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“Mei, we're the wind!”
My Neighbor Totoro is one of Miyazaki's most beloved and celebrated movies.
30 years after the film's release, Totoro imagery pops up all throughout American animation.
So, besides the fact that he's totally fluffy and adorable, why does everyone love Totoro so much?
“He was furry, with a great big mouth!
There's a little one, and a bigger one, and a huge one that kept falling asleep!”
Totoro resonates with us because he transforms scary situations into silly ones.
He gives Satsuki and Mei moments of fun and comfort while they face the terrifying fact that their mom is sick in the hospital.
He represents the spirit we can summon to lift ourselves out of dark times.
The wisdom of the movie is that being brave isn't about having a stiff upper lip.
It's about channeling the imagination, humor and hope of a very silly spirit of the forest.
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Totoro is a woodland spirit - which is kind of like a ghost, although he's not dead - but the film changes up our usual assumptions that spirits or ghosts are supposed to be scary.
“Hey! You in there! Your house is haunted!”
Satsuki's and Mei's house may be haunted
“It's creepy!”
“It looks like it could be haunted” but this is hardly anything to be upset about.
Totoro appears whenever the girls are scared and the real world becomes too overwhelming, and he offers them relief.
So he transforms a scary world into something manageable.
The girls' dad encourages them to laugh at their fears.
“Everybody try laughing.
Then whatever scares you will go away.”
He's literally referring to the storm here, but he also means this in relation to their mother's illness.
“We're going to visit mom in the hospital!”
Thanks to their dad's advice, when Mei meets Totoro, she's not afraid to roar back at him.
Their dad also lightens the weight of their mom's sickness through imaginative coping mechanisms.
“It was probably just some soot gremlins.”
And Totoro personifies this imagination that can be a friend to help us through dark times.
It's almost as if Totoro comes to life as a result of their dad's advice.
One of the most iconic scenes in the film takes place as the girls wait for their dad at the bus stop in the rain.
The girls wait in silence, but we feel the weight of what goes unspoken.
With their mom in the hospital and their dad MIA, they're confronting the possibility that they could be left without parents at all, which is probably the scariest conceivable idea to a child.
“Satsuki, Dad wasn't on the bus!”
“He'll be on the next one for sure.”
This scene clocks in at almost seven minutes, which is a significant amount of time in a movie that's just under an hour and a half long.
It's an especially long time to spend on a scene with so little dialogue, so the length communicates the scene's importance to the audience.
The tense silence combined with the rain, the increasing darkness, and the loss of hope as vehicles pass by without their dad add up to a sinking sense of dread.
But just as the girls reach this dark, desolate low, Totoro appears.
His friendly, whimsical presence immediately lightens the mood.
Totoro jumps and splashes in the rain.
Here, he turns something that was previously scary--the rain--into something worthy of a big, silly grin.
So a big reason audiences and the girls love Totoro is that he shows how a little imagination and whimsy can protect us from getting swallowed up by fears.
Totoro also teaches that sometimes it helps to act more like a kid.
The first time we see Totoro is right after Mei play-acts being a grown-up.
“Are you going somewhere?”
“I'm just off to run some errands.”
But Totoro and his friends remind her that a kid's fortes like imagination and play - are just as important.
In the rain scene, it's significant that Totoro breaks the silence.
The girls think that, to be brave, they should internalize their pain and suffer in silence like a grown-up would.
“She said she wouldn't stop crying unless I brought her to you.”
“She said that?
Mei, be reasonable.”
But Totoro encourages them to be loud, and let their feelings out.
Soon after the rain scene, the girls receive an upsetting telegram from their mom's doctor, but Totoro doesn't appear to comfort them right away.
So they slide back into fear and trying to repress their feelings.
Eventually the burden of their mom's illness releases a flood of suppressed emotion.
“It's not fair!”
We just have to wait a little longer.”
“You want her to die, Mei? Is that what you want?”
The girls start to despair.
“Granny, what will we do if she dies?”
“Maybe she's dead already.”
Yet they still keep clinging to their ideas of coping like adults.
“You're such a baby!
Just grow up!”
and she's frustrated that everyone tries to protect her from the truth.
“This is just like last time.
They said mom just had a little cold.
She'd be home in a few days.”
When Mei runs away, Satsuki at first tries to handle this the way an adult would.
These scenes are a rejection of everything Totoro represents, and they're some of the most hopeless in the movie.
As Satsuki asks people on the streets if they've seen Mei, and the adults search the lake to see if she's drowned, losing Mei suddenly becomes a real possibility.
We no longer feel like we're in a kids' fantasy, but in a gritty reality where kids go missing, and moms sometimes die.
Satsuki finally realizes that she needs Totoro's help to save Mei.
Mei's lost.
I'm sure she's scared half to death by now.
I don't know where else to turn.”
Totoro's big grin and fluffy physique let us know immediately that everything will be okay.
We see that, when we're in the most terrifying situations, giving into despair will make us unable to solve the problems at hand.
The most constructive thing to do is summon that inner hope, ingenuity and resourcefulness of Totoro.
As a forests spirit, Totoro also represents the magic of nature.
He teaches the girls that they can rely on nature to comfort them.
Acorns are a common motif throughout the film,
and the girls treat acorns like treasures, not mundane things.
They glint in the sunlight like gold, appearing to the audience like treasure, too.
The acorns represent potential for growth and change, and the real-life magic of a seed becoming a tree.
With his magic, Totoro shows the girls that even when other things in their lives are out of their control, nature can provide comfort and stability.
Seeds will become trees, and trees will become forests.
But even though nature is magical, growth happens slowly.
“Mei watches them all day. Every day. Waiting for them to sprout.”
and it sometimes takes a while to see the results.
And that can feel frustrating and hopeless.
Totoro teaches us to have faith in the course of time and the natural rhythm of things.
“I thought it was a dream!”
“But it wasn't a dream!”
We did it!”
This lesson is especially important for Satsuki and Mei, who have to believe that their mom will get better, even if they can't see her progress, and even if it sometimes feels like she'll never get out of the hospital.
Miyazaki's movies are known for their environmentalist messages.
His stories make kids aware of how important it is to respect our planet.
Totoro doesn't deal directly with the dangers of industry and pollution the way some of his other films do, but it does treat nature as something to be revered.
“When I saw this tree, I knew this would be a good place for our family to live.
Thank you for watching over Mei, and making us feel so welcome here.
Please continue to look after us.”
“Please continue to look after us.”
The girls need Totoro, the spirit of the forest, to guide them, to give them hope, and to look after them.
And we need nature to shelter and protect us.
This relationship isn't something to passively take for granted:
it's something we need to treasure like a friendship.
My Neighbor Totoro is beloved by Japanese and American audiences alike, because Totoro himself is the ultimate comfort object.
Like a stuffed animal or a security blanket, he provides a sense of warmth and safety for Satsuki and Mei, and for all of us in the audience.
Totoro is always there to give you a hug,
and remind you that everything will work out in the end.
it's Debra and Susannah, and you're watching ScreenPrism.
Thank you guys so much for watching.
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My Neighbor Totoro: Why We Need Totoro

1336 Folder Collection
Sophie published on July 17, 2020
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