'My Neighbor Totoro', also referred to as just Totoro, tells the brilliant story of the forest spirit Totoro, a giant cat-like creature, discovered by Mei, a young girl who has just moved to the countryside with her dad, Tatsuo, and sister, Satsuki, due to their mother being kept in a hospital nearby. As Hayao Miyazaki's most simple storyline, it is clear the impact comes from the subtleties and visuals that Totoro presents.
Growing up I watched this film over a hundred times, but rewatching it as an adult made me much more aware of the meaning and lessons that can be learned in watching this film.
1. Accept change
Mei and Satsuki open the movie giddy to explore their new home. While moving and entering a new place where you will live and go to school, with new peers and neighbors can be scary, we see these young girls embrace it with open arms. Their curiosity opens doors for them, literally. Exploring and taking on new adventures become their top priority as they learn to love their new home, in order to be closer to their mom in the hospital.
2. Explore nature
. The only way Mei found Totoro was by searching through the forest, where Totoro decided to reveal their secret entrance. Mei's respect of nature, and joy to be exploring it is probably why she was welcomed in, and this is not on accident. Miyazaki is known for his themes of nature, and in Totoro, it is a subtle and sweet message, that exploring nature is not only fun but can change your world view!
3. Spend time with your family (and those you consider family)
Throughout the film the bonds we can see between the characters and loving and special. Mei and Satsuki's sister bond is tempered at times, but they always had each other's back, and as a result, get to adventure with Totoro together. Tatsuo always looks out for his daughters and does his best to help them through the pain of missing their mom. And Granny, who is actually their neighbor's grandma, but accepts Mei and Satsuki as her own grandkids, and treats them as such.
4. It's OK to be sad
The one thing the movie ends on a vague note is the fate of Mei and Satsuki's mom. Although hopeful viewers may view the end credits as proof she returned home, others may see the entire film as the processing and emotions of grief of her passing. Either way, their mom being so sick, provides a message that it's OK to be sad, to cry, and to grieve. One of the most poignant scenes is when Mei is so sad after finding out bad news about her mom, she runs through the streets to try and bring her an ear of corn. Her sadness and pain can be felt through the screen, The emotional toll on two young girls being apart from their mom shouldn't be downplayed, and the simple and honest portrayal of this shows that Miyazaki is a genius.
My favorite part of 'My Neighbor Totoro' is how timeless it is. Over my lifetime it was never not relevant. And watching it at 19, I could see the little kids in the front row, watching it the same way I did as a kid- loving the adorable creatures, connecting with Mei, dreaming of playing with Totoro, and taking a ride on the Cat Bus one day too.