What I Learned from Totoro

The Fascinating Characters of “Totoro”

When I was going to watch “My Neighbor Totoro” for the first time, I thought I would definitely leave halfway through.

I grew up in the Midwest of the United States, always watching animated films produced by Warner Bros and Disney, and shows like “The Muppet Show”. “Totoro” was the first Japanese animated film I ever saw. At that time, just after I had enrolled in the California Institute of the Arts, someone brought the newly made film “Totoro” to school and showed it to everyone. The way the characters in “Totoro” were drawn and moved was completely unfamiliar to me. And what confused me most was that the film was not translated into English. And none of us understood Japanese. So, I thought there was no way I could understand the film and that my head would start spinning and I would leave the room right after it started.

But, I couldn’t leave my seat.

I can imagine what Japanese readers might think. Because I am the director of “Monsters Inc.”, they probably think I was certainly attracted to the characters of “Totoro”. And that’s indeed the case. I was drawn to the charm of the characters, which is why I couldn’t stop watching “Totoro” until the end. That said, the reason I ended up truly loving “My Neighbor Totoro” was that I found something deeper and completely unexpected there.

Certainly, “My Neighbor Totoro” is a story of two girls who meet magical creatures that are invisible to adults. And these creatures are really well crafted. If done wrong, Totoro might have become a character that is too cute or too scary. Yet, Hayao Miyazaki and the animators at Studio Ghibli brilliantly balanced the two aspects of Totoro. It’s unclear whether Totoro is a good character or a bad one, but it seems he’s very interested in the lives of the children. This was superbly depicted with a certain degree of tension.

The handling of the weight and size of Totoro’s characters was also very clever. Totoro can fly at an astonishing speed, but he also walks very slowly and his movements are slow. This makes the viewer think that his body is heavy. Although the Totoros are of course fictional characters, they are perfectly drawn down to the smallest details, which make you believe that such creatures actually exist. For example, when Totoro opens his mouth, his whiskers stretch sideways. If you look at our pet dogs or cats, you can see the same thing. Also, Totoro’s shiny, long, black claws create a remarkable contrast with his fluffy fur. It’s like looking at the claws of a real bear. There’s a scene where Totoro, while waiting for the bus, scratches his armpit with his long claws, which is especially realistic and is permanently etched in my mind.



Beyond the usual lines and actions

Although I’ve already written a lot about “My Neighbor Totoro,” I haven’t yet discussed the real reason why I fell in love with this film. Certainly, it was fun to watch the fantastical characters in “Totoro”, and I was definitely unable to leave my seat until the end. Nonetheless, “My Neighbor Totoro” taught me something much deeper when I started my career as a film director.

Of course, Totoro was a delightful character, but what initially captivated me were the actions of the human characters. They were completely different from the typical children in animated movies. Children in animations often speak cute lines and perform scripted actions, but the children in “Totoro” did not do any of that. The actions of Satsuki and Mei in “Totoro” were incredibly realistic. I have two younger sisters and my mother runs a music class for children, so I’ve been surrounded by children since I was young. Therefore, I could tell. Hayao Miyazaki and the staff of Studio Ghibli knew exactly what they were trying to do and were never content with letting the characters speak lines that seemed to have been heard somewhere else. Satsuki and Mei had incredibly complex and varied reactions to what they were experiencing. Although I couldn’t understand Japanese, and didn’t know what Satsuki and Mei were talking about, I was able to understand their feelings through their actions. For example, when they first saw the ‘Sootsprites’, instead of screaming and running away (as many of us adults would probably expect children to do), they raised their voices towards the inside of the house, trying to startle this unknown creature and make it come out. By doing this, the two girls were probably trying to drive out their own fear. This is exactly how children really act. But, it is only by carefully considering such actions of children that one can create something beyond the usual lines and actions.

Such scenes, meticulously observing the actual behavior of humans, can be found throughout “My Neighbor Totoro”. When Satsuki, Mei, and their father first enter the house, the two girls walk around on their knees without even taking off their shoes. The girls, excited to see their new house for the first time, probably feel that even taking off their shoes is a nuisance and would take too much time. If I were a child, I might feel the same way. Even in casual transitional scenes, there are numerous instances that seem to faithfully reproduce human actions. For instance, there’s a scene where Mei comes down the stairs. This little girl lowers one foot onto a step, then brings the other foot to the same step. Young children have to go down the stairs in this toddling way, lowering both feet onto each step.


Exceptional observational skills and tempo design

It is evident that the portrayal of human actions is keenly observed, and listing them all out here wouldn’t surprise the Japanese readers. Still, it is often forgotten that when an animator is at work, the only thing in front of them is a blank sheet of paper. When trying to animate an action, any animator might be tempted to draw the first scenario that comes to mind, or to simplify it. But a straightforward idea doesn’t necessarily represent reality. To observe things from the viewpoint of the character one has created, one needs to think deeply.

By incorporating little details, depth is added to the story. For example, consider the scene where Satsuki and Mei’s father opens the storm shutters. The family, having just moved into an old house, struggles a bit to open these doors. It’s a scene that would give the animators a hard time too. For the viewers of the movie, this scene doesn’t hold much significance in terms of the storyline or plot progression. Even so, the depiction of the door not opening smoothly reminds the audience anew that the family has just moved into an old house. In this way, we are inadvertently made aware of the reality of our world.

