The Looking Glass : New Perspectives on Children's Literature, Vol 10, No 2 (2006)

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Alice's Academy


Walking Along With Nature: A Psychological Interpretation of My Neighbor Totoro

Rieko Okuhara


Rieko Okuhara is a student in the graduate program in clinical psychology at Toyo Eiwa University and Graduate School in Japan, focusing mainly on Jungian psychology and psychotherapy. The subject of her master's thesis is psychotherapy and fairy tales. She received a master's degree in children's literature from Hollins University in 2003. Her graduate thesis was titled The Shining Princess and Other Subversive Japanese Heroines. Her areas of interest include fairy tales of the world, girls' books, fantasy, and Shakespearean plays. She previously published " 'Deja lu or deja entendu'?: Comparing a Japanese Fairy Tale with European Tales" in The Lion and the Unicorn 24 (2000). Her latest essay on a popular Japanese anime, Dragon Ball, will appear in The Japanification of Children's Popular Culture: From Godzilla to Spirited Away, edited by Mark West (Scarecrow Press, 2005). She is a member of the Children's Literature Association and the Phi Beta Kappa Society. Now she is excited to introduce her mother's favorite film to a wider audience, especially experts of children's literature.


Rieko Okuhara uses the famous film My Neighbor Totoro to provide a snapshot of contemporary Japanese society while also delving into the film's increasingly global popularity. I'm sure readers will find this article thought-provoking, especially when considering other Miyazaki films or current Japanese children's literature in all its forms.
(Elizabeth Pandolfo Briggs, editor, Alice's Academy)


 

My Neighbor Totoro (Tonari no Totoro), one of the most beloved animated films in Japan, is my mother's favorite film. Somehow many adults, especially mothers, love this film, although it attracts its original target audience of young children as well. Some say that the film only appeals to adults' nostalgia for a past era. Others say that the film's popularity has to do with environmental issues, since it shows the beauty of nature and calls on people's longing for Mother Nature. When My Neighbor Totoro , directed by Hayao Miyazaki, came out in 1988, the public treated it only as a "child pleaser" [1]. Yet Japanese people soon realized that My Neighbor Totoro was something more; it is actually a thought-provoking film. It is now considered one of the most acclaimed films for children and adults. The Totoro figure even represents Studio Ghibli, the animation studio that has produced most of Miyazaki's films, as part of its logo.

Why did My Neighbor Totoro capture the hearts of the Japanese people, including my mother, so strongly? So popular in Japan is My Neighbor Totoro that people say every Japanese family owns a copy and that every Japanese child knows Totoro. On the surface, the story is quite simple and easy to follow. The cute cuddly characters seem universally appealing. Adults may be reliving cherished childhood memories, for the film takes place in a village in Japan and portrays the post-World War II countryside in detail. But is its adult appeal just nostalgia for the forgotten days of long ago?

In this paper, I attempt a psychological interpretation of My Neighbor Totoro to lead readers to a better understanding of contemporary Japanese society and to explain the film's wide-ranging appeal. When thoroughly studied from a psychological perspective, My Neighbor Totoro includes not just entertainment and nostalgia, but also dreams, beliefs, folk tales, and archetypes central to contemporary Japanese culture. Shinichi Tanaka, a clinical psychologist and a professor of psychology, has already studied the symbolism of Totoro, the spirit of nature, from a psychological perspective, focusing on motherhood and object loss and comparing Totoro with the monsters in Where the Wild Things Are, in "My Neighbor Totoro and Children's Fantasy" ("Tonari no Totoro to Kodomo no Fantasy"). Tanaka argues that Totoro appeals to young children because the film shows the sort of psychological challenges that children face when growing up. Tanaka's conclusion that Totoro plays the role of mother—both good mother and bad mother—during the mother's absence from home skillfully explains the reason for the popularity of the film. Yet Tanaka's essay only studies Totoro; there is another character to be studied, Mei, the little girl who is the human protagonist in the film. Mei acts not only as the guide through Totoro's world but also as the child archetype in this film. By looking at the film from Mei's perspective, one will glimpse the "real" Japan, and find hints that aid in understanding the people and society of Japan.

