My Neighbor Totoro is one of those rare films that both children and adults find enchanting. The Studio Ghibli production, which was written and directed by legendary animator Hayao Miyazaki, debuted in Japan in 1988 under the title Tonari no Totoro before making its way to the U.S.
The English dubbed version features real-life sisters Dakota and Elle Fanning as the voices of sisters Satsuki and Mei, who uncover a world of forest spirits and curious creatures when they move to the Japanese countryside with their father. Here are some things you might not know about this magical movie.
1. The idea for the film was initially rejected.
Hayao Miyazaki has been called the “Walt Disney of Japan” for his impressive oeuvre, which includes Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989), Princess Mononoke (1997), and Academy Award-winning Spirited Away (2001). However, Miyazaki was still making a name for himself back in the early '80s, and his initial pitch for My Neighbor Totoro was rejected by the Tokuma Shoten Publishing Co.
Miyazaki and producer Toshio Suzuki tried again in 1987, but the financiers and distribution executives “didn’t think the furry giant could take off, literally or figuratively,” wrote Maureen Furniss in Animation: Art and Industry. “Distributors simply didn’t believe there was an audience for a story about two little girls and a monster in modern Japan.”
The setting—rural Japan in the 1950s—was also problematic. Miyazaki's previous feature films were set in fictional or unidentified places, and My Neighbor Totoro was the first one to take place in Japan. "Back then, a story without a hero or a girl with superpowers, and the ordinary Japanese scenery as a backdrop, was not considered entertaining enough," Miyazaki said in an interview featured in the 30th anniversary edition Blu-ray. "Entertainment back then was all about guns, action, and speed. I wanted my movie to be peaceful, tranquil, and innocent. I wanted to create that kind of world. Also, I wanted to prove that a movie like this could be successful.”
2. It was a box office flop.
In order to win over financiers, Suzuki suggested that My Neighbor Totoro be shown alongside another Studio Ghibli film—Grave of the Fireflies—as a double feature. The latter film was being backed by publisher Shinchosha, which at the time was more established than Tokuma Shoten, the publisher that funded My Neighbor Totoro. This idea was ultimately approved, and the two films premiered together in 1988. My Neighbor Totoro didn't become a commercial success until it made its way to Japanese television, though.
"Out of all the movies made by Ghibli, Totoro had the worst opening box office," Suzuki said in the anniversary DVD. "A year later, it aired on TV. When it aired on NTV, the ratings went off the chart.”
3. Totoro is a mispronunciation of the Japanese word for troll.
The word for troll is pronounced tororu in Japanese, which sounds similar to what Mei calls the fluffy forest creature she encounters. When Mei tells her sister what she saw, Satsuki asks if she’s talking about the troll in one of their books, and Mei nods. This doesn’t make quite as much sense in English (because troll and Totoro sound different), but it starts to come together when the movie’s closing credits roll. Their mother can be seen reading them the fairy tale Three Billy Goats Gruff, which, if you recall, contains a troll character. For this reason, it’s believed to be the book that Mei refers to. However, as Miyazaki wrote in The Art of My Neighbor Totoro, "[Totoro] is the name that our protagonist, the four-year-old Mei, gives these creatures. No one knows what their real name is."
4. The film's setting was inspired by the beautiful area where Miyazaki lived.
The movie is set about an hour's drive from Tokyo in Sayama Hills, Tokorozawa, where Miyazaki owns a home. Miyazaki frequently strolled around the town and took in the lush scenery, which inspired much of the film's backdrop. "If I didn't live in Tokorozawa, Totoro would never have been born," Suzuki quoted Miyazaki as saying, according to Comicbook.com. The area is now nicknamed "Totoro Forest," and fans can visit a Totoro statue inside the House of Kurosuke, which looks similar to the one featured in the movie.
5. Some scenes were nearly removed for the U.S. market.
In one scene in the film, Mei, Satsuki, and their father are seen bathing together in a large round tub. U.S. companies wanted to remove this scene—and another showing the girls jumping on tatami mats—because they felt they “were unlikely to be understood by American audiences,” according to Furniss. However, Studio Ghibli insisted on keeping the movie as is, with no edits.
6. Fans have noticed similarities to Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.
Viewers have noticed a few uncanny similarities between My Neighbor Totoro and Lewis Carroll’s fantastical 1865 novel (which was later animated by Disney in 1951). The scene of Mei running after a small, white Totoro and ultimately falling down a hole inside the camphor tree brings to mind the famous chase and rabbit hole imagery in Alice in Wonderland. Some have also drawn comparisons between the Catbus and the Cheshire Cat’s grin, but Miyazaki denied modeling it after Carroll's character.
"I do like the Cheshire Cat, but there’s no influence from it," Miyazaki said in the anniversary DVD. "When I had to come up with some kind of monster bus, I thought about the shape-shifting cat from Japanese folklore, so I just made a cat shape-shift into a bus. And that was that.”
7. Studio Ghibli has debunked some of the darker fan theories.
According to different variations of the same fan theory, Mei is actually dead in the movie and Totoro is the God of Death. Proponents of this theory point to different “clues,” like the fact that a sandal is found in a pond (suggesting that Mei drowned) and the absence of shadows in a scene toward the end of the movie when the two sisters are seen together. Others have said the movie is based on The Sayama Incident, an urban legend involving the deaths of two sisters from Sayama Hills. However, Studio Ghibli released a statement to put these theories to rest.
“Everyone, do not worry,” Studio Ghibli reportedly said. “There’s absolutely no truth [to the theory] that Totoro is the God of Death or that Mei is dead in My Neighbor Totoro.” The actual explanation for the lack of shadows is more mundane: The animators simply didn’t deem shadows necessary for the scene in question, according to the studio.
8. Shinto philosophy underscores the movie.
Subtle allusions to Shinto, an ancient animistic belief in which nature is revered in all its forms, are sprinkled throughout the film. According to this philosophy, everything has a spirit. In one scene, Mei and Satsuki's father tells them that trees and humans used to be friends long ago. He tells the girls to give the big tree in their backyard a "nice greeting," then bows to it and thanks it for protecting Mei. Of course, most central to the story is Totoro himself, who can be interpreted as the spirit of the forest.
9. Totoro has a cameo in Toy Story 3.
My Neighbor Totoro’s influence has been far-reaching—so much so that the titular character has appeared in TV series and films beyond Studio Ghibli. He was worked into episodes of South Park, The Powerpuff Girls, and Bob’s Burgers (well, sort of). Perhaps most famously, he was one of the toys in Toy Story 3. While it looks like we won’t ever get a sequel to My Neighbor Totoro, at least we can enjoy these playful extensions of the Ghibli universe.