed in, Japanese art.

My Neighbor Totoro expresses the everyday life of 1950s Japan, and in Japan that is reason enough to create a story.

"The Shinto mentality draws no distinction between simple natural or human actions (the micro) and the broad canvas of humanity of nature (the big picture or macro). One is an aspect of the other. Both need each other. Therefore the most profound understanding of Devine power is expressed, and explained, through the most routine human or natural actions. [69]

Aidan Rankin, Shinto: A Celebration of Life

There is also plenty of Shinto imagery throughout the movie. And plenty of scenes where meaning could be lost to a foreign viewer.

Like when the family pays their respects to a sacred tree and asks it: "Please continue to look after us."

We know this tree is sacred because it has a Shimenawa tired around it. "A Thick knotted rope that demarcates the tree as a sacred space and source of divine knowledge." (69, Aidan Rankin, Shinto a celebration of Life)

They thank the tree. It is a local source of Kami energy. In Shinto, man is one with nature. Rather than the western view of man having dominion over nature.

When the girls take shelter from the rain in a village shrine, theres more meaning that could be missed.

It looks like a shrine which houses a Buddhist Jizo, who protects dead children.

Is this scene foreshadowing the disappearance of Mei? Or calling back viewer attention to the girls fear of death while their mother is sick?

Even when the friendly neighborhood grandmother tells the girls not to worry about the soot sprites in the attic. She is demonstrating a mindset where soot spirits are just another acceptable part of life.

Nature, gods, humans, work, art, the mundane, and the supernatural are all connected and important in the Way of Kami.

Incorporating all of it leads to a balanced life. The best, most sustainable, way to live.

Just like how the supernatural Totoro provides a balance that helps the girls endure their very real fear of losing their mother.

Further Reading:

My Neighbor Totoro has a novelization which goes into slightly more detail than the movie. We learn more about the mother's illness and the life the girls left behind prior to the start of the movie. But it's definitely aimed at children.

My Neighbor Totoro: A Novel by Tsugiko Kubo


I've read two books on Shinto thus far.

One written by a Westerner aimed at a Western audience, the other by a Shinto Grand Master aimed at a global audience. I think the two go hand in hand. In fact, these authors worked together.

Shinto: A Celebration of Life by Aidan Rankin


The Essence of Shinto: Japan's Spiritual Heart by Motohisa Yamakage


If you choose to buy these books on Book Depository [free delivery worldwide] and use my affiliate links above I'll receive a 5% commission for referring you.

It makes me extremely happy to see I could help. 😄

What are your opinions on Totoro?

Thanks for reading!


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