Oh, My Pop Culture Religion: Shintoism, Death Spirits, & Totoro

my-neighbor-totoro-respect-camphor-tree1Lady Geek Girl: My Neighbor Totoro is nothing more than a fun family movie produced by Studio Ghibli, right? Well, not according to some people. One popular fan theory says that My Neighbor Totoro is not the happy movie that we thought it was. Rather, it’s a story about death, and Totoro is actually a god of death or death spirit. As such, the theory goes that the two girls, Mei and Satsuki, can only see Totoro because they are about to die, and at the end of the film Mei runs off and accidentally drowns. When their neighbors find a sandal in the pond, Satsuki claims it’s not Mei’s, but the theory continues that Satsuki was so distraught and in denial about her sister’s death that she lied about the sandal. Satsuki runs to Totoro and he opens up the realm of the dead by calling Catbus, who transports spirits, so she can find Mei. Then, Catbus takes the two girls to visit their mother at the hospital. Their mother sees them because she too is close to death. At the end of the movie Mei and Satsuki also don’t have any shadows, further indicating that they are dead. Studio Ghibli has denied this theory, but nevertheless, it persists among fans. But are there any connections between the Shinto themes of the movie and this theory?

Trigger warning for mention of suicide after the jump.

Totoro ScreenshotMadameAce: It shouldn’t come as any surprise that Totoro has a good number of Shinto themes. After all, regardless of whether or not this “death god” theory is true, the movie would still be about two young girls befriending some forest spirits. But before we get into that, most of us watched Totoro and thought it was a fun family adventure, and this death theory is the exact opposite of that interpretation, so how did this theory even originate? Well, it came about because of urban legend and real-life events. Totoro takes place in the Sayama Hills, and anyone familiar with this theory also knows about the Sayama Incident. Back in the 60s, a young girl was kidnapped and murdered. Her sister later committed suicide. All of this tragedy also happened during May, and you might notice that both sisters are literally named May. Mei sounds like May in English, and Satsuki means May. The sister who committed suicide also allegedly saw an apparition of a cat (Catbus) and tanuki (Totoro).

This theory can be stretched out a lot of different ways, and there’s definitely no shortage to the list of coincidences justifying it. Considering that Mei and Satsuki just moved homes, Totoro could also be alluding to depression. April and May are a time when many people in Japan change jobs, homes, school, etc., and as such, get “May Blues”. And indeed, while Mei and Satsuki seem to really like their new home at first, that changes pretty quickly. Mei becomes unhappy once Satsuki starts school, their mother’s health regresses, and eventually we see both girls lying around their house without any will or motivation. Mei breaks down and only decides to run away once she sees Satsuki break down as well. All of this only goes to support the idea that Satsuki eventually commits suicide.

Furthermore, when we look at My Neighbor Totoro in the context of other Ghibli films, specifically Grave of the Fireflies, there’s no reason not to assume Mei and Satsuki have passed away. These two movies go hand and hand and portray similar childhood experiences from completely opposing lenses. Not only is Fireflies also based on real-life events, the movie is about how horrible childhood can be and features two children dying painfully. Takahata tells us:

“If a big disaster hits us and the social restraints are destroyed, without an idea that makes people help each other or cooperate, it would be inevitable that people will become wolves towards others in such raw human relationships.”

Totoro, meanwhile, is about the joys of childhood, and if Totoro really is a death god, he certainly went out of his way to make the girls’ deaths and final moments in life as peaceful and joyous as they could be. But no matter how many urban legends or murders we look at, Totoro is still full of Shinto imagery, and that imagery is what really supports this theory.

TotoroLady Geek Girl: In Shintoism, kami (gods) and spirits are intimately tied to nature, and Totoro does a lot with that. The Totoros live inside a giant camphor tree. Camphor trees are worship trees that can have shrines built at their bases—such as the one we see in the movie. There is a local shrine at the base of the tree, and while Totoro isn’t a kami, he is still a spirit. We see the tree at the movie’s opening, the girls point it out when they get to the house, and later on they and their father go to the tree to pay their respects. The tree is also why their father chose to buy that particular house.

