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A family movie night with Studio Ghibli


WORLD Radio - A family movie night with Studio Ghibli

My Neighbor Totoro takes kids of all ages on a whimsical Japanese adventure about the importance of family

A scene from My Neighbor Totoro © 1988 Hayao Miyazaki/Studio Ghibli

LINDSAY MAST, HOST: Today is Friday, June 21st. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning. I’m Lindsay Mast.

MYRNA BROWN, HOST: And I’m Myrna Brown. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: a family movie night recommendation.

For that we turn back to a beloved Japanese animation from 1988. Here’s reviewer Chelsea Boes to talk about why her family loves My Neighbor Totoro.

CHELSEA BOES: Are you ready for a twelve-legged cat that is also a bus, giant benevolent rabbitlike spirit neighbors, and soot that comes to life? Even if you’re not, your kids probably are.

MUSIC: [Hey Let’s Go - Opening Theme Song - My Neighbor Totoro Soundtrack]

You might want to consider cueing up My Neighbor Totoro for family movie night.

My Neighbor Totoro comes from Studio Ghibli, the acclaimed Japanese animation film studio that consistently wins praise from critics and popular audiences alike. At first, Studio Ghibli films were an acquired taste for many Americans. But soon they gathered a cult following and influenced the work of the biggest U.S. animation studios.

My family loves this movie for its pure artistry. Every frame is frameable. The storybookish, hand-drawn film has a mythic quality. My Neighbor Totoro is the story of two young sisters—Satsuki and Mei—dubbed in English by real sisters Dakota and Elle Fanning. Satsuki and Mei move to the country with their father to be closer to their mom, who is in the hospital. The sisters deal with the scariness of moving into a new house and the fear of losing their mom. In true Studio Ghibli fashion, the film delivers a child’s perspective on adult problems.

SATSUKI: Dad! Something’s running around in here!

DAD: More squirrels?

SATSUKI: I don’t think so. They’re not bugs or mice either. They’re black and they’re all over the place!

We get the first hint that magic is afoot when the sisters encounter “soot gremlins” in their rickety new home.

DAD: Normally, you can’t see soot gremlins. But every once in a while if you go from a bright place to a dark one, you can catch a glimpse of them.

Christian parents might get nervous about the film’s inclusion of animistic and magical elements, and that’s a fair criticism. The movie is rated G, but the film depicts a family bathing together, which will seem odd to westerners. But with the right parental shepherding, My Neighbor Totoro can be good for kids. It offers a fascinating cultural experience of Japanese art. Though the film wrongly attributes to “luck” what we attribute to God, it also puts forth characters who embody virtue. Mei is little but brave. Satsuki is a responsible and protective big sister. Their neighbors love them well during a hard time in their lives.

One of those neighbors is big and strange and goes by the name Totoro.

While her big sister is at school, Mei sets out to play alone. But she spies tall ears coming through the grass–a rabbity creature that only kids can see. It dashes under a porch, but Mei pursues it. Mei is maybe a little too brave. Eventually, like Alice in Wonderland, she follows the creature down a hole and finds herself in an enchanted forest glade. There she meets a similar, fuzzy critter with a head five times bigger than her whole body.

MEI: Who are you? A great big soot gremlin?

TOTORO: (starts to sneeze)

MEI: Totoro? Is that what your name is, Totoro?

But is Totoro real, or just a dream?

SATSUKI: Maybe you were dreaming.

MEI: No, I saw Totoro!

Dad explains that Totoro might be a forest spirit. My Neighbor Totoro is like a fairy tale. And like most fairy tales, it’s populated by the religions of the place it comes from. Parents should evaluate whether their kids are ready for that–and prepare to talk about it with them. One good question to ask: What makes this film stick with people from different generations and different nations? Why do we identify with these characters–even though we don’t share their culture or beliefs?

My Neighbor Totoro tells a human story about little girls who miss their mom and depend on their neighbors.

SATSUKI: Mei! We just have to wait a little longer!


SATSUKI: You want her to die, Mei? Is that what you want?


SATSUKI: You’re such a baby. Just grow up!

Things turn dire when Mei runs away to the hospital and gets lost on the way.

At this point the viewer really is concerned that either Mom or Mei is not going to be okay. But though the movie deals with real trouble, it lands safely in a happy ending.

The story feels scary in the way children experience fright. It feels wonderful in the way children experience amazement. It reminds me of something C.S. Lewis said about children and stories. He rejected the idea that adults should protect kids from the knowledge that they are “born into a world of death, violence, wounds, adventure, heroism and cowardice, good and evil.” He said, “Since it is so likely that they will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage.” We have heroism, sisterhood, and neighbor love in Mei and Satsuki. Without the high stakes, all that just wouldn’t shine through.

I’m Chelsea Boes.

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.


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