This may not be Hayao Miyazaki’s most profitable film, but it is probably the most beloved. Totoro toys and memorabilia are perennial favorites, and his image appears on the Studio Ghibli logo. The film is a family classic, appealing to even the youngest children, but still interesting to adults.
Tonari no Totoro
English, Japanese with subtitles, French
86 minutes plus bonus material in a 2-DVD set.
Region 1 Publisher
Walt Disney Home Entertainment
My Neighbor Totoro has a rather odd history. Apparently it’s backers had little faith in its commercial potential. Financing was obtained only as part of a joint production deal along with Isao Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies, with which it was originally shown on a double bill.
I am dumbfounded by the thought of this combination. Grave of the Fireflies is a great classic in it’s own right, but it is also one of the darkest and saddest movies ever made, and not something that most Americans would consider suitable for children. The idea of combining it with the cheerful, upbeat Totoro is mind-boggling.
The movie contains nothing objectionable–unless you object to the Japanese tradition of parents and young children bathing together (and even that is presented in a pretty innocuous way.)
Fledgling Otaku ended up calling this movie “crack for little kids” after his two-year-old daughter insisted on watching it over and over and over again until her parents, to preserve their sanity, conspired to “lose” the disc.
My theory is that this movie hits a sweet spot for very young children; it is just scary enough for them but not so scary as to be really disturbing. It touches on some of their deepest fears (the mother is in the hospital and everyone is worried and there are big hairy monsters in the woods) but is ultimately reassuring. Show ▼
It is not too hard to make a show that will appear to very young children, but it takes real skill to do so without annoying older children and boring adults to tears. In this case Mayazaki succeeds in making a movie that adults will enjoy watching–once or maybe twice.
Premise and Characters
In the late 1950s Tatsuo Kusakabe
, a professor at a Tokyo university, moves his family into a tumbledown farmhouse in Tokorozawa, which is now a built-up suburb of Tokyo, but at that time was an isolated farming community 
His daughter Satsuki
is cheerful, brave and enthusiastic. Her little sister Mei
is a handful. She follows Satsuki around and tends to get into trouble.
The girls’ mother Yasuko
is in a nearby hospital with some unspecified illness (identified as tuberculosis in the novelization.)
Not only is the farmhouse decrepit, but some things about it are rather unsettling.
There are acorns scattered on the floor, and the place is infested with strange little sooty creatures that the girls call “makkuro kurosuke”
(“dark-black black things”), which it seems only they can see.
Professor Kusakabe hires an elderly local woman to act as housekeeper and baby-sitter. The girls call her obaa-chan
(Granny). The subtitles call her Nanny
. She tells the girls that the black things are susuwatari
and assures them that they will soon leave.
Nanny’s grandson Kanta
is a rude little boy who doesn’t like girls.
While playing by herself in the garden Mei sees a strange little creature with ears like a rabbit.
She chases it and it runs under the house. Whoops, there goes another one, carrying a bag of acorns!
The two creatures run into the forest with Mei in hot pursuit. They run to a giant camphor tree wrapped with a shimenawa
(a grass rope used in the Shinto religion to mark off a sacred boundary.)
The two creatures dive into a hole beneath the roots of the tree. Mei tumbles in after them and finds herself in a strange grassy place where a great big hairy thing is sleeping.
The hairy thing wakes up and seems bemused but not unfriendly. Mei calls him “Totoro”, a mispronunciation of tororu
Satsuki and her father search for Mei and find her asleep in a clearing. Mei tells them about her adventure, but to her frustration she can’t find the giant tree anywhere.
Her father tells her that she probably encountered the spirit of the forest. He says that they should go to the local shrine to pay their respects.
At the shrine they see the same sacred tree that Mei remembered, except that it doesn’t seem to have a hole under the roots. They all thank the spirit of the forest for taking care of Mei.
Satsuki writes to her mother about Mei’s adventure. She wishes that she could meet Totoro too.
And perhaps Totoro does indeed have further plans for the two of them.
This review is only for the 2-disc DVD set released in 2006 by Disney. You may encounter an earlier DVD release by Fox Video, which I would not recommend; the picture is cut down to a 4:3 aspect ratio and it includes only an English dub, with no Japanese soundtrack.
There is a sequel of sorts, but you would have to go to Japan to see it. A 13-minute short called Mei to Konekobasu (Mei and the Kittenbus) is shown only at the Studio Ghibli Museum, and of course is only in Japanese.
ANN Encyclopedia entry.
FAQ at Nausicaa.net.
 An organization called the Totoro’s Home National Trust Movement is dedicated to preserving the few remaining natural areas in Tokorozawa.