Undoubtedly one of the best animators to have ever picked up a pencil (and definitely one of the last few who prefers to hand draw everything), Hayao Miyazaki’s worlds are always vibrant both visually and in terms of theme. One of the most fascinating through-lines I see explored in his oeuvre is humanity’s connection to nature; this relationship is really present and leaves us with a lot to think about in Miyazaki’s 1988 film, My Neighbor Totoro.
The film opens on Professor Tatsuo Kusakabe and his two daughters, Satsuki and Mei, moving into an old farmhouse to be closer to Yasuko, the Kusakabes’ matriarch, who’s recovering from a long-term illness at a nearby hospital. At one point, Tatsuo points at an enormous tree that is so old he claims it’s from “when people and trees were friends,” and says he knew this was the right house when he saw that tree. This suggests that while humanity has fallen out of touch with nature, there still exists a yearning to reconnect. I think this is one of many profound moments in the film, especially as climate change begins to worsen and that desire to reconnect with nature turns into a life-or-death necessity. Mei and Satsuki, perhaps because of their un-corrupted, childish outlooks, seem to be the ones most at peace with the natural world, that natural world being personified in the character of Totoro.
At some points I found myself asking if Totoro was real or in their imaginations, but then I also found myself asking: does it matter? Regardless of whether or not he actually helped a handful of acorns sprout into a forest overnight with a moonlit dance, or if he didn’t actually become the wind, Totoro—with his enormous build and deafening roar—reminds us that nature is a grand and powerful force. This is why it’s shocking that no adult can see Totoro, or any of the other magical spirits in the forest. They all seem too distracted by delayed bus schedules or are busy deciding where to put the radio, caught in the trappings of modernity. Tatuso clearly wants out of this system, often looking at his daughters and reminiscing about times when he was as young and unfettered as they are. Seeing how oblivious the adults are leaves viewers to wonder if ‘modernity’ is worth the sacrifice.
The answer appears when Mei goes missing and the small farming community bands together to try and find her, but it’s only with the help of Totoro that Satsuke’s able to locate her. We’re made to understand that while community and society are important, we can’t ever fully connect with one another, ‘find’ each other—or ourselves—if we are blind to the world around us, if we don’t learn to live in tune with nature.
Aging is part of life. We get old, we get jobs and get swept up in a whirlwind of bills and other responsibilities. But somewhere in that process, blinded by our ambitions, we lose that bit of ourselves that’d notice when an acorn fell from the ceiling; we fall out of touch with that younger version of us who would walk on foot across numerous towns just to deliver a single ear of corn to our sick relative. I think My Neighbor Totoro is a great reminder to not let this happen. Don’t let yourself be numbed by society and its troubles; you might miss out on all the magic if you do.