My Neighbor Totoro and Childhood Self-Reliance

Known for its adorable characters, My Neighbor Totoro, is another Miyazaki classic. Sisters, Satsuki and Mei have just moved into a new home with their dad to be closer to the hospital where their mother is being cared for, when they find magic in the woods.

The scenery in the film is stunning and captures a post-war Japan that is beautiful in its simplicity and depictions of nature.

When the girls arrive at their new home, they come across dust-bunny spirits that flee from light. Their father teaches them a saying to make them go away and eventually they do once they’re settled in their new home.

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Throughout the film, you notice that both Satsuki and Mei are independent, resilient, and continuously look out for each other. One morning, you can see Satsuki preparing lunch for herself and her family before rushing off to school.

The Discovery

After Satsuki leaves for school, Mei wanders around outside their new home, while her father works. A white rabbit leads her to a giant tree with a briar patch at the center. She finds Totoro inside, or at least that’s what she thinks he wants to be called – he just growls at her and makes her laugh.

When Satsuki gets home from school, she finds Mei, but Totoro is gone. Mei tries to tell her family, but Totoro does not reveal himself. Her father tells her that he’s the “keeper of the forest,” and that he must be very busy.

And eventually he does reveal himself.

One day, Satsuki and Mei are waiting for their father at the bus stop. It’s pouring down rain, and Totoro arrives, wearing only a leaf on his head to protect himself from the rain. Satsuki gives him the umbrella she has, he then gives them a handful of seeds and boards a giant cat bus.

Late one evening, Satsuki and Mei plant the seeds and do a magical dance with Totoro and his companions to help the seeds grow.

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He then lets them ride on his back through the night, which is one of my favorite visuals in the film. It’s just the epitome of childhood wonderment and discovery, and I love that Totoro is basically looking out for them while their mother is sick.

Angst & Independence

Their mother’s sickness begins to take a toll on them both. They begin to worry, and when they learn that her return from the hospital is postponed, Satsuki and Mei have a terrible fight.

I cried during this scene, because I know just how hard it is on kids when they are forced to grow up because of a situation like this. You bear the burden, worry and stress, and feel completely helpless because you’re a child.

Satsuki lashes out at Mei out of frustration, and Mei runs off. The whole town is worried and searching for her. In an act of desperation, Satsuki begs Totoro to help find Mei and he appears with the cat bus. The cat bus takes her directly to where Mei is, and they get the chance to see their mother while they sit in a tree.

They learn that their mother is fine, and the bond between them grows stronger.

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The film is great for teaching young children that sometimes you have to be independent and look out for each other, especially during times of turmoil. It also helps to expand their imaginations because these wondrous creatures appear within their own reality.

You find yourself wondering if Totoro is real throughout the film, and then you get a brief glance of realness at the end. This move is perfection.

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