Such scenes are not merely the product of an animator sitting at a desk. The staff of Studio Ghibli demonstrate their rich life experiences and profound observations in this film. They showed me what I was trying to do – they pay attention to what’s happening around them, and then reproduce various responses to those occurrences on the screen.

There’s a scene where Satsuki, with Mei on her back and an umbrella in her hand, stands at a bus stop in the rain. This is one of my favorite scenes. For movie producers, this might be a disagreeable scene. That’s because nothing particularly noteworthy happens here, so they would be forced to make a decision on whether to cut the scene. It’s hardly relevant to the story’s progression and there’s no exciting action. Producers might say, “It’s just them getting on the Catbus, hardly any dialogue. Cut the entire scene.” This quiet scene, however, gives birth to something we’ll never forget. Rain falls onto puddles, creating ripples. A frog leisurely ambles by. This puts the viewers, thanks to Miyazaki, right next to Satsuki and Mei in the rain. Then Totoro appears, and we watch in surprise as this character gets on the Catbus. Miyazaki and the Studio Ghibli staff took their time to incorporate what we actually witness and experience in our daily lives. As a result, this scene becomes incredibly captivating and unforgettable.


Again, I am also a bit shocked by the pace of “Totoro”. Compared to the Western movies I’ve been watching all along, the characters’ movements and the main points of the story are all expressed in a restrained way. In “Totoro”, there is a subtly relaxed feeling, which is presented according to the details of the story. I leaned forward and couldn’t help but ask. This is completely different from the active and story-focused movies I have been watching. Indeed, Miyazaki showed it. This movie doesn’t have a rapidly moving story, nor a prepared mysterious twisted plot, nor a strange comedy that makes you laugh. He didn’t try to attract the audience with such things. Instead of presenting such information at the beginning of the movie, Miyazaki slowly shows the important details of the story. He lets the story unfold, never stops it, and tries to get the audience on its gentle flow.

In addition to the attractive characters and relaxed pace of the story, the setting of “Totoro” is also wonderful. I wonder if there really is a place like the small wooden house that appears in that movie. I don’t know, but in any case, the inside of that house looks warm and comfortable, and the building itself is solid and sturdy, as if it had been standing there for a long time. In the movie, plants are growing thickly around it, it’s an old house, but it looks very good to live in. Watching “Totoro”, I wanted to live in that house.

The Possibility of Animation

As you may already know, I was completely drawn into that movie by the unique world and atmosphere of “Totoro”, and the characters that appear there. Yet, Hayao Miyazaki had taken another step forward from there. “Totoro” poses a question to us. Do those characters really exist? Aren’t they something the two girls fantasized about? Their mother is hospitalized and not at home. Aren’t Satsuki and Mei trying to come to terms with the loneliness and pain of not having their mother? They don’t show such signs until the end of the movie. However, Satsuki and Mei were clearly shocked by their mother’s health condition there. The act of creating a world of fantasy to deal with reality is exactly what I tried when I was a child. I couldn’t help but think about the feelings of the two girls there.

I don’t know why Miyazaki decided to portray their anxieties and worries there, and I haven’t talked to the director himself about it. Nevertheless, this scene is depicted exactly as it is in reality, and I can only imagine this. Just like the two girls who shout out “Makkuro Kurosuke” and run down the stairs at a great speed, the movie has also escaped from real life and arrived somewhere else.

I also went to animation school because I understood what animation could do and loved it. Animation takes movie viewers to a new world. It can give life to wonderful creatures. It can faithfully observe and depict scenes that are more realistic than reality, squeezing the essence of real life. Then again, after continuing to watch “My Neighbor Totoro” for several years, I learned that animation can do more than that. Animation can get inside other people’s heads. It can sense their emotions and understand what they are experiencing in life. That’s why people go to movie theaters. What is in the head of a filmmaker is nothing but creating such situations.


“My Neighbor Totoro” taught us that by presenting someone else’s experience, we can observe our surrounding world (even if it’s not always simple or concise) and express our own reactions to that person’s experience. Movie watchers react to things they are familiar with, and seek connection with them. They want to connect with what they recognize. People delight in seeing what they perceive as human behavior, and they want to see more of what they’ve already witnessed. Everyone wants to feel joy and pain. Sometimes, they even want to feel someone else’s suffering. Through finely detailed depictions that we recognize as truth, we seek to connect with each other.

I thought I would leave my seat partway through when I first saw “My Neighbor Totoro.” Conversely, I found myself unable to stop watching until the end. The next night, I watched it again. Since then, I’ve watched “Totoro” repeatedly, and no matter how many times I watch it, I always want to see it again. I’m always in awe of Hayao Miyazaki’s astonishing talent. Through his films, he, as an individual, communicates his own experiences to me.

Pete Docter. Born in America in 1968. A key member of Pixar Animation Studios. His directorial works include “Monsters, Inc.” and “Up”. He also directed the English version of Hayao Miyazaki’s “Howl’s Moving Castle.”

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