A Review of “My Neighbor Totoro”: Story Explained and Analysis

This post includes a brief plot summary, an analysis and an explanation about the ending of the film My Neighbor Totoro / Tonari no Totoro (1988). Beware of spoilers.


My Neighbor Totoro (DVD)

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Step into a realm where innocence reigns supreme and nature’s embrace holds untold wonders. “My Neighbor Totoro”, crafted by the visionary Hayao Miyazaki, invites us to wander through a world where the ordinary meets the extraordinary.

“My Neighbor Totoro” tells the story of two young sisters who step inside the heart of an enchanted forest.

Due to their mother’s health issues, Satsuki and Mei move to the countryside. While exploring their new residence, the sisters find little creatures wandering the dark corners of their house. They disappear for a while, but Mei spots them again. And of course, she had to follow them into the forest. In the process, Mei stumbles upon a big fluffy entity whom she names Totoro.

Mei’s absence worries Satsuki and their father, Tatsuo. They eventually find her, asleep inside the forest. When the little one wakes up from her long nap, she rushes to show where Totoro lives. But Mei can’t seem to find the place.

Totoro also becomes friends with Satsuki. She quickly warms up the creature with “scary claws”. Since it was raining heavily that night, Satsuki offered her father’s umbrella to Totoro. As a token of appreciation, the creature gifts her a bag of seeds. As Totoro leaves, Tatsuo arrives.

Satsuki and Mei plant the seeds that Totoro gave them, but nothing happens. After Totoro’s arrival, along with his “buddies”, the seeds eventually turn into a giant tree. When the girls wake up, the giant is gone, but the seeds have sprouted. Was it a dream?

While hanging out with Totoro was fun, the girls soon received some bad news: their mother, Yasuko, is not coming home. The hospital is not ready to discharge her. This, of course, leaves the girls very upset. They even get into a silly fight because of it. While trying to get some fresh corn for her mother, Mei gets lost in the woods.

Once again, Satsuki pleads for help, and the whole village comes together to find her missing sister. At this point, there are no signs of Mei. However, there is someone who can help: Totoro. The creature shows up and summons another spirit, a catbus, to find Mei. Shortly after, the girls have an emotional reunion. Then, the catbus takes them to their mother’s hospital.

The ending of “My Neighbor Totoro” reveals that the girls’ mother is doing well; she is recovering from a cold. Satsuki and Mei leave the hospital’s premises before their mother notices them. After a while, Yasuko returns home. The girls are playing with other children, while the spirits watch them far away.

Underneath the “cute story” lies a harsh reality: the girls are struggling with their mother’s absence and their new environment.

Satsuki and Mei are happy children, but they are also coping with their mother’s illness. Adding to their anxiety, there is a lot of uncertainty regarding their mother’s return. Despite having a very loving father, the girls can’t help but miss their mother.

Moving to a completely unfamiliar environment where they have no friends doesn’t make the girls’ situation any better. However, Satsuki and Mei end up adapting well. They even forge new friendships. Regardless of whether the audience thinks Totoro is real or not, his presence in the film lightens the weight of the challenges that Satsuki and Mei are facing.

The narrative of “My Neighbor Totoro” blends reality with fantasy, sparking debate regarding its ambiguous ending.

There are two main theories circulating around regarding what really happened at the end of “My Neighbor Totoro”. The first one is rather morbid, some viewers believe that Mei died in the forest. Meanwhile, other viewers have a more uplifting interpretation of the ending: the magic world “exists” and the girls are doing fine.

Since no one can see Totoro other than the girls, it’s understandable that the audience questions whether he is real or not. Some viewers believe that Mei ran away, got lost, and never returned (she died). Also, their mother had a terminal illness instead of the minor cold suggested in the film. This theory paints the entire story as a product of Satsuki’s imagination, her coping mechanism.

Hold your tears for a moment! The second theory has a much more heartening interpretation of the same ending. Personally, I believe this one is more aligned with Hayao Miyazaki’s original vision for “My Neighbor Totoro”.

In this scenario, Totoro is as real as it gets. In the end, Satsuki finds Mei, and their mother is in good health. This sounds delightful, but is there proof in the film that Totoro exists? There are three pivotal moments that point 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.

The giant tree might not be a current reality but rather a projection of the seeds’ true potential.

When Satsuki gifted Totoro an umbrella, he reciprocated with a bag of seeds. The girls planted these in their backyard, but nothing happened until Totoro and his friends arrived. In that scene, the audience witnesses the seeds sprouting into a colossal tree. Yet, when the girls wake up, no trace of it. Does that mean, no tree, no magic? Not necessarily. The seeds sprouted, which hadn’t happened before Totoro’s arrival.

“My Neighbor Totoro” is very keen on the idea that children see things that adults don’t.

After a heated fight, Mei ran away and somehow lost herself in the woods. The entire village was on the lookout for her, without any success. Therefore, it seems very unlikely that Satsuki found Mei all by herself. Totoro helped Satsuki find Mei. Once reunited, it would’ve been impossible for the girls to reach the hospital on foot. The cat-bus was the only way for them to get there in record time.

Need more evidence that Totoro is “real”? Miyazaki’s films frequently incorporate mystical elements, hence, it’s not that hard to accept the existence of a giant fluffy creature with magical powers. The director stated that “My Neighbor Totoro” was inspired by his childhood. Like the film’s protagonists, he relocated to the countryside to be nearer to his hospitalized mother, who suffered from respiratory issues.

Final Thoughts

“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 facade. The girls are actually dealing with a lot.

The funny thing about Totoro is that he looks adorable and threatening at the same time. Let’s be honest, there is nothing that screams friendly about a creature with huge claws. However, the audience, just like Satsuki and Mei, will quickly warm 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. Once again, Hayao Miyazaki never disappoints and has created another heartwarming story that makes people wish they could meet a magical being like Totoro in real life.