things you learn about grief watching studio ghibli's 'my neighbour totoro'

30 years after its release, we look back on Hayao Miyazaki’s gentle giant masterpiece and ask what it can teach us about our childhoods, mortality and the power of imagination.

by Douglas Greenwood
24 April 2018, 9:50am

When Studio Ghibli's My Neighbour Totoro first hit cinemas in 1988, there was no way of gauging just how greatly it would be cherished three decades down the line. Now, in a new era of animated movies in which cuddly toy sales take priority over plot line (how else can we justify multiple films starring Minions?), the fact this classic Studio Ghibil-helmed story is passed on from one generation to the next -- with not a remake it in sight -- makes it a rare relic; the kind that animation lovers long to see more of. Put simply, My Neighbour Totoro reminds us of how innocent, affecting and smart the medium can be, especially when the person making it -- in this case, the genius Hayao Miyazaki -- has their heart in the right place.

But whether or not you’re creating wistful fantasy worlds or watching anthropomorphic foam bananas make fart noises, there’s one slur that sceptics love to throw at animated films: calling them “cartoons”. To dub My Neighbour Totoro a cartoon -- something that plenty of people who haven’t seen it yet like to call it -- could suggest it’s some sort of dumbed-down film for kids, and that we shouldn’t treat it like a work of art. But when I first saw it, I realised that the characters at the heart of My Neighbour Totoro had managed to articulate moments in my life that I’d struggled to find in film, and I’d been searching for it for so long.

For those who have somehow resisted Totoro’s lure for the past 30 years, the film tells the story of the Mei and Satsuki Kusakabe, two young sisters who find themselves being carted off to the Japanese countryside to be closer to their mother who’s fighting an serious, if unknown illness in a hospital nearby. For the most part, Mei and Satsuki seem blissfully ignorant of their mother’s ailing health; they know it’s there, and are taken by their father to visit her once or twice, but the film doesn’t capture them in a state of sadness. Instead, they venture into the woods behind their new home, encountering tiny sprite-like creatures and a giant magical tree-dwelling beast called Totoro who helps the sisters retreat into a world of fantasy instead.

Sometimes our childhoods, like Mei’s and Satsuki’s, are marred by trauma that our parents try their best to shield us from. Mine was my mother’s cancer, something I was faced with at eight years old. At the time, I don’t remember having to face the idea of her actually leaving us. So when she did, a fleeting, complex and chaotic five months after her diagnosis, I barely had the breath or brain to articulate her death. I’d been living under the roof of the home I’d always thought she would return to.

Instead, my dad wanted our lives to be left unfettered by the violent disease our mother was fighting; unwilling to throw us into a precautionary state of sadness for the sake of "just in case”. It was 15 years ago now, but I remember knowing the mere framework of what was happening: she clearly wasn’t well, the disease was called cancer (even saying it seemed to lodge a kind of imaginary stone in my throat), she’d lost her hair and wasn’t around the house as much. The adults around us chose not to discuss the more pertinent details. Nobody dared to ask, “how long left?”, especially not in the presence of me or my brother and sister. My dad had afforded us a life of childish fantasy for a little while longer.

As the youngest of three, I was grateful for it, and found my misplaced happiness in things that weren’t so palpable instead. I found solace, like many kids, in imagining what strange things might happen when night fell on the yellow wheat fields a short cycle ride away. I’d picture cottages owned by warlocks in the woods that cast a shadow over my house from afar. Nature seemed strange, but up until then, it was the only thing that I could predict would change.

It wasn’t until four years after my mother passed that I saw My Neighbour Totoro, and found comfort in the fact Mei and Satsuki were given the chance to find fantasy in their sadness too. Of course, since it’s a fantasy film flirting with the idea of mortality, both YouTube and CreepyPasta are awash with theories that Totoro is some sort of grim reaper who appears to murder Mei and Satsuki, alongside their mother. But back in 2006, Studio Ghibli told fans that this wild theory was “absolutely not true”. Instead I always saw Totoro to be a guardian angel to the girls. As they cosy up to him, they’re cosying up to the possibility, and the inevitability of their mother leaving too. He’s not there to haunt them, but to bring them catharsis.

What’s sweet is that all of these meetings aren’t met with cynicism from their father, or ‘Granny’, the old woman who’s enlisted to care for the pair when dad’s at work. Despite the fact adults aren’t allowed to see Totoro, they embrace his presence, and appreciate that he brings the girls comfort they might struggle to find elsewhere. This idea of, for lack of a better phrase, ‘finding light in darkness’, is something that Hayao Miyazaki has always believed in, and is a huge part of what makes him such a brilliant storyteller. “Even amidst the hatred and carnage,” he once said, “life is still worth living. It is possible for wonderful encounters and beautiful things to exist.”

In a world more wondrous than the real one, these sisters wind up finding solace in a place they’ve dreamed up so viscerally. With their mother absent, the gap she’s left in their lives isn’t mulled over all too much. In fact, if you weren’t watching hard enough you might often drift off and forget that she’s part of the story at all. But in every encounter between Mei, Satsuki and their beast-like neighbour Totoro, there’s this reminder that our imaginations and blissful ignorance are wonderful -- perhaps even vital -- when we’re young, and can stop us ruminating on the pains of real life, even if just for a moment.

READ: five studio ghibli films to watch this weekend.

Hayao Miyazaki
Studio Ghibli
my neighbour totoro