The story itself is relatively simple. A father and his two daughters move to rural Japan, to be closer to their mother, who remains in hospital (possibly based on Miyazaki’s own experiences as his own mother was in hospital during his childhood). In the new house, the two children Satsuki and Mei find dust-creatures named susuwatari. This begins a fascination with forest creatures and the spirituality of nature. One afternoon, as Satsuki is at school, Mei explores the forest and chases after a small, vanishing creature. Akin to Alice chasing the White Rabbit, Mei chases the creature through the forest and, falling down the rabbit hole, finds the magical and majestic forest spirit Totoro. He sleeps and snores. He doesn’t speak her language, but there is a connection. Satsuki convinces her sister and, with father in tow, tries to find Totoro. Their father explains how Totoro revealing himself to them shows a mutual respect and is a great honour. In an unforgettable sequence, we see a nekobasu– a cat-bus – collect Totoro after Mei’s first encounter with him at a rainy bus-stop. We witness the girls as they see Totoro play his Ocarina on a branch and prove his ties to the environment, forging a tender relationship.
This was 1988, four years after the world wide success of E.T. and six years after The Snowman. In both cases, a mythical creature enriches the life of children, carrying them over the wonders of nature. This may be a surrealist fantasy, but it’s about friendship and the connection we have with these spiritual forces (and what spirituality teaches us too). Considering the backstory of the Mother’s sickness in My Neighbour Totoro (And, in the double-bill, the history in Grave of the Fireflies), there is a sense that nature and the innocence of childhood, in the face of adversity, should be treasured above all. The fun and friendship of Totoro and his companions keeps these particular children happy. Their mother and father are going through a horrific period (is it life-threatening? Will these poor girls lose their mother?). Is this when children should be taught of the fragility of life? When Satsuki finds out about her mother, she puts her own life in danger as she walks the long and lonesome road to the hospital. Perhaps, the innocent child has to slowly and gently learn about the world.