The house itself is also protected by spirits. When everyone first moves into the house, it’s occupied by dust bunnies or soot spirits called susuwatari. The susuwatari are fictional yōkai invented by Miyazaki. Yōkai are a type of monster or spirit similar to ghosts, and they can be benevolent, ambivalent, or malevolent. Depending on the yōkai, they can bring good or bad fortune. Yōkai sometimes look like animals, people, or even inanimate objects. Others, like the susuwatari, have no discernible shape. The susuwatari seem to be guardians of the the house and are protecting it. They eventually leave the house when they see that the family is good. These same spirits show up in another Ghibli film called Spirited Away, another movie that deals heavily with Shintoism, albeit more directly.

But Shintoism in many ways is about connecting with kami and the spirits through various rites. According to this site: “Shintō is a collection of rituals and methods meant to mediate the relations of living humans to kami.” We see this especially when Totoro teaches Mei and Satsuki a dance to help the seeds they planted grow, thus teaching the girls the rituals to connect to nature or to kami.

Fun fact: the shrine at the base is an Inari shrine and it has a fox statue outside. Inari are food or rice kami—there are rice fields all around their house—and can be either male or female. Fox statues are everywhere because that’s Inari’s guardian animal.

Fun fact: the shrine at the base is an Inari shrine and it has a fox statue outside. Inari are food or rice kami—there are rice fields all around their house—and can be either male or female. Fox statues are everywhere because that’s Inari’s guardian animal.

MadameAce: Those are just some of the ways that Totoro has a connection and basis in Shintoism. But do any of the Shinto themes connect back to the theory that Totoro is a death spirit? Well, yes, there are several things that could point people in that direction. Firstly, Catbus and Satsuki find Mei sitting underneath six Jizou statues. Jizou is a guardian deity who protects the spirits of young children and keeps them from falling into hell. Incidentally, earlier in the film, when the two girls are caught in the rain, they take up shelter with a Jizou statue then as well. This could imply that Mei and Satsuki needed that protection. Perhaps it’s even implying that it was Totoro who was protecting them before they died.

TtoroThis could be because Mei was in danger of becoming a mizuko when she dies. When children are born, their names are added to lists at Shinto shrines, and these children are called ujiko. Upon death, ujiko become ujigami. However, children whose names weren’t added are called mizuko, and mizuko are thought of as unruly trouble makers—think of Sen from Spirited Away, who is literally a mizuko because she doesn’t have a name. Mizuko are often worshiped in an attempt to appease their anger and sadness. While just about any child can become a mizuko, regardless of how they die, mizuko literally means “water child” and Mei possibly drowns. Mizuko were the first thing I thought of when I heard this theory, because Mei’s possible death calls attention to water. Mei is also an unruly child. She’s loud, she’s bothersome, and when we see her sitting under the Jizou statue right after supposedly dying, she’s crying and clearly unhappy. Throughout the movie, Mei never actually makes herself better; other people go out of their way to appease her for her. Mei stops crying because Satsuki finds her, and earlier in the film, she stops being upset about being separated from Satsuki when someone else takes her to Satsuki’s new school in order to make her happy.

On top of all this imagery, before Catbus finds Mei for Satsuki, when it first pulls up, it says as its destination 墓道. means “tomb” and means “road”.

Lady Geek Girl: So ultimately while Studio Ghibli and Miyazaki deny that this theory is correct, authorial intent is obviously not everything, and there certainly seems to be a lot of evidence surrounding this theory. Not just in the historical events, such as the Sayama Incident, but also in many of the Shinto themes present in the film. Either way, it is an interesting theory, whether you believe it or not. However, I think this interpretation of the film adds a lot of depth to the movie as it seems pretty heavily supported by the Shinto themes and symbolism. On top of this, Totoro and Catbus and many of the other characters are so nice and friendly. If they are death spirits, they certainly make death seem less frightening and daunting, yet still strange and altogether different. If this was a children’s movie that was meant to discuss death, then I think it actually did a good job at discussing a Shinto understanding of death—even if it may not have intended to.


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5 thoughts on “Oh, My Pop Culture Religion: Shintoism, Death Spirits, & Totoro

  1. Wow, even though they’ve denied it, this has just made me think about My Neighbor Totoro a lot more deeply than I had previously. I’ll have to watch it again now to see all the imagery I took for granted before.

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