At first glance the story of My Neighbor Totoro seems to be just a children's fantasy. Eleven-year-old Satsuki and four-year-old Mei move into an old house in the country outside Tokyo [2]. Neighborhood children call the house "Haunted House" ("Obake Yashiki") because it is so old that it looks like some ghosts or monsters may be living in it [3]. The girls' father, Professor Kusakabe, though busy with work, loves his children and cares for them in place of their mother, who is recovering from an illness at a nearby hospital. One day Mei meets spirits of nature, and decides to name a large one, presumably the master of the nearby forest, "Totoro" — a mispronunciation of "troll". Satsuki doubts the existence of Totoro and his friends at first, but she believes in her sister and meets the spirits later. As Satsuki and Mei spend more time with Totoro and his forest friends, they all become friends. A few months later, Satsuki learns that their mother is not well and Mei, seeing her sister crying, decides to take a fresh ear of corn to her mother in the belief that a fresh vegetable will make her mother strong and well. Mei heads out alone to the hospital on foot, but soon gets lost. Satsuki asks Totoro for help, and finds Mei with the help of Totoro and his friend, Catbus. Mei and Satsuki accept Catbus's offer to help them further, and they deliver the ear of corn to the hospital and return home safely.

The lovable features of the characters are a major reason for the popularity of the film. Totoro and his friends are furry and look like stuffed animals. Totoro, or Big Totoro (Oh Totoro), is the main advertising icon for Studio Ghibli, and products featuring Totoro are popular among both children and adults. Medium Totoro (Chu Totoro), Little Totoro (Chibi Totoro), Catbus (Neko Basu), and Mei are also favorite characters of My Neighbor Totoro fans. Catbus is not really "cute" per se; he strongly recalls the Cheshire Cat from Alice in Wonderland with his big grin. Tanaka compares Catbus with a Japanese cat monster (bake neko) because of his big eyes that see through the dark and his big mouth that lets out a horrifying noise. Yet fans find Catbus adorable and enjoy the humor in the way he runs on narrow electric cables and jumps over trees. The fantasy world where Totoro and his friends belong appears almost dream-like, and Mei and Satsuki wonder several times if Totoro and his friends live in their dream world. The creatures' amiable woolly features make the children wonder even more if all the spirits are characters from their dreams. In one scene, the sisters describe the night they spend with the spirits as "a dream, but not a dream", which is exactly how they experience their time with the spirits of nature. It is easy to understand how the adorable features and comic actions of these animal-like spirits make them everyone's favorites, but this does not explain why Mei is considered a favorite character. Mei seems to have something special that appeals to adults and children, which is not clear at first glance.

One way of looking at My Neighbor Totoro is to view the film as Miyazaki exercising his nostalgia for his childhood. The film presumably takes place in Tokorozawa, Saitama, around 1955 [4]. Miyazaki, who lives in Tokorozawa, came up with the idea of "Totoro", a spirit of "Tokoro"-zawa. Miyazaki, who was born in Tokyo in 1941 and spent part of his childhood in Saitama, beautifully captures the scenery and culture of Japan around 1955. Nature is sketched so accurately that the scenery looks almost like a photograph. It is easy to imagine Kanta, Satsuki's neighbor and classmate whose first love is Satsuki, as a projection of Miyazaki himself, who was barely a teenager around 1955. My mother, who was then about five, and my father, who was about fifteen, find the film plausible; naturally, my mother sympathizes with Mei, my father with Kanta. As a child growing up during World War II, not all of Miyazaki's childhood memories would have been beautiful. Possibly Miyazaki was idealizing his unforgettable childhood memories through this film. Thus many people of my parents' generation find the film nostalgic and sympathize with the characters. Little Mei especially symbolizes the beauty of childhood memories and innocence.

