Set in 1958, My Neighbor Totoro is about two young sisters, Satsuki (voice of Dakota Fanning) and Mei (voice of Ellie Fanning), as they travel with their father (voice of Tim Daly), an archaeology professor, to stay in an old house in rural Japan. Their mother (voice of Lea Salonga) is recovering from a long-term illness and is staying in a hospital nearby. The girls arrive at the rather dilapidated but charming old house and discover that it might be haunted – much to their delight. When little soot sprites scoot out of the dark corners of the house, the girls get to work dusting and filling the house with laughter and light.
One sunny day Mei is exploring the lush gardens. She sees two little forest sprites bobbing along through the grass towards a towering and ancient camphor tree. With curious excitement, she chases them through the undergrowth as they dash away, leading her directly into a deep, mossy and flower-filled hollow within the tree. A big cuddly bear-like being that Mei calls Totoro is sleeping there. At first only Mei can see these creatures. But then one rainy evening, Mei and Satsuki are waiting for their father at the bus stop. Totoro appears beside them and Satsuki offers Totoro her umbrella. It seems the forest sprites are happy to have Satsuki and Mei living beside them, and together they have some whimsical and magical adventures.
The story takes a darker turn when the girl’s mother can’t come home for the weekend as planned. In disappointment and worry about their mother’s worsening condition, Satsuki takes out her frustration by shouting at Mei. Mei runs away and tries to make her way to the hospital on foot. As darkness descends and Mei is nowhere to be found, a despairing Satsuki calls on Totoro to help her find her little sister. Totoro calls out to the Catbus, a magical flying cat with the body of a bus, and asks it to help Satsuki find Mei.
Sisterhood; spirits of nature; ghosts and Japanese animism; spirituality; illness; fantasy; fear of loss of a parent or a sibling; running away; getting lost
My Neighbor Totoro has no violence.
Alcohol, drugs and other substances
Nudity and sexual activity
My Neighbor Totoro has some mild nudity. This is in a scene where the two girls have a bath with their father. Although the scene is drawn to keep it modest, it does show one of the girls’ bottoms.
Ideas to discuss with your children
My Neighbor Totoro is a delightful family movie with visually stunning animation. It has won many awards and remains a cult classic both in Japan and around the world.It’sa great way to introduce children to Japanese anime and culture.
This movie is whimsical and imaginative, delicately capturing the magic and mystery of childhood. It also touches sensitively on deeper themes of parental illness and the fear of death. It’s a beautiful portrayal of sisterhood, and the lovely, caring relationship between the two siblings is very sweet. The characters of Satsuki and Mei are excellent positive role models – fierce and brave, but also compassionate and respectful.
The main messages from this movie are about the mystery and power of nature, the joy of imagination, and the importance of family.
Values in this movie that you could reinforce with your children include:
- treating nature with respect and reverence
- being a responsible, kind and loyal sibling
- facing fears with laughter and a positive attitude.
This movie could also give you the chance to talk with your children about real-life issues like the following:
- Running away from home: this movie gives you a perfect opening to talk about what could happen if you run away from home or go somewhere by yourself without telling anyone. There’s just enough dramatic tension and a lot of distress when Mei goes missing – and Mei is tired and scared when she realises she’s lost.
- Parents being ill and/or in hospital: this movie is a good chance to talk about how it might feel if a parent becomes ill and needs to stay in hospital. For children who’ve had this experience, this theme could be difficult, and they might empathise deeply with Mei and Satsuki.