Totoro with Mei and Satsuki.
Totoro with Mei and Satsuki. By Courtesy of © 1988 Studio Ghibli

After 35 Years, ‘My Neighbor Totoro’ Still Gives Us Permission to Believe In Magic

This year’s Ghibli Fest celebrated the 35th anniversary of the release of “My Neighbor Totoro” alongside the other films in the classic Ghibli canon.
By Emma E. Chan

“My Neighbor Totoro” is filled with light — both metaphorical and literal.

This luminosity is especially apparent when watching the film on the big screen. Each year, theaters across North America participate in Ghibli Fest, during which they screen revolutionary Studio Ghibli director Hayao Miyazaki’s 10 animated films. This year’s Ghibli Fest celebrated the 35th anniversary of the release of “My Neighbor Totoro” alongside the other films in the classic Ghibli canon. On March 28, the film’s catchy, chipper theme song filled the AMC Boston Common theater as the audience tiptoed to their seats.

Even from the opening sequence, viewers are invited into the whimsical, optimistic world of the film; a tiny girl with a wide-brimmed hat marches rhythmically across the screen flanked by tiny white Totoros, mouths yawning as they stretch like marshmallows. The stylized simplicity of the opening animation is pleasantly disarming, yet the film’s moving storyline also delves into complex issues of grief and trauma in a cathartic way. “My Neighbor Totoro” remains unparalleled in its immersive storytelling, exquisite visuals, and uplifting message — the film leaves viewers feeling renewed and ready to believe in the world’s potential for joy and light again.

By Courtesy of © 1988 Studio Ghibli

“My Neighbor Totoro” maintains this playful tone as viewers meet the main characters. Laughter dominates the soundscape of the film's first few minutes; two sisters, toddler Mei and older Satsuki, giggle as they crouch at the back of their father’s truck on the way to their new home. In these moments, Miyazaki’s quiet storytelling shines through. Though viewers are not explicitly told about each character, they watch the smiling, carefree sisters share caramels with their father and greet a passing biker. Their joy is infectious, making tangible the excitement of moving into a new home. Even a rotting porch post becomes a source of delight, as Mei and Satsuki shriek with glee at the idea that this imperfect, beautiful home is theirs. Within the first minute, Miyazaki’s expert characterization makes the viewers invested in these characters, further enhancing the film’s personal touch.

Studio Ghibli films are particularly adored for their visual appeal, and “My Neighbor Totoro” is exemplary of the transformative magic of director Hayao Miyazaki’s hand-drawn animation. Light-laden landscape shots are one of Miyazaki’s strengths, and these come to dominate “My Neighbor Totoro.” The patchy, vivid colors that have come to characterize Miyazaki’s style truly come to the foreground. Viewers are treated to still shots and pan outs of glittering rice paddies, emerald forests soft and fuzzy with sun, and a sunset stained orange like a soft-boiled egg yolk. And while the scenes depicted are largely mundane — truly just a rice paddy, a tree-dotted hill, a sunset — it’s Miyazaki’s faithful and intricate ode to the power and beauty of nature that transforms these everyday settings into the calming, peaceful landscapes they have become.

At times, Miyazaki skillfully manipulates this visual appeal to contrast with the emotional charge of the moment. For example, later in the film, Miyazaki takes a few seconds to dwell on the beauty of a summer evening, humming with cicadas and heat — yet the viewers know that Mei has gone missing and their ailing mother Yasuko may be in mortal danger. In this way, Miyazaki harnesses his visual storytelling power by juxtaposing this static natural beauty with Satsuki’s frenzied movements as she desperately searches for her lost sister.

Perhaps most important about Miyazaki’s visual prowess is his character design for the titular character, Totoro. Totoro is technically a monster, a fickle forest spirit living in a camphor tree, but his fuzzy, huggable nature, round body, and endearing button nose make the monstrous adorable. Indeed, this partially explains why Totoro merchandise is so prevalent, amidst a growing, billion-dollar industry for anime apparel.

Yet Totoro himself is more than just a fuzzy friend to the two young sisters. Though the premise of a massive forest monster coming to humanity’s aid is highly fantastical, this mixing of magic and reality is part of “My Neighbor Totoro”’s appeal. After moving in, the sisters plant seeds in their garden, waiting faithfully for them to grow. One night, Totoro and his two smaller friends creep into the garden to help the plants grow; thanks to their efforts, a copse of trees blossoms into the sky. This is one of the most uplifting sequences of the film; though the towering trees are revealed to be measly shoots in the morning, it is emblematic of the film’s overall message about the power of imagination and childhood and the necessity of hope in difficult times. “My Neighbor Totoro” empowers the audience to heal their inner child. Just as the sisters turn to Totoro’s mystical aid, viewers are given permission to dream of whimsical solutions to everyday problems. Sustained by the knowledge that all will be well, the film’s characters choose not to succumb to the bleakness of their situation; they are induced to choose the light.

The film’s relentless, unfailing optimism may be a response to traumatic events in Miyazaki’s own life. Ostensibly a carefree story of a family moving into a new home, the plot of “My Neighbor Totoro” carries undercurrents of tension that eventually explode in heartbreaking ways. When Yasuko’s condition worsens, the naive Mei desperately attempts to deliver an ear of corn to the hospital in hopes of curing her. Ultimately, it is Totoro and his Catbus friend who help Mei and Satsuki check on their mother, and the film closes with a happy reunion. By contrast, Miyazaki’s mother Yoshiko had spinal tuberculosis and ultimately passed away in 1983, before the release of “My Neighbor Totoro.” In this way, the film’s optimistic tone may be Miyazaki’s way of reaffirming his belief in the necessity of hope: Though not everyone truly has a happy ending, we can all imagine and hope for one.

Ultimately, “My Neighbor Totoro” exemplifies the healing realization that despite any doubts, joy can be found anywhere. On their first night in their new home, a thunderstorm batters the house, and the girls huddle with their father in the bathtub, spooked by every sound. Suddenly, their father bursts into boisterous laughter, claiming that laughter “keeps the bogeymen away.” The family laughs their fears away, their lamps glowing into the stormy night. Just as Satsuki and Mei gain the courage to face life’s challenges with optimism, joy, and a bit of supernatural support from Totoro, viewers leave the film with renewed belief in humanity — and a little bit of magic in their hearts.