My Neighbor Totoro

My Neighbor Totoro

My Neighbor Totoro anime movie cover art
My Neighbor Totoro

Movie Overview

My Neighbor Totoro (Tonari no Totoro / となりのトトロ) is a children’s movie made by Studio Ghibli. You’ve probably at least heard of it before even if you haven’t seen it yourself. I feel like either this or Spirited Away is the most popular Ghibli movie.

Now, although I did watch some anime as a child, I actually never watched any Ghibli movies. The only other Ghibli movie I’ve seen so far is Kiki’s Delivery Service, which I watched back in 2018. And right away, I have to say that My Neighbor Totoro is the better of the two.

The movie focuses on two young girls, Satsuki and Mei Kusakabe, who move into a new house in the countryside with their father. At first, it appears that their mother is no longer around, but we later learn that she’s actually in a relatively nearby hospital recovering from a “cold.”

Shortly upon arriving at the house, the girls discover that it’s haunted by various kinds of small — and harmless — spirits. One spirit that lives in a giant tree nearby is named Totoro by the younger sister, Mei.

The rest of the movie then follows Satsuki and Mei as they search for and play with their new friend Totoro. There’s a small amount of drama thrown in towards the end of the movie for an exciting climax, but otherwise not all that much actually happens.

There’s also another spirit creature, known only as Catbus. As the name implies, it’s a cat that’s also a bus. I think Catbus may have actually been my favorite thing about the whole movie. Catbus’s design is just really good, and I think it’s a more interesting creature than Totoro.

What is Totoro?

Totoro looks like a mix between a raccoon, squirrel, rabbit, and bear. But what’s most important about him(?) is that he’s not actually based on a real Japanese spirit. There’s nothing called a Totoro in Japanese mythology or folklore, despite what the movie would like you to believe.

Totoro’s name is also written in katakana, so we can’t even look at the kanji of his name to figure out what exactly he’s supposed to be. He’s just a creature that was made up for the movie. However, that’s what I like most about him.

The genius of Totoro is that the movie makes it seem like it could be a real spirit. For example, Mei names him Totoro after a creature by the same name in one of her books. So in-universe, a Totoro is a known kind of spirit much like a Kappa would be in real Japan.

Satsuki and Totoro waiting for the bus from the anime movie My Neighbor Totoro
Satsuki and Totoro waiting for the bus

To me, the world-building in My Neighbor Totoro is extremely good because it’s able to blur the line between fantasy and reality in this way. Even though Totoro isn’t a real spirit, he’s just as mysterious as real spirits. It’s believable that there would be a type of forest spirit just like him.

Speaking of how mysterious Totoro is, he lives an odd life. There are smaller “Totoro” which seem to gather acorns for him while he naps inside his tree. He also has the ability to make trees grow, implying that he’s a forest guardian-type spirit.

But what’s most odd is his relationship with Catbus. The two seem to be friends, but also Catbus is Totoro’s form of public transportation. When Totoro gets on Catbus after waiting at the bus stop, where is he going? Does Totoro have somewhere to be? I like to think he was going to a job interview.

Totoro Without Nostalgia

As I’ve mentioned, I really like the world-building in this movie. The creatures are fun, and we see just enough of them to get a vague understanding of what they are and do. I think that’s important because if we learned everything about Totoro and Catbus, they wouldn’t be fantastical anymore.

But as I also mentioned, there’s not a whole lot going on in this movie, and that’s the biggest flaw for me. The movie is 1 hour and 26 minutes long and the titular Totoro doesn’t even make an appearance until after 30 minutes in.

Maybe this is on me, but I expected the character of Totoro to have a much larger role than he actually did. It’s not like Totoro ever really hangs out with Satsuki and Mei. Totoro just kind of exists and the girls sometimes see him — that’s it.

Satsuki, Mei, and Catbus from the anime movie My Neighbor Totoro
Satsuki, Mei, and Catbus

It’s also a bit misleading that this movie is tagged as an adventure. I’d argue that it’s much more a slice of life anime than an adventure anime. The girls don’t go on an adventure. The movie is all about them living at their new home, which happens to be located near Totoro’s tree.

The adventure tag would make a lot more sense if Totoro took the girls to a fantasy world. Though, from my understanding, that’s kind of what Spirited Away is — I’ll watch that eventually and probably find out I’m wrong.

Anyway, at the end of the day, My Neighbor Totoro is a children’s movie. Is it a good children’s movie? Yes. But let’s not pretend like it’s the most engaging anime movie around. I feel like the first act could have been shortened drastically to make more time for Totoro shenanigans.

Conclusion

My Neighbor Totoro is a 7/10 from me. And while I did just say that I generally want more than what it offered, it’s definitely a movie I would watch again. I probably wouldn’t watch it on my own. But if someone wanted to watch it, I’d watch it with them.

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