Totoro is Not the God of Death


Now this is just weird. In Japan, there's a running theory about My Neighbor Totoro that has been making the rounds. The theory? Totoro is actually the