Nevertheless, it hardly seems plausible that one man's nostalgia could attract such a large audience, even for his accurate depiction of a 1950s childhood. Miyazaki actually warns the viewers not to interpret the film as mere nostalgia. The era the film recalls is a true one; Miyazaki simply portrays the life of the 1950s without exaggeration. In My Neighbor Totoro, children must help their parents all day with little time left to play around. Houses are shabby and foods are simple. The film truthfully shows the sort of humble life people lived in the post-World War II era. Yet the film reminds the Japanese viewers of what they have lost. When Mei is missing, all the neighbors gather around to look for her, worried about her and anxious to find her. Nowadays, in urban areas of Japan, people generally do not even know their neighbors, much less care about each other. The beautiful depiction of nature also reminds the Japanese viewers of what they have lost amid today's sweeping tide of modernization. My Neighbor Totoro does not idealize the 1950s; it only emphasizes the shift in Japanese values.

Interpreting My Neighbor Totoro in a strictly Jungian way as a product of unconscious fantasy-activity reveals something that strikes a chord with Japanese people. Carl G. Jung explains in "The Psychology of the Child Archetype" in Essays on a Science of Mythology: The Myth of the Divine Child and the Mysteries of Eleusis — he published this book with Karl Kerényi, one of the founders of modern studies in Greek mythology — that the products of unconscious fantasy-activity can be interpreted "as self-portraits of what is going on in the unconscious, or as statements of the unconscious psyche about itself" (74). Jung continues that fantasies fall into two categories: "fantasies... of a personal character" that "go back to personal experiences, things forgotten or repressed," and "fantasies... of an impersonal character" that "cannot be reduced to experiences in the individual's past", which he calls the collective unconscious (74). My Neighbor Totoro is fantasy of an impersonal character that "cannot be reduced to experiences in the individual's past". The film includes certain collective structural elements of Japanese culture, like folk tales, which resonate with Japanese people.

My Neighbor Totoro has become a major Japanese classic because Mei is an ordinary Japanese child with whom Japanese children can empathize, yet she also represents the innocence of childhood and the child archetype as described by Jung (Jung named the common basic types in the expressions of the collective unconscious of human beings archetypes). Archetypes reveal themselves only through metaphors, which one finds often in literature, especially in folk tales and children's literature. Folk tales use archetypes with little elaboration, which is why one finds such full meaning in short, simple tales. Mei is like the characters of Jack and Hans from European folk tales with whom anyone can empathize, regardless of sex, nationality, or age.

Also known as the Divine Child, the child archetype is part of a pattern related to the hope and promise for new beginnings. In an article in Essays on a Science of Mythology: The Myth of the Divine Child and the Mysteries of Eleusis, "The Primordial Child in Primordial Times", Kerényi explains that in myths child gods are as important as adult gods and that they represent the coming of a new possibility. Jung understood the presence of the Divine Child in the psyche through the myths of child gods. Jung's research led him to believe that the child archetype significantly influences the individuation process. The Divine Child symbolizes spiritual growth: the true spiritual self that is capable of great transformations. Jung lists futurity as one of the essential features of the child motif in "The Psychology of the Child Archetype" (83). The child is a potential future and a symbol that unites the opposites. The "Christ-child," for instance, is a manifestation of the child archetype and represents the future, rebirth, and salvation. The child symbolizes the wholeness, which Jung calls the "self", and the synthesis of the self becomes the goal of the individuation process.

The special phenomenology of the child archetype, which Jung lists in the same essay, corresponds to Mei's situation and qualities: abandonment, invincibility, hermaphroditism, beginnings, and endings. Like the child who is cut off from its mother's care, abandoned or orphaned, Mei has to live away from her sick mother. Tanaka interprets Mei's separation from her mother as object loss. Separated or even isolated from her background, Mei begins to evolve toward independence during the film, and Mother Nature welcomes her. Mei, who has followed her elder sister even to school, becomes more independent after meeting Totoro, the spirit of nature. Mei's independence symbolizes individuation; now she is capable of acting on her own with no need to imitate her elder sister. Mei's growth necessitated her separation from her mother and sister. Only out of this abandoned situation can the child emerge as a symbolic figure. Mei's individuation shows the possibility and hope for the future.

