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Anime / My Neighbor Totoro

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"No plot. No central character. No antagonist. No defined purpose for side characters. No threat. No three acts. No jokes. No punchlines. No explanations. No internal references. No catch phrases. No political polemical voice. No melodrama. No lessons. No beginning. No end. One of the best movies ever made."
Letteboxed review by David Jenkins

My Neighbor Totoro (Japanese: Tonari no Totoro, 1988) is Studio Ghibli's second feature film and the fourth animated feature directed by Hayao Miyazaki (the first being The Castle of Cagliostro).

A little cycle truck putters down a rural road in post-war Japan, carrying four-year-old Mei, her older sister Satsuki, and their father Professor Kusakabe to a new home in the country to be closer to the rural hospital where the girls' mother is recovering from an unspecified (but potentially deadly) disease. Along with the usual tribulations of moving—a spooky old house, new neighbors, fitting in at a new school—Mei encounters an odd little creature in the backyard. While pursuing it, she comes upon the den of a much larger forest spirit that she eventually calls "Totoro". At first, Mei is the only one who sees Totoro, but Satsuki soon meets him as well, and the girls have several fantastic encounters with Totoro, interwoven between subplots involving their family and (human) neighbors.

But the girls' seemingly idyllic rural existence is soon shattered when a health crisis forces their mother to cancel a much-anticipated visit home. Heartbroken, the two girls take out their fear and anger on each other, and Mei eventually sets out for the hospital alone, determined to deliver an ear of corn she believes will make her mother well. The remainder of the film revolves around Satsuki's increasingly desperate search for Mei; when all other options are exhausted, Satsuki appeals directly to Totoro for help—and he is more than delighted to be of assistance.

Totoro is one of Miyazaki's best known films. Totoro himself became the mascot for Studio Ghibli. Miyazaki does not gloss over some of the more frightening aspects of childhood, though: the girls are terrified of their mother dying, a common goat seems monstrous from little Mei's perspective, and the whole village's fright and anxiety when Mei goes missing is almost palpable. Even Totoro—with his huge grin, inscrutable expression, and manic eyes—can be a little scary; Satsuki refers to meeting him as both the funniest and the scariest day of her life.

My Neighbor Totoro contains the following tropes:

