My Neighbor Totoro: The Art of Grief & Horror in the Children’s Film

There is nothing quite as innocuous as Studio Ghibli’s My Neighbor Toroto (1988). The simple constructed shapes composing its saccharine opening tell a story of childlike wonder and delight. We do not want to intone that it does otherwise but that it captures enough of the human experience to mine emotional depth from larger themes. It’s a phenomenal children’s program – laid back and unconcerned about moving a plot or the dramatic buildup of the situation – providing only hope beneath a narrative laden in potent grief and mourning.

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The sisters come to terms with their mom’s hospitalization and their new way of life.

There have been many internet theories about the darker side of Toroto that Ghibli’s PR has been careful to assuage. There is the matter of it containing multitudes, proficient enough depth to hold the readings.  We can say that art may no longer belong to the artist; it is out of their control, totally. If we want to find this delightful children’s film to be a suitable meditation on death, then so be it. The intention, after some years pass, is far less meaningful than perception – the way we experience a film is what shapes the story.

It does not mean that all theories are substantively correct. There are many ideas floated around that Totoro is some God of Death. They are supplanted by some idea that only those closest to death can interact with him. This is why the girls can experience him and not the adults. They may also have the greatest capacity for imagination. More likely, we want to highlight that he is a woodland spirit of their own imagination, a grieving tool they are utilizing to deal with their mother’s terrible sickness. There is no evidence that Totoro has a negative spirit or intent, his fluffy lovability greater than his bark.

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Soot spirits permeate the house and take it over when folks aren’t looking for them.

Do the girls truly die? It seems to be more a matter of passing into a different stage of life. They are getting accustomed to a new environment and are dealing with the fallout of their mom being very sick. It does not take someone dying to mourn their loss in our lives. They can just be away at a time when we need their presence. This seems to be most accurate to the point.

All this does not suggest there is not imminent depth and credible darkness to Totoro. Ghibli has outlined common elements of Japanese fables, some of them applying as freely to its slice of life drama as they might as setups for a ghost story. There are questions abound: they ask the father is the new place haunted by ghosts. It is certainly haunted by the absence of their mother. Creepy suit sprites flitter in and out of rooms as they enter. There is a surreal feeling of mysticism hanging over their environment.

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Totoro is a big teddy bear that relieves grief and teaches the girls how to cope by harnessing the power of their imaginations.

The idea of being left behind is scary enough for a kid. The loss of a mother is a child’s horror story. Totoro plays into its light dusting of tropes and captures something fundamental about loss. Yes, it has the ornamentation of some kind of horror story for kids. It’s awash in the otherworldly feeling of the unknown.

When we arrive at the peak of its imagination, the images are bold and startling enough. The cat bus thoroughly terrifies me. Its insides have been gutted for fur-lined seats, an anthropomorphized bus that offers strange travel in a strange land. Upfront, the cat’s eyes are wide and jaundiced yellow. It has a Chesire Grin. The cat who ate canary, and soon enough, the children? But it does not have malicious intent either.

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There are no questions about this one. This cat is a grotesque product of horror. I want nothing to do with it.

Things can appear one way in Totoro and be the opposite. The world doesn’t make sense when you experience trauma as a young person. Ghibli totally gets that and are going to show you how it can be all right in the end. Everything really is all right, so long as you are enraptured in its fantastical land of high imagination and tender embrace of its cozy Totoro, who is totally not the God of Death.

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