Mei appears as a child of nature even before the story begins. In the very beginning of the film, the viewer sees Mei walking across the screen over and over, surrounded by nature, with the song titled "A Walk" ("Sanpo") playing in the background. The song praises nature and welcomes natural life forms as friends. Clearly this song belongs to Mei, and she is the one who praises the wonder of nature and welcomes natural life forms as her friends. The old house where the Kusakabe family lives is not a fancy house that will impress adults, but nature embraces it. The house stands beside a small forest, in the middle of which a big camphor tree stands as if to guard the old house and its residents. The father imagines that Totoro is the spirit of the forest that protects the house, but Tanaka's interpretation gives Totoro a broader character and shows the elements as the spirit of nature. In the story, Mei is often left alone to play on her own, but she is always happy playing with and among nature. Mother Nature protects and cares Mei as her child. Tanaka understands that Totoro, as a mother, cares for Mei and Satsuki. As Tanaka points out, Totoro, in place of their mother and as the visible spirit of nature, offers the girls the security that they most need.

The second characteristic of the child archetype is that he or she is both invincible and vulnerable at the same time. While the child is in peril of death, he or she can master transcendental power beyond humans' understanding. In other words, the child is simultaneously invincible and vulnerable of all. In "The Psychology of the Child Archetype", Jung refers to the "Christ-child" who is, in the legend of Saint Christopher, "smaller than small and bigger than big" (77). Mei resembles the Christ-child after she meets Totoro.

Totoro, the resident of the forest and the spirit of nature, is a complicated and symbolic figure, with many different roles. In Mei's eyes, Totoro appears like a fantastic friend, a monster, and an unknown character. Totoro is about ten times as big as Mei, but she is never afraid of him. Tanaka, in his essay, points out Totoro's resemblance to the monsters from Where the Wild Things Are, both in appearance and character. According to Tanaka, as conquering the monsters means independence to Max, conquering Totoro means independence to Mei and Satsuki. The first time Mei meets Totoro, she unreservedly climbs onto its belly and introduces herself to him. Names are significant in fantasy and folk tales, and Mei seems to understand this rule. After Mei introduces herself to Totoro, she asks his name. The spirit of nature seems to approve of the little girl who knows the importance of naming and to decide to trust her: he tells her his name without hesitation. Mei and the spirit of nature interact as equals. Eventually Mei, still on top of Totoro's belly, falls asleep. Alone with a huge creature, Mei is able to relax and use her power over it. Clearly, Mei appears as the Divine Child who is equal to the spirits of nature and possesses the power to bridge the real and fantasy world.

In comparison, Mei is vulnerable in the real world, incapable of defending herself from danger. Mei is completely helpless when she loses her way to the hospital; all she can do is to cry for her elder sister. Yet Mei never loses her precious gift of corn for her mother. The conversation Mei and Satsuki had a few days before the hospital canceled their mother's homecoming motivates Mei's actions. The sisters talked with an old woman, who lives next door and takes care of the children. The old woman has explained that the vegetables she grows enjoy the blessings of the sun so much that they are good both for the body and the soul. The girls' mother was supposed to come home by the end of the week and they had planned to "fatten her up" on the old woman's vegetables. Just then the telegram arrives informing the family that the hospital has cancelled the mother's homecoming. Mei probably knows more than anyone else that she and the vegetables have the power to heal and she knows when to use it; she needs no one to tell her why or how, because she just knows it. When she overhears of her mother's danger, Mei decides to risk her life in order to save her mother. Mei's decision makes her vulnerable.

Jung points out that the majority of cosmogonic gods are of a bisexual nature (92). Unlike Mei, who fully enjoys her childhood, her elder sister is about to enter womanhood. Satsuki resembles Wendy in Peter Pan, who must work to believe in Peter, while her younger brothers have no problem believing in Neverland. As for Mei, she never questions the existence of Totoro, like Lucy in the Chronicles of Narnia, and unlike Satsuki whose position is similar to that of Peter and Susan who eventually become too old to enter the world of Narnia while their younger siblings are still able to go there. Mei's very age makes her hermaphroditic.