  • A Boy and His X: Two girls and their magical forest spirit.
  • Adult Fear:
    • Mei running away from home and getting lost in the climax is something any adult or older sibling can understand. This goes Up to Eleven when the villagers find a little girl's sandal in the pond and fear that Mei has drowned.
    • The film triggers this with the audience when Mei falls asleep on Totoro's stomach mere inches from his enormous maw. That'd be enough to make any parent cringe.
  • Adults Are Useless: This is mostly averted, though it's through Satsuki's actions alone that Mei is found during the film's climax.
  • All Trolls Are Different: Mei mistakes Totoro for a troll; "Totoro" is even a mispronunciation of the Japanese word for troll, "Torōru".
  • Animals Lack Attributes: Averted; the Catbus has prominent testicles. So does the Kittenbus in the short.
  • Arcadia: The film is an ode to the rural lifestyle.
  • Big Sister Instinct: Satsuki's kicks in big time when Mei goes missing. She runs herself ragged trying to find her, and finally seeks out Totoro's help when she is starting to lose hope.
  • Blush Sticker: Mei has these.
  • Break the Cutie: Mei
  • Bug Buzz: This happens during the night when Mei and Satsuke help "awaken" the acorns.
  • Chasing a Butterfly: Mei tends to do this. First she chases the soot gremlins all over the house; then she gets lost when she follows Chibi-Totoro into the woods. Although she encounters a monstrous creature (the titular Totoro), fortunately he is a Gentle Giant, so the danger part is averted.
  • Cheshire Cat Grin: Totoro and the Catbus show these off, though theirs have no malice behind them.
  • Children Are Innocent: This is implied, via Granny's dialogue about seeing the soot sprites when she was the kids' age, to be why Satsuki and Mei are able to see the supernatural things around them.
  • Close-Knit Community: The village; everyone seems to know each other, and everyone pitches in to search for Mei.
  • Come Out, Come Out, Wherever You Are: Mei and Satsuki do this when trying to make the soot sprites (or "soot gremlins" or even "dust bunnies," depending on which version one watches) in the attic appear. It's toned down from the Japanese language track, where they also say, "Or we'll pluck your eyeballs out!"
  • Construction Is Awesome: Totoro and the kids magically grow a few seeds into a massive World Tree. In the morning, the tree is gone, but the seeds have germinated abnormally fast.
  • Contagious Laughter: Once the father starts to laugh in the bath, the girls are able to join in. Interestingly for this trope, they start out by faking their laughter (to drive away the susuwatari), before they all finally start laughing for real.
  • Convenient Cranny: When chased by Mei, Chibi-Totoro hides underneath the house where the girl cannot reach it.
  • Cool Big Sis: Satsuki is this for Mei.
  • Covers Always Lie: The cover for the 2010 American DVD is taken from concept art for an early draft, according to which the two siblings were still one Composite Character. So instead of Satsuki and Mei waiting in the rain, it has a girl who has Mei's head on Satsuki's body. Whoops.
  • Cute, but Cacophonic: Note to those watching the movie on their computers or portable DVD players: Please take your headphones off whenever it looks like Totoro is going to roar. Your ears will thank you.
  • Cute Kitten: The short-film sequel Mei and the Kittenbus, which plays exclusively at the Ghibli Museum, has one of these.
  • Dead Hat Shot: Subverted. Someone finds what they think is one of Mei's shoes floating in a retention pond after the younger sister runs away from home. Everyone sighs a breath of relief when Satsuki sees it and doesn't recognize it.
  • Decomposite Character: Mei and Satsuki started out in early drafts as a single girl with both their physical characteristics.note 
  • Determinator: Satsuki literally runs for several kilometers in her search for Mei.
  • Double Feature: The film was originally screened as a double feature with the rather less uplifting Grave of the Fireflies. The studio mandated that My Neighbor Totoro must be shown second as they found that too many people would simply walk out and not watch Grave of the Fireflies if Totoro was shown first.
  • Electric Slide: The Catbus is seen doing this.
  • Everything's Better with Sparkles: The sparkling acorns.
  • Follow the White Rabbit: Mei follows Chibi-Totoro to the woods and into Totoro's lair. Chibi-Totoro even looks somewhat like a white rabbit.
  • Foreshadowing: While visiting their mother, the girls claim their father kept getting lost on the way to the hospital.
  • Gentle Giant: Totoro, of course.
  • Ghibli Hills: The Ur-example.
  • Girls Have Cooties: Kanta starts out with this attitude, but eventually gets over it.
  • Good Parents: Professor Kusakabe is probably one of the nicest fathers in all of anime—and he's effective as a parent, to boot. He never talks down to his daughters even when they're talking about having seen Totoro; not even the audience can really tell whether he honestly believes them or is simply humoring them. If anything he seems to value their imaginations. Also, judging from the way Mei and Satsuki adore her, it's pretty clear their mother qualifies, too.
  • Hand in the Hole: Short creepy moment, when Mei reaches into the crack in the wall behind which the dustbunnies disappeared.
  • Happy Ending: Mei is found safe and sound, and the credits reveal that the mother comes home from the hospital.
  • Haunted House: Kanta believes this of the house the family moves into, not without reason.
  • Incurable Cough of Death: Averted. Though the disease that Mei and Satsuki's mother suffers from is treated as this trope, she's never seen coughing and doesn't actually die. Considering it was based on Miyazaki's own life, and his mother had tuberculosis, coughing would certainly have been justified.
  • Invisible to Adults: Only children seem to be able to see the soot sprites and Totoros, though it's possible that this is simply because they don't want to be seen by adults. At film's end, it's hinted the girls are getting too old to see them. In an unusual twist to this trope, the adults show no overt signs of disbelieving the children when they talk about the spirits. The girls' father tells them of the soot spirits, and the village grandmother confirms she saw them when she was younger. This sets up the epilogue.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: This is a major theme of the movie. An example: The huge tree that grows when the girls and Totoro are together is gone the next morning, but the much smaller plants that grew around it remain.
  • Mega Neko: The Catbus is what you might expect if you merged a bus with a twelve-legged cat spirit. Its eyes glow like headlights, its hollow body has furry benches and "windows", and it even has a sign that changes to match its destination, which includes Mei.
  • Mickey Mousing: At various times the soundtrack playfully punctuates the characters' movements, most notably in the scene where Mei chases Chibi-Totoro and Chu-Totoro through her backyard.
  • Mohs Scale of Violence Hardness: A firm 0 on the scale. The most violent thing that happens in the movie is Kanta getting gently bonked on the head by his mother for losing an umbrella.
  • Mouth Cam: At one point we see Mei from within Totoro's mouth.
  • Narrative Shapeshifting: The opening credits.
  • Nature Spirit: Totoro and his friends. Although only mentioned once as being "The Keeper of the Forest", he certainly shows it.
  • No Antagonist: As the DVD release points out, the movie was designed to be devoid of conflict. YMMV if fear that one's mother is dying counts.
  • Old-School Chivalry: Kanta, lending his umbrella to Mei and Satsuki when it's pouring outside.
  • Panty Shot: Throughout the movie, in a completely innocent way. "Bloomer Shots" if you will.
  • Pink Means Feminine: Mei except at night.
  • Pokémon Speak: Totoro is only ever heard growling, roaring, and saying his own name.
  • Random Events Plot: With the exception of Totoro himself and the girls' worrying that their mother might be dying, nothing really happens in this moive. It's just two girls hanging out in their new home.
  • Ridiculously Cute Critter: Totoro. C'mon, just look at the picture, and try to tell me you don't wanna give the big fuzzy critter a hug, too.
  • Rousseau Was Right / No Antagonist
  • Scenery Censor: During the bath scene, Mei is conveniently protecting the audience from her father.
  • Scenery Porn: In the DVD Bonus Content, Miyazaki says that he wanted to show that Japan is a beautiful country.
  • Secondary Character Title: The titular character refers to the creature the main characters, Satsuki and Mei, meet after moving to their new home.
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism vs. Cynicism: An extremely idealistic film. It uplifted everyone's spirits up after this was in a double feature with Grave of the Fireflies.
  • Soap Opera Disease: We are not told what the mother is sick of.
  • Spoiled Sweet: In the ending, the Mom says that she would spoil her kids rotten when she meets them again. This can be seen in the credits since they are wearing better clothes than in the film.
  • Straying Baby: Mei's running off with no sense of the dangers involved triggers the climax.
  • Terrible Artist: Averted with Satsuki's cute drawing of Mei as the crab who waited over a persimmon seed to grow.
  • Theme Naming
    • "Satsuki" is the old Japanese term for the month of May, and "Mei" sounds like the English name for the month. Originally Mei was only going to be the only girl until Miyazaki realized that a four-year old wouldn't have the independence necessary to drive the story.
    • The three Totoros themselves, named for their sizes. The littlest one is called "Chibi Totoro" ("chibi" meaning "little"), the blue middle-sized one is "Chū Totoro" ("chū" meaning "middle"), and the biggest one is "Ō Totoro" ("ō" meaning "large").The big guy's name is sometimes rendered as "Ou Totoro", resulting in the alternate English translation "King Totoro".
  • Thousand-Yard Stare: Totoro's wide starey eyes are one of its hallmarks.
  • Trampoline Tummy: Mei uses Totoro as a cushion when she finds him sleeping belly up, waking him up in the process, before falling asleep together. Satsuki also bounces briefly when she lands on Totoro.
  • Tsundere: Satsuki and Kanta are this to each other.
  • "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue: The credits show scenes from the girls' lives during the year following the story.
  • Youkai: The Totoros are nature spirits centered around the great tree near the Kusakabes' home, which bears Shinto ropes. The film also features Susuwatari (wandering soot), a fictitious Youkai created by Miyazaki. (The Susuwatari would later appear in Spirited Away.)
  • Zig Zag Paper Tassel: The Shinto ropes on Totoro's tree count.