‘My Neighbor Totoro,’ an anime ode to spirits and nature


Before winning the Oscar for Best Animated Film with his 2023 masterpiece, “The Boy and the Heron,” Hayao Miyazaki had long been celebrated as a genius and the leading figure in Japanese animated cinema. The opportunity to see another Miyazaki treasure on the big screen is happening right here in Chestnut Hill. To the delight of Miyazaki fans, Studio Ghibli, and anime enthusiasts, Woodmere Art Museum is hosting a free screening of Miyazaki's influential 1988 film, ‘My Neighbor Totoro,’ as part of their Tuesday Nights at the Movies series on April 9. 

Set against the backdrop of postwar Japan, “My Neighbor Totoro” follows two young sisters, Satsuki and Mei, as they move to the countryside with their father while their mother recovers from an illness. Mei, the younger sister, stumbles into a magical world existing alongside our own but hidden from the eyes of adults, a world where the forest spirit, Totoro, rides on the wind, makes plants grow, and travels via Catbus.

There is a deep reverence for nature in “My Neighbor Totoro” that is present in all Miyazaki’s films. His films are imbued with the Shinto belief that inanimate objects like rocks, places like mountains or rivers, vegetation, especially large or old trees, and even weather systems have a spirit or soul within them. These spirits are called kami in the Shinto religion. Kami has no perfect English translation but can be thought of as anthropomorphic nature spirits or deities that inspire awe or a sense of the sacred. The creature Totoro is a kami.

Like nature itself, these spirits are neither good nor bad, but people may ask for their blessings or benevolence and may receive it if they treat the kami and the nature it calls home with respect and reverence. Kami often have shrines built for them for prayer, honoring, and offerings, and may be celebrated at festivals. Totoro is a lesson in this reverence and care for the natural world.

The other magical creatures in Satsuki and Mei’s new rural home, including spirits that inhabit abandoned houses, smaller types of Totoro, and a magical cat bus, surprise the children but are also taken with a sense of aplomb. A belief in kami has deep roots in Japanese culture. The fantastical is also brought into our reality through Miyazaki’s lush landscapes and meticulous attention to detail. His animation style is famous for its ability to evoke awe, inviting viewers to contemplate the divine in what they see and experience. His Japanese countryside evokes nostalgia and longing, and he is known for his commitment to portraying childhood with authenticity and sincerity.

It's Satsuki and Mei’s curiosity and capacity for wonder that leads them to discover magical creatures, yet because of their mother's illness, the girls must also navigate difficult challenges, develop resilience, and accept the help of their new community.

Miyazaki’s films run the gamut of topics, from the adventures of a gentleman thief to post-apocalyptic princesses to witches to war to biopics on Japanese aircraft designers. But they all possess repeating themes: curses, sacrifice, anti-war sentiments, and reverence for the natural world. Strong female protagonists and feminist themes are common, depicting brave but realistically vulnerable girls who stand up for their beliefs. 

Perhaps this is why Miyasaki’s films transcend cultural boundaries, and touch such a deep vein in our cultural psyche. His films have inspired people to dress up as characters from his films and get tattoos inspired by his movies indelibly inked on their bodies. His animation is being shown as art in museums and there is even a Studio Ghibli theme park in Japan, named for the animation studio he co-founded, where visitors can play in a forest inspired by Totoro.

Come see “My Neighbor Totoro" again or for the first time. Be transported to a world where the mundane and the magical coexist in harmony.  Doors open at 6:30 p.m. and the film begins at 7. Light refreshments are served before the film and admission is free.