Not overthinking My Neighbor Totoro

I’m not very good at making visual connections. I’m embarrassed to say how long I watched Battle of the Planets before realizing the G-Force team wore bird costumes.

I’m going to assume that most people get things I don’t, but just in case you haven’t, I want to share a pivotal moment in the anime “My Neighbor Totoro.” And I really want you to watch it, not just read ahead. This sequence is part of a dream the two girls have while waiting for the seeds Totoro gave them to sprout:

I love the movie. It’s absolutely gentle. There’s an innocence and a beauty Miyazaki captures in the two girls’ childhood that absolutely captivates. And yet, isn’t that scene above an awful lot like this:

Miyazaki is enough of a master that we can say, with certitude, that was neither coincidental nor accidental.

My Neighbor Totoro was premiered as a double feature with another anime, “Grave of the Fireflies.” If you don’t leave the theater crying after that movie, you need to check yourself for a pulse. The movie starts with the two children dying and it only goes downhill from there. It’s set in World War II, and it very carefully dismantles and deconstructs childhood.

Immediately following that you have the innocence and greenery of My Neighbor Totoro, the goodness of nature and the goodness of human beings, and the magic of a world that cares. Whereas the fireflies delight and then die, the world of Totoro is unending delight.

The critic who pointed out the tree-sprouting scene said that Miyazaki rewrote childhood for the Japanese people. That Japan bore in its national psyche a collective scar from the nuclear bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and that first it needed to be acknowledged (Grave of the Fireflies) and then healed (My Neighbor Totoro). And that by choosing exactly this image for his image of protection and fruitfulness, Miyazaki was giving an entire nation permission to believe in human goodness again. In effect, restoring childhood.

Whether you agree with the critic or not, it’s an awesome thing to consider, that one writer, one artist, one director, would have the power to frame a nation’s perception of a tragedy in order to aid them in moving past the wound and into a state of healing.


  1. Cricket

    We love the Totoro movie, but never saw the similarity before. I think the key difference is the tree shelters the house. The house is very clearly safe. It was a billowing, sheltering, living, growing, magical shield rebuilding. I agree, Miyasaki wouldn’t have done that sort of thing by accident. Much to ponder.

  2. philangelus

    Even more, Cricket, the tree takes the shape of an umbrella at the end, and umbrellas are used throughout the movie to symbolize protection (even if they’ve got a hole in them, as the one Kanta gives them.) Compare to the broken umbrella on the movie poster of GotF.

  3. Wendy

    The only quibble I have is that GotF features the effects of the firebombings of Tokyo and surrounding areas; not the atomic blasts in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

  4. philangelus

    I thought you were able to see the blast at one point toward the end.

    From a logistical perspective, having the boy experience the after effect of the atomic blast would have resulted in the boy dying that way and not making his way to the train station, and since GotF was the actual story of the boy (minus the dying part) it wouldn’t have been true to the book.

  5. Cricket

    Without knowing anything about GotF, just looking at the picture, I would have thought the umbrella was tattered, but good enough to do the job. Having heard the plot, very different image. Protection that simply can’t do the job, regardless of who gave it to them. In Totoro, it may not quite do the job, but it’s only rain.

  6. Krista

    I saw GotF years ago; to this day, it is the first and only movie that ever made me cry. I made it through the funeral scene in “Steel Magnolias” without a tear, but GotF sends me for the kleenex every darned time.