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The Creative Issue – News for Creatives | June 5, 2020

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Review: QAGOMA Cult Japan, My Neighbour Totoro (1988)

Review: QAGOMA Cult Japan, My Neighbour Totoro (1988)

| On 06, Aug 2015

My Neighbour Totoro, 1988 

Rated G

It is inconceivable to hold an event in honour of Japanese cinema without showcasing the works of Hayao Miyazaki. Out of all the Japanese directors, Miyazaki is most loved and of his films, My Neighbour Totoro the most beloved. For Australian audiences unfamiliar with Miyazaki’s works, in terms of popularity among their home country for making animated children’s movies, Miyazaki can be likened to Walt Disney. A comparison I find personally insulting to the talent and depth of Miyazaki’s art.  Disney’s works are built almost entirely off the one blue print, his characters are highly idealised and his stories interrupted with flowery ballads, and almost all are contained inside a romanticised patriarchal world.  If you go to a Disney movie, you know the outcome.  None of this is true of My Neighbour Totoro or any of Miyazaki’s films.

Two sisters, Mai and her older sister Satsuki move to the country with their dad, their primary carer. Their new home is full of spooky soot spreaders and is supposedly haunted, a plot line that is meant to contrast the anxieties children feel from not spending enough time amongst nature. As the father studiously works in his study simultaneously watching Mai, she wanders off into the woods where Alice in Wonderland style, she follows some little Totoros, tumbles down a tree hole and plops on top of the balloon bellied Totoro.


Despite his enormous size and toothiness – the animation is very toothy -, Totoro is the friendly, comical protector of the forest and of the children that innocently stray into its woods.  He is helped by the more skittish little Totoroes, who dip in and out of visibility suggesting that they are still learning to trust the little children as the big Totoro does, and a cheshire cat style bus. Mai’s father’s lack of parental supervision could be seen negatively, but he explains to the girls’ his belief that humans used to be friends with the trees so it could be assumed he is aware of the woodland spirits, though as an adult, he can no longer see them.

Totoro little

Underneath this innocent little story are some less delightful realities. The girls’ mother appears to suffering from a mental illness and is in a hospital nearby. In one scene the Japanese culture of bathing nude in spas comes as a shock to the usual projection of reserved fatherhood in American children’s movies.

Totoro Bath scene

One of the best scenes is when the girls are waiting in the rain with an umbrella for their father who seems to have missed his usual bus. The simple contrast of the girls’ red umbrella against the darkness is very sweet, and here we are given further insight into Totoro’s character. After comically trying to cover his enormous rotund belly with a leaf, the father’s umbrella is offered to Totoro.  Whether through absentmindedness or the desire to distract the girls from getting too anxious as they wait, he takes off with the father’s umbrella at the arrival of the cat bus.

totoro, bus stop

Miyazaki’s characters are starkly realistic for a children’s film. Granny, somewhere in the region of 90 years old, is still – still! – working in the rice paddy fields, wrinkles down to her wooden clogs. In the main story line, the girls are delivered news their mother’s illness has worsened by another child who lives in the neighbourhood and the three children are left to deal with an adult situation as best they can. As the older sister, distressed Satsuki cannot deal with the responsibility of little Mai’s tears as well as her own, and left alone, Mai gets lost trying to visit her mother.


Satsuki soon realises that her selfishness has caused her little sister’s disappearance and bravely sets out alone looking for her. She comes across a man and his wife travelling in a vehicle, tells them her 4 year sister is missing.  Instead of offering aid, they drive off telling Satsuki “Good luck.” Meanwhile, granny has convinced herself that a sandal in the lake is Mai’s and has the village folk comb the water looking for her. When Satsuki returns she confirms that the shoe isn’t Mai’s, and the village folk chastide the distraught granny for getting her facts wrong.


Totoro is clearly a projection of Miyazaki’s belief in Shintoism a religion that has strong connections to the naturual world. As the humans prove to be more and more selfish, Totoro is there to teach the impressionable children balance since the plastic world is pulling the adults further and further away from their familial responsibilities. Throughout the movie the girls find refuge more than once in a Shinto roadside temple, and the creatures present a higher level of morality than the humans. Without reservation, the quiet honesty of this movie while still providing a fantastcial journey for child imaginations, makes this the best children’s movie I have seen.
What Cult Japan, My Neighbour Totoro

Where  Queensland Arts Gallery, Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane

When 3 July – 2 September 2015

More info For more information on tickets and films showing during the Cult Japan program, visit Queensland Arts Gallery, Gallery of Modern Art,