My Neighbor Totoro (1988)

My Neighbor Totoro

My Neighbor Totoro

Rated: G
Length:  86 min.
Age: 4 and up.        commonsense media sez: 5+

Scary Factor: soot sprites are creepy, and provide one big Startle Moment (see below); Totoro seems scary at first glance, but is soon revealed to be friendly

Also: issue of Mother sick in hospital may bother some, but whole situation is treated gently, and without worry until late in film when girls grow concerned (see more below)

Interests: monster/spirits, magic, nature, country life, Japan

Next: Director Miyazaki has two other films for this age group: Ponyo, Kiki’s Delivery Service; for older kids try: Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle

A father and his two daughters move into a new house in the country. The high-spirited girls, Satsuki and Mei, explore the house and find strange little soot sprites scurrying about. Later, little Mei meets a large creature in the woods – Totoro, a friendly, enormous, furry beast with magical powers. He reappears occasionally, only ever seen by the two sisters. When their mother’s extended stay in the hospital causes the girls to worry about her, Mei runs away to visit her, though the hospital lies too far away to walk to. A distraught Satsuki and all their neighbours comb the countryside for her with no luck. Finally Totoro comes to Satsuki’s aid – the girls are reunited and it’s revealed that Mother is doing fine after all.

As with all of Hayao Miyazaki’s films, this is absolutely stunning. Not only is the animation gorgeous, but the attention to detail is totally charming. The pace is absolutely perfect for young viewers. Nothing is rushed, the film takes its time with everything and yet never seems to drag. In the first scenes the girls explore their new house. Satsuki and Mei are quickly revealed to be freewheeling and vivacious, full of shouts and laughter. Satsuki is a caring older sister, and Mei is plucky, determined and stubborn. Both are quick to erupt into loud gales of laughter. They immediately win our affection, as does their father, also full of kindness and fun. My Neighbor Totoro is a lovely portrait of family life – even with the mother absent the three look out for each other with great care and understanding. Satsuki in particular is the perfect big sister role model. Only when she is worried sick about their mother does she lose her temper with her headstrong little sister, calling her “stupid”. (The strongest language in the entire film.) When Mei disappears Satsuki rues her careless words as she races all around the countryside searching frantically for her.

The Scary Stuff: This film would definitely be suitable for 3 or 4 year olds were it not for a few moments near the beginning, when the girls come across little black balls of soot skittering into the cracks of their house like swarms of bugs. Their pursuit of the soot sprites is suspenseful, and there is one huge surprise when the sprites burst out of a crack in the wall.  **My big tip: stick close when you see the sisters go up into the attic! A little hand-holding will definitely help young viewers through this scene. I jumped and my daughter let out a big scream, as Mei does in the film, but we all recovered quickly enough. In fact there was a rather excited, surprised smile on my daughter’s face, which I think it was her realization that being scared/startled like that can be exciting and fun! The soot sprites are shown to be harmless, and are soon seen leaving the house, dispelled by the loud laughter of the new inhabitants.

The discovery of two ghostly little spirits in the garden is more humourous than scary, as little Mei chases them about. They lead her into the woods and eventually to Totoro. The creature is napping, but fearless Mei doesn’t hesitate to climb up onto his furry belly and poke him in the nose. Happily, Totoro turns out to be friendly. Every scene with him is beautifully understated and thoroughly magical, my favourite being his silent appearance at a bus stop in the rain. And the bus he catches is worth the price of admission alone! In all instances with mysterious creatures and spirits the nerve and bravery of the girls will go far in reassuring fearful viewers.

Illness: Late in the film a mysterious telegram from the hospital panics the sisters. Until this moment there isn’t any onscreen angst about their mother, but suddenly Satsuki worries aloud that she will die. An elderly neighbour consoles her immediately, and in the end it turns out that the telegram was not as serious as it sounded. Over the tail credits we see scenes of their mother returning home.

One last thing… Some reviews, when listing items of concern for young viewers, mention the fact that the girls spend a lot of the movie without adult supervision. (Their father lets them roam, and is occasionally away for the day teaching at the university while neighbours watch over them… from a distance.) Okay, this makes me laugh. Parents may be bothered to see it, but children are exhilarated to see other children out in the world without grownups dogging their every step! What kind of adventures can anyone have with mom or dad tagging along?!

See this film, it’s fantastic!

(DVD available at


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All writings posted here are © Kim Thompson, unless otherwise indicated. For all artwork on this site, copyright is retained by the artist.
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