Mei stands between the real world and the fantasy world and plays an important role in bridging the two worlds. In the beginning of the story, Mei is the only one who is able to see Totoro and his friends. The father—almost like a Wise Old Man, another archetype figure—seems to understand the rules of the gods' world and explains them to his children. Without the mother, the Kusakabe family is split: Satsuki goes to school; the father remains at home but busy with work; and Mei is left alone to play. Mei first enters Totoro's fantasy world in a solitary time while playing alone in the backyard. Mei sees Medium Totoro and Little Totoro, and while following them, drops through a hole under the big camphor tree, as Alice does when she follows the Rabbit and enters Wonderland. Mei ends up falling right in front of Big Totoro, who is comfortably sleeping. It appears as if someone—probably Big Totoro himself—has invited Mei into the fantasy world. Awakened by the little girl, he appears to be startled not by her presence but by her audacity. Mei's seclusion has led to Totoro's invitation to his world; the child archetype acquires the protection of nature, alone and away from motherly care. Mei's entrance into the fantasy world reminds the audience of the beauty and splendor of nature, which the present generation seems to have forgotten.

Only Mei can combine opposites: the real and fantasy worlds, the city and the village, manliness and womanliness, human beings and nature, the conscious and the unconscious. In other words, the child archetype resolves the conflict of opposites and creates a new element. Thus Mei becomes the symbol of unity, and the unity of personality is wholeness, the self. Jung explains that "Wholeness consists in the union of the conscious and the unconscious personality" (95). Mei's growth represents not only her personal growth but also the progression of all human beings.

The child comes in the very beginning of life. Yet the child also symbolizes the rebirth of a new child; before the rebirth, death must come. The child archetype is an initial and a terminal creature, and represents the process of death and rebirth. When Mei sets out to the hospital to heal her mother, her family loses her for a period of time. The finding of the lost child symbolizes the rebirth of Mei. For Satsuki, finding Mei also means the rediscovery of her childhood. In the embrace of Satsuki and Mei, one witnesses the outcome of Mei's death and rebirth. The child has combined the opposites, and the spirits are the witnesses to the event. The film ends with the happy smiles of people holding and hugging Mei and the spirits of nature looking over the cheerful scene from the top of the big camphor tree. Mei's coming home completes a stage in the progression of human beings.

The scenes during the credits are significant and suggestive. The first shot is the scene in which Mei and Satsuki welcome their mother home from the hospital. One can easily imagine that the ear of corn Mei delivered to her mother finally healed her. In many of the following scenes, the audience sees Mei playing together with her sister and other children. Somehow Mei is changed; she is one of the playmates, not following and imitating her sister anymore. In one scene, Mei is in charge of the playground and leading other younger children. Mei has grown after her great adventure. Mei is still a child, but she represents a new beginning for the Kusakabe family, the village, and the human world as she teaches the viewer how to live side by side with nature and community.

Thus Mei, the archetypal child, completes all the tasks given to her. Mei leads the Kusakabe family, the village, and the human world to a new beginning. Mei, as the child archetype, symbolizes the future, rebirth, and salvation. Through Mei, the audience witnesses the spiritual growth and the individuation of human beings. This simple children's film contains a message to all human beings; one needs to coexist with nature. A primary theme of Miyazaki's films is the question of nature versus industry. Miyazaki's first major film, Nausicaä of the Valley of Wind (Kaze no Tani no Naushika), and the famous Princess Mononoke (Mononoke Hime) deal with the disruption of nature. Laputa: The Castle in the Sky (Tenkuu no Shiro Rapyuta), which came out between Nausicaä of the Valley of Wind and My Neighbor Totoro, also talks about the danger of industrialization and the importance of living in harmony with nature. Mei as the archetypal child is the guide to the world of nature. Through Mei the audience understands that human beings today lack love and nature.

There are still many elements, themes, and motifs left to be discussed, such as Satsuki's adventure, sexuality, and religious motifs that show up throughout the film. Yet Mei as the child archetype gives the audience clues to understand the world of Japan. "We brought what you left behind" ("wasuremono wo todokenikimashita") was the tagline on the film when it first came out. Mei brings back what human beings, especially Japanese people, have left behind. Mei reminds the audience that people used to love and care for each other like one big family, and that they used to coexist with nature as well as with neighbors.

The child archetype also speaks for the "inner child"--the part of a person that never grows up and is in need of love, comfort, and reassurance. Mei is that part of the self that one has left behind or forgotten; she brings back the lost child to adults. Young children also feel that Mei speaks for their inner child. Today children are expected to grow up quickly in Japan. Violence against children is no longer a rare or unheard-of occurrence. Society has changed, but children themselves have not changed. Mei brings childhood back to children who have been robbed of it too early. Miyazaki said during an interview that he wants to let children know that there are many interesting things--good things and beautiful things--out there, not in his films but beyond his films. The world of My Neighbor Totoro reveals what both children and adults truly long for.

Notes

1. Miyazaki, the famous director of Princess Mononoke (Mononoke Hime) and Spirited Away (Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi), is now one of the most acclaimed directors of animated films in the world. Miyazaki's name became well-known in Japan when Nausicaä of the Valley of Wind (Kaze no Tani no Naushika) made waves at the box office in 1984, thirteen years before international critics and film distributors acknowledged Princess Mononoke. Miyazaki has won the Golden Bear award at the 2002 Berlin International Film Festival and an Oscar in 2003 for the best animated feature for Spirited Away, and the Honorary Golden Lion award for professional achievements at the sixty-second Venice International Film Festival in 2005.

2. The girls' names, Mei—pronounced "May"—and Satsuki, both mean the month May. From the children's clothes and the scenery, it can be assumed that the story begins in May or June and ends in August.

3. "Obake" means something that is transformed, usually referring to both monsters and ghosts. When humans turn into something inhuman, such as monsters and ghosts, they are called "obake." When referring specifically ghosts, one uses the word "yurei," but when referring to all sorts of monsters and ghosts, one uses the word "obake". In My Neighbor Totoro, children tease Mei and Satsuki because their old house looks as if something inhuman may be living in it.

4. According to the residents in Tokorozawa, the names of areas in the film are parodies of the names of actual areas in Tokorozawa. Yet Miyazaki also expects the film to have a certain generic Japanese feel to the setting.

Works Cited

Jung, C.G., and C. Kerényi. Essays on a Science of Mythology: The Myth of the Divine Child and the Mysteries of Eleusis. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1963.

NTV. Interview with Hayao Miyazaki. The Wide. Nippon Television Network Co. 9 Sep. 2005.

Tanaka, Shinichi. "My Neighbor Totoro and Children's Fantasy ( "Tonari no Totoro to Kodomo no Fantasy"). Tokyo Kokusai Daigaku Rongi Ningen Shakai Gakubu Hen 1 (1995): 49-58.

Works Consulted

Ashiya Internet Club. The World of Studio Ghibli (Sutajio Jiburi no Sekai). http://www.aic.gr.jp/anime/ghibli/

Jung, C.G., and C. Kerényi. Essays on a Science of Mythology: The Myth of the Divine Child and the Mysteries of Eleusis. Trans. R.F. C. Hull. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1963.

Koinuma, Noriaki. Homepage by Koinuma of Tokorozawa (Tokorozawa no Koinuma no Homepage). http://homepage1.nifty.com/hisui/toko01.htm

NTV. Interview with Hayao Miyazaki. The Wide. Nippon Television Network Co. 9 Sep. 2005.

Okuhara, Rieko. " 'Déjà lu or déjà entendu'?: Comparing a Japanese Fairy Tale with European Tales". The Lion and the Unicorn 24 (2000): 188-200.

Ooka, Minami. Website for My Neighbor Totoro (Tonari no Totoro no Peji). http://www.geocities.jp/ookaminami/totoro.html

Tanaka, Shinichi. "My Neighbor Totoro and Children's Fantasy " ("Tonari no Totoro to Kodomo no Fantasy"). Tokyo Kokusai Daigaku Rongi Ningen Shakai Gakubu Hen 1 (1995): 49-58.

A Team Ghiblink Production. The Hayao Miyazaki Web. http://www.nausicaa.net/miyazaki/

Yato. Studio Ghibli Fan Site—Kurobuta Tei. http://www.mars.dti.ne.jp/~yato/ghibli/ghibli.htm

 

Rieko Okuhara


Volume 10, Issue 2 The Looking Glass 2 April, 2006

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"Walking Along With Nature: A Psychological Interpretation of My Neighbor Totoro "
© Rieko Okuhara, 2006.
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The Looking Glass: new perspectives on children's literature

ISBN 1551-5680