There’s a persistent rumor, one which we’ve talked about ourselves, that claims there’s a dark side to feel-good anime classic My Neighbor Totoro. The theory holds that while the movie opens with two lively sisters in the spotlight, both of them die somewhere before the end of the film, and the immense huggable Totoro isn’t in fact a forest spirit, but a death god ushering them into the afterlife.
If this creepy interpretation has been spoiling the warm fuzzy sensation you used to get from watching what you once thought was a heart-warming film, you can breathe easy again, as none other than Studio Ghibli producer Toshio Suzuki has publicly put the rumor to rest.
While Ghibli has won fans and accolades around the world, the studio’s goodwill is on a whole other level in Japan. The country’s best-known animation house is so loved that since 2007, radio station Tokyo FM has broadcast a weekly program, Toshio Suzuki’s Sweaty Ghibli, in which the animation veteran talks about his industry experiences.
On a recent episode, Suzuki was speaking with actress Miori Takimoto, who provided the voice of Naoko Satomi, the female lead in Ghibli’s The Wind Rises. During their talk, Takimoto asked Suzuki if there were any scary stories related to My Neighbor Totoro, and the producer immediately knew what she was getting at.
“Everyone gets all stirred up about it on the Internet, don’t they?” he began. “They say things like, ‘They’re all dead at the end of the movie.’” Proponents of the theory often assert that 11-year-old Satsuki and four-year-old Mei don’t have shadows, which in turn marks them as spirits.
▼ Mei and Satsuki, perhaps looking for their shadows
This depiction doesn’t entirely hold water, though, according to Takimoto. “I watched the movie, and up until the very end, Mei and Satsuki both have shadows, don’t they?”
“Yes, they do,” replied Suzuki.
“They don’t lose the part-way through, or anything?”
“No, they don’t.”
Still, some people who’ve watched Totoro with one hand on the pause button will probably tell you that in the very last scene, the sisters’ shadows aren’t so clearly visible. But if they’re not ghosts, why don’t their physical bodies block light like they should?
Actually, an explanation for this was already given on the official Studio Ghibli website, and more than eight years ago. We hope we’re not spoiling anyone’s fantasy by saying this, but My Neighbor Totoro isn’t real. Studio Ghilbi didn’t go out into the countryside and film two little girls, and everything you see on-screen in Totoro is the result of an artist drawing a picture.
At the risk of destroying any more idyllic images, even Studio Ghibli sometimes has to put limits on the amount of time and effort it can pour into a scene. As explained on the Ghibli website:
“Everyone, please put your minds at ease. The rumors of Totoro being a death god, Mei being dead, and others rumors of the like are absolutely not true…Someone made them up because they sounded interesting to him or her, and it seems to have spread around the Internet. In regards to comments that “Satsuki and Mei don’t have shadows in the final scene,” it was merely decided that is wasn’t necessary to draw when producing the animation. We hope that people will not believe the rumors, and the PR department would like to officially announce that here.”
Even without hearing it straight from the studio, a little historical context also makes the dark rumors pretty easy to debunk. Tonally opposite as the two films may be, when My Neighbor Totoro opened in Japanese theaters in 1988, it was shown as a double-billing with director Isao Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies, a tragic story about a young brother and sister struggling, and failing, to survive in the closing days of World War II. Considering the subtle touch Ghibli so often employs in crafting its stories, it seems unlikely that the studio would do something so clumsy as having audiences sit through two movies in a row with twist endings involving the fact that the child siblings central to the film are now dead.
So relax, Totoro really isn’t a scary story after all, so if you ever happen to run into the Ghibli mascot himself while wandering about the woods, don’t be afraid to follow after him and make friends.