A Discussion on Totoro from the Perspective of the Guardian Forest

I have watched “My Neighbor Totoro” more than 200 times. Yet, each time I watch it anew, I marvel at its greatness, its excellence, and its well-made nature. The detailing is extraordinary.

In particular, the unique depictions of the Inari shrines at the entrance to the village and the Inari shrine in front of the bus stop, as well as the portrayals of Jizō statues and Rokujizō statues located at the village intersections, school routes, and village boundaries, are exceptional. The way these elements are integrated into the film’s scenic landscapes is astonishingly skillful. I wonder if there is another director who can portray Japanese folk beliefs, culture, and landscapes so seamlessly.

Now, who is Totoro, the creature in the title? From the perspective of Japanese folk beliefs, folklore, and religious studies, Totoro is undoubtedly a Japanese “kami” (deity). Of course, Totoro is depicted as an animal living in a hole in a camphor tree, but it is not merely an animal. It is a mysterious entity that appears in the form of an animal – a kami. This is apparent from the fact that in order to reach Totoro’s dwelling, one must follow a different path from those in our world – a spiritual path. To interact with the world of the kami, a different circuit from our worldly paths must be opened.

In our existence, there are two paths side by side and overlapping. Sometimes they intersect and dimensions merge, like when Mei steps onto that path while chasing Chibi-Totoro. The path of the other world and the path of this world occasionally open and interconnect. There are instances where Mei and Satsuki step into this path (once each), but also instances where Totoro crosses over, such as when waiting for the Catbus at the Inari bus stop. Mei unintentionally enters Totoro’s world when she follows Chibi-Totoro and goes through the “hole” in the large camphor tree. Satsuki consciously enters Totoro’s world when she earnestly prays to meet Totoro to help her find her missing sister Mei. Mei communicates with Totoro through shamanic means, while Satsuki does so through priestly means.

When considering what a “kami” is to the Japanese people, it is useful to refer to Motoori Norinaga’s commentary in the third volume of the “Kojiki-den”. Norinaga wrote that a “kami” refers to various gods of heaven and earth found in ancient scriptures, the spirits enshrined in shrines, and anything extraordinary that inspires awe, such as birds, beasts, trees, plants, seas, mountains. In simpler terms, a “kami” is a “super amazing thing”. It is a “sacred folder” that integrates all sorts of spiritual files, such as specific sacred emotions, information, power, and phenomena held by the Japanese people.

For example, there are “chi” file gods like Ikazuchi (Thunder God), Kagutsuchi (Fire God), Nozuchi (Wild God), Kukunochi (Tree God), Mizuchi (Water God); “mi” file gods like Yamatsumi (Mountain God), Watatsumi (Sea God); “hi” file gods like Musuhi (Birth Spirit), Naohi (Straight Spirit), Magatsuhi (Disaster Spirit); “nushi” file gods like Ame-no-Minakanushi (Heaven’s Central Master), Ookuninushi (Great Land Master), Kotoshironushi (Affairs’ Master), Hitokotonushi (One-Word Master). The “kami” is a comprehensive folder, serving as an umbrella term for a myriad – often called “yaoyorozu (eight million)” – of various gods.


In this way, the ability to perceive the generation and manifestation of spirituality, divine character, and divine power in the workings of all things in nature, was ultimately folded into and bound by the comprehensive “folder” known as “Kami”.

I believe that such a Japanese view of “Kami” forms the bedrock of religious culture in the Japanese archipelago, from Jomon period spiritual beliefs to modern images of Totoro. I want to draw attention to the fact that “My Neighbor Totoro” is full of references to these Jomon-like underlying beliefs.

Firstly, in the opening title background. A four-year-old girl, Mei, cheerfully walks down the “path”, where lizards, frogs, praying mantises, grasshoppers, millipedes, and spiders appear one after the other, all depicted at the same size as Mei. There is no hierarchy among these forms of life. Mei does not have any privileges over the animals, and there is no suggestion that humans are particularly great or superior in the world of life or existence. Instead, they are equal parts of the same great life.

