This post includes a brief plot summary and an explanation about the ending of the film My Neighbor Totoro / Tonari no Totoro (1988). Beware of spoilers.
Hayao Miyazaki is the writer and director of the 1988 Japanese anime My Neighbor Totoro.
My Neighbor Totoro – Plot Summary
An university professor (Tatsuo Kusakabe) and his two daughters (Satsuki and Mei) move into an old house so the entire family can be closer to Yasuko (Tatsuo’s wife). The girls’ mother is at the hospital recovering from a long-term illness.
While the girls were exploring their new residence, they find little creatures wandering in the dark corners of the house. Upon this incredible finding, Satsuki and Mei rush to their father to report the existence of spirits in the house. Meanwhile, Nanny, a next-door neighbor passes by to help the family move in. The elderly lady tells the girls that she also saw those spirits when she was younger. To reassure the girls, Nanny tells them that the spirits will eventually leave the house, once the family settles in.
One day, while playing at the backyard, Mei discovers two little creatures. They try to run away from her but Mei chases them into the forest. For a second, she loses them and ends up falling on top a big fluffy creature. The spirit expresses himself through a series of roaring sounds and Mei decides to name him Totoro. Then, she falls asleep.
When Satsuki arrives home from school, she notices Mei’s absence. The elder sister and the father start looking for Mei. At the forest’s entrance, Satsuki spots Mei’s hat. She runs into the forest and finds Mei asleep on the ground. When Mei wakes up, she wants to show the family where Totoro lives. However, despite of her numerous attempts, Mei can’t seem to find the place. The father comforts her and says that maybe Totoro only reveals himself when he wants to.
One a rainy day, the girls decide to wait for their father at the bus station. However, it’s night time and Tatsuo hasn’t arrived yet. Meanwhile, Mei falls asleep on Satsuki’s back. The elder sister spots a creature with claws next to her, it’s Totoro. The spirit has a leaf covering his head. As a result, Satsuki decides to offer her father’s umbrella to Totoro. Increadibly pleased with her offer, Totoro offers Satsuki a bag of nuts and seeds in return. Out of nowhere, a cat-bus appears. Totoro boards in and leaves. Shortly after, the girls’ father arrives.
Satsuki and Mei plant the seeds that Totoro gave them. A couple of days after, Totoro and the other spirits appear at the girls’ backyard. They start dancing around the planted seeds. Slowly, the seeds grow into plants that later become a giant tree. Totoro takes the girls for a ride. The next morning, the giant tree is not there, but the seeds have sprouted.
The sisters find out that the hospital changed their mother’s discharge date. Yasuko won’t be able to come back because her treatment is taking longer than expected. The news leave Mei very upset. After arguing with her sister, Mei leaves the village. She wants to head to the hospital (all by herself) and bring some fresh corn to her mother.
Mei’s disappearance causes panic in the village. Satsuki and the neighbors join efforts to look for Mei. Desperate, Satsuki heads to the sacred tree and asks for Totoro’s help. The spirit shows up and summons the cat-bus to help Satsuki. The girls reunite and then, the cat-bus takes them to Yasuko’s hospital.
At the hospital, the girls overhear their parents talking about Yasuko’s health. Apparently, the girls’ mother has a minor cold, but aside from that, she’s feeling fairly well. Satsuki and Mei leave the fresh corn at their mother’s window and leave discretely.
In the end, Yasuko is able to return home. The girls are playing with other children, while the spirits watch them far away.
My Neighbor Totoro – Ending Explained
Was Totoro real? Or did the girls imagine the whole thing? Those are the two big questions of My Neighbor Totoro. So, there are two major theories circulating out there about the ending of My Neighbor Totoro.
The first theory is kind of morbid. After Mei ran away, she got lost in the woods and Satsuki never found her little sister (ever again). In other words, Mei never returned home, as she died. In addition, Yasuko was suffering from a terminal illness instead of a minor cold as shown in the film. Satsuki was going to eventually lose her mother as well. Therefore, the whole story was just a product of Satsuki’s imagination and her way to cope with the loss of her sister and her mother’s prolonged illness / eventual death.
Hold your tears for a second, because there’s a much more uplifting interpretation of the same ending, which I believe to be closer to Hayao Miyazaki’s original intent with My Neighbor Totoro. The second theory: Totoro is real. In the end, Satsuki finds Mei and the girls’ mother is okay. That sounds nice, but is there evidence in the film that Totoro is real? Yes, there are three pivotal moments that points towards the existence of magic: when the seeds sprout, when Satsuki finds Mei in the woods and when the sisters are sitting on a tree branch near the hospital.
When Satsuki offered Totoro an umbrella, he gave them a bag full of seeds as a token of his appreciation. The girls planted the seeds in their backyard, but nothing really happened until Totoro and his friends showed up. At that same night, the girls and the audience watch the seeds sprouting and turning into a giant tree. However, in the next morning there are no signs of it. Where did the giant tree go? Does that mean, no tree, no magic? Not necessarily. The seeds sprouted, which didn’t happened before Totoro’s appearance. In addition, the giant tree might not be a current reality, but rather a projection of the seeds’ true potential. The film is very keen on the idea that children see things that adults don’t.
After that heated argument, Mei ran away and somehow lost herself in the woods. The whole village was looking for her. Therefore, it seems very unlikely that Satsuki found Mei all by herself. She had help, Totoro helped Satsuki. By the way, once the girls reunited, it would impossible for them to just walk to the hospital. The cat-bus was the only way for the girls to get there in record time.
Now, let’s talk about that corn at the window sill. How did it get there? The cat-bus was definitely real. He helped the girls get to the hospital and flew close enough to the window for them to leave the fresh corn at the window sill.
Do we need more proof that Totoro is real? Hayao Miyazaki’s films often have this mystical / spiritual element to them. Therefore, it’s not very hard to accept the existence of a giant fluffy creature with magic powers. In addition, the director said himself that My Neighbor Totoro was inspired by his own childhood. Just like the film’s protagonists, Hayao also had to move to the countryside to be closer to the his mother’s hospital. She was hospitalized due to respiratory problems.
My Neighbor Totoro is one of those films that tickles the audience’s heart. On the surface, Satsuki and Mei seem to be two silly girls doing what regular children do, but in reality, it’s all a front. The girls are actually dealing with a lot.
Satsuki and Mei are happy children, but they are also coping with their mother’s illness. In addition, there’s also a lot of uncertainty because the sisters don’t know when their mother is going to get better and coming back home. Although the girls’ father is a loving and caring parent, Satsuki and Mei can’t help to miss their mother.
Aside from their mother’s health condition, the girls had to move to a completely new town. In other words, Satsuki and Mei are living in a completely unfamiliar environment with no friends. Fortunately, the girls end up adapting well and eventually make new friends. Having said that, whether the audience finds Totoro real or not, his existence in the film definitely alleviates some of the heavy stuff that Satsuki and Mei are going through.
The funny thing about Totoro is that he looks adorable and threatening at the same time. A fine example of this contrast is the bus stop scene. The sight a creature with huge claws is not inviting at all. As matter of fact, when Satsuki met Totoro, there was a brief moment of fear because she didn’t know who he was. However, when Totoro started playing with the umbrella, Satsuki warmed up to him.
Overall, My Neighbor Totoro is a film that evokes a strong sense of nostalgia, especially for those who still remember their childhood. In a way, the audience is also discovering that magical world together with Satsuki and Mei. Once again, Hayao Miyazaki never disappoints and created here another heart-warming story that makes people wish they could meet a magical being like Totoro in real life.