The siblings Satsuki and Mei find “acorns” in the yard of their newly moved home. These “acorns” serve as both an index and an evocator (trigger) for the story. They will meet Totoro through these “acorns”.

In Japanese culture, which regards the forest as a sea of life and treasures it, “acorns” first appear as a staple food of the Jomon people. Jomon pottery was created to leach the tannins from these acorns. Through the acorns, Mei meets the “Master of the Forest”.

The “Master of the Forest”, as mentioned earlier, refers to the “Master of the Forest God” without even needing to mention the gods such as the “Amaterasu”, “Okuninushi”, “Kotoshironushi”, and “Hitokotonushi” described in the “Kojiki” or the “Nihon Shoki”. This Totoro, the “Master of the Forest God”, is the “God of the Master” dwelling in the hole of a large camphor tree, marked by a Shinto straw festoon. In Okinawa, too, they call the god of the sun in “Nirai Kanai” the “Upunushiganashi” (Great Master God), and that’s who Totoro is, the “Master of the Forest God”.

If we align this “Master of the Forest God”, who manifests in the form of an animal, with the “Kojiki”, it would correspond to the “Oomononushi”, the representative god of the country’s gods, who appears as a snake and is the god of the forest of Miwa Mountain.


The father of Mei, who is a Jomon archaeologist (Tatsuo Kusakabe), tells Mei who insists that she met Totoro, “You must have met the master of this forest, Mei. That’s very lucky. But you can’t always meet them.” No matter how many times I see this scene, it moves me. I think, Miyazaki really understands, doesn’t he? And if a child has a father who can speak such words, they would grow up honestly without straying, wouldn’t they? And the woman who married such a man must be happy, right? And then, this family goes to greet “Tsukamori”. It is exactly the “Chinju no Mori” (Sacred Forest), where a giant camphor tree that Mei met with Totoro stands tall. Mei spontaneously rushes toward it, but there is no “hole” there. That’s because it’s the landscape of the camphor tree seen from this world.

From Totoro’s perspective, there is a “hole” that serves as an entrance at the base of the giant tree. But in place of that “hole” in this world, there is a small shrine. The shrine, where no priest lives, is a small “Chinju no Mori” protected by the villagers.

Satsuki, the older sister, says she also wants to meet Totoro. Then, Mr. Kusakabe says, “That’s right. If you’re lucky, huh. It’s a magnificent tree. It must have been standing here for a long, long time. Long ago, trees and people were good friends. When your dad saw this tree, he really liked that house. I think your mom will also like it.” He says to the children, “Let’s thank it and go back, Satsuki.” He encourages the two, bows deeply, and says, “Thank you for your care. We look forward to your continued support.”

This scene reminds me of the fairy tale “Okami Mori, Zaru Mori, and Nusubi Mori” in Kenji Miyazawa’s “Orderly Restaurant”. The farmers who moved near the forest offer offerings and greetings to the “Nushi” (masters) of the forest. It was exactly the same mentality and behavioral pattern as this Kusakabe family. And it connects with the intention of holding a groundbreaking ceremony when moving or building a new house even now.

By the way, there is another scene that shows that Totoro has divinity, so let’s touch on that. After Satsuki and Mei meet Totoro at the Inari Mae bus stop and report the encounter to their father, the two repeat, “Scary. Wonderful. Scary.” It’s scary, but it’s fascinating and very attractive. Such a thing that arouses conflicting emotions is “Kami” or “the sacred, Das Heilige”. In his book “The Idea of the Holy”, the German religious scholar Rudolf Otto calls this experience of the sacred “numinous”. The existence that arouses the polar emotions of awe (scary) and fascination (wonderful) is the “Master of the Forest” Totoro.

In another scene, Totoro appears in a dream on a full moon night, praying or using telekinesis to sprout the acorns they had sown in the garden, growing them quickly. At dawn, when the two wake up and check the garden, the buds of the trees were definitely coming out, although they were not the same size as they saw in the dream. The two danced around it, bowed their heads in prayer and said, “It was a dream but it wasn’t just a dream.”


This is a nested structure of dreams and reality. A dream becomes reality, and at the same time, a dream is born from reality. This is a mysterious, miraculous interaction between dreams and reality. This could be called a shamanistic spiritual communication. Director Hayao Miyazaki skillfully and without religious overtone depicts a world of such interaction with the guardian spirit of the forest. It’s splendid.

Now, if we choose “Sacred Forest” and camphor trees as the theme, it’s impossible not to introduce Minakata Kumagusu. This is because one of the models for Mr. Kusakabe is said to be author/ biologist/ naturalist, Minakata Kumagusu. And the oldest form of the “Sacred Forest” where Totoro lived, a camphor tree, is Miwa Mountain where the Omiwa Shrine, holding the “sacred cedar of Miwa”, the home of “Omononushi”, the guardian deity. The person who radically promoted the movement against the merging of shrines to protect the ecological circle (beautiful circle) linking Sacred Forest – Totoro – Omononushi – Miwa Mountain is Minakata Kumagusu, who has the names of the animal “bear” and the plant “camphor tree”, the very guardian of the Totoro-like circle.

Minakata Kumagusu, named by the chief priest of Kusugi Shrine, a branch shrine of Fujishiro Prince Shrine in Kainan City, the entrance of Kumano, developed a movement against the merging of shrines based on ecological and folkloric studies around one century ago, around 1910. The Meiji government tried to consolidate and reorganize the shrines into one per administrative unit, or town. Doing so would eliminate all small shrines and groves in the countryside, like the ancient “Sacred Forests”. This would drive Totoro out of the forest.

According to the forest guardian Kumagusu, the shrine consolidation (1) undermines respect for the gods, (2) disturbs harmony among the people, (3) causes decline in the regions, (4) deprives the people’s comfort, undermines human emotions, harms customs, (5) damages patriotism, (6) is detrimental to local security and benefits, (7) destroys historical sites and old tales, and (8) eliminates natural monuments. In other words, it’s a rash, superficial, and reckless policy that disregards the perception of “Kami” that the Japanese have received and acquired from the climate of this Japanese archipelago.

Thus, Kumagusu launched a fierce opposition movement against shrine consolidation. The logic is very systematic and comprehensive, sharply and deeply probing the problems and flaws of the coercive and violent policy forced by bureaucratic top-down administration, the so-called “shrine consolidation”. This logic has a future-oriented meaning.

In this regard, Minakata Kumagusu and Kenji Miyazawa are pioneers of “ecological wisdom” inquiry in modern Japan. Kumagusu stated, “Our country’s shrines, sacred forests, and ponds clear the hearts of the people, and the gratefulness of the nation’s favor, and the origin that the Japanese should enjoy as Japanese and stand in the world, are not secret rites of great structure to make even the ignorant and unlettered fully understand,” and also stated, “The inspirational power of shrines on the people is beyond words. It is what makes people shed tears even without knowing why they are thankful,” and “The outdoor museum is actually the second act of our country’s sacred forests and sacred ponds.” In other words, he argued that the forest of the shrine, or the “Sacred Forest”, has a magical power to make anyone in Japan perceive the goodness of the Japanese climate with a clear sense and take pride, and that it forms the basis of the Japanese sense of “Kami” and is the precursor model of today’s “outdoor museum”.

Moreover, at this time, Kumagusu was the first to use the word “ecology” to protect the shrine’s forest (Sacred Forest) as a treasure trove of life and connect social movements with ecological life studies.


This text seems to be an analysis of the films “My Neighbor Totoro” and “Spirited Away”, directed by Hayao Miyazaki, through the lens of the ideas of the Japanese naturalist Minakata Kumagusu and the concept of sacred forests (神林).

“Unlike forests cultivated for production, sacred forests untouched for centuries have intricate and closely knit relationships among various grasses and trees. This concept, recently referred to as ‘Ecology’, has become so significant that a special academic field has emerged to study these relationships.”

These words suggest that Minakata advocated for the protection of these sacred forests due to their ecological significance. The author states that an excellent example of these relationships can be seen in the island of Kamishima in Tanabe Bay, which they describe as an ideal model of plant ecology.

The author then goes on to claim that in order to protect the world, we must guard these small, local forests. The root of local production and consumption lies within the interconnected cycle of mountains, forests, fields, rivers, and seas. The ‘gods’ dwell in the intricate details of these small regional forests.

The ideas and activism of Minakata, particularly his defense of the sacred forests, deeply resonate with the philosophies presented in Miyazaki’s films. However, these forests appear extremely weakened in “Spirited Away”.

The author highlights the contrasting portrayals of lively children (Mei and Satsuki) versus an uninterested child (Chihiro), as well as parents who understand the world of children (Kusakabe Papa) versus a parent who doesn’t understand and behaves selfishly (Chihiro’s father). Chihiro’s parents, despite having money, eat and drink without permission when the store owner is not around, leading them to turn into pigs.

The forests where Totoro lived are cut down and turned into residential land, suggesting human residences have superseded the gods’ dwellings. There, the ‘homes of the gods’ (shrines) are abandoned, the sacred trees with shimenawa (sacred ropes) are decayed, and the torii gates are leaning.

In this forgotten ‘home of the gods’, even the gods are stained, tired, and seeking healing. The “rotten god/ Stink Spirit” (as the kami is referred to) visiting the healing bathhouse is actually the master of a well-known river, an elder god, and an old dragon, but on the surface, it appears as a rotten god. The author notes that this is a poignant indictment by Miyazaki of the modern landscape and contemporary circumstances.

The author also comments on the concept of kotodama, or the power of words, evident in the fact that Chihiro’s name is changed to Sen, making her subject to the witch’s control. Moreover, the true name of Haku being Nigihayami Kohaku Nushi, the god of the river, resonates with Miyazaki’s sense of animism. However, the impact of these elements is seen to be weakening within the modern context. Chihiro’s parents are portrayed as a caricature of modern people obsessed with materialism, which could be seen as a critical self-portrait of ourselves.


In this way, the main motifs of Hayao Miyazaki’s works can be interpreted as follows:

(1)   “My Neighbor Totoro” as the original landscape and image of Japanese Kami (deities) and religious culture.

(2)   “Spirited Away” as the weakening and decline of Japanese Kami and religious culture, and the desire for revival

(3)   “Princess Mononoke” as the killing of Kami, the deep-seated deities of Japan, and the distress of the times.



Furthermore, the “Totoro” as the “god of the forest” in “Princess Mononoke” has been differentiated into Shishigami and other deities, depicting the process of medieval transformation where their divine nature is stripped away and weakened.

At the heart of this series of Miyazaki’s god films shines “Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind”. The original image of Totoro in this film is the Ohmu, a creature that is a very ‘god of the forest’-like existence. The Ohmu is indeed a god of the sacred forest that protects the life force and purifying power of the forest and the earth. There are two versions of “Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind”: the manga and the animation, which I interpret as follows:

The manga version of “Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind” waits for salvation in deep distress, akin to the Old Testament and the Book of Revelation.

The animation version of “Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind” realizes salvation in a manner similar to the New Testament and the Book of Revelation.

The former expresses existential and clinical philosophical thoughts, while the latter emits theological and salvific messages.

Thus, Miyazaki’s works are for me, who has been teaching religious studies and folklore, as well as for my students, an excellent teaching material that is extremely clear, interesting, and inexhaustible. Totoro, the “rotten god”, Shishigami, and the Ohmu all represent nostalgic yet prophetic presences. Moreover, they stimulate the pursuit of ecological wisdom that will be crucial for the future.

Kamatou Toji, born in Tokushima prefecture in 1951, is a religious philosopher and Shinto songwriter. He is the president of the Tokyo Free University corporation and a professor at the Kyoto University Center for the Future of the Heart. His books include “Close Reading of Kenji Miyazawa’s ‘Night on the Galactic Railroad'”, “Sacred Sensation”, “A Country Where Gods and Buddhas Meet”, “Literature of Spirituality: The Power of Words”, “Ultra Translation of the Kojiki”, “Contemporary Shinto Theory: Exploring Spirituality and Ecological Wisdom”, “Kojiki Wonderland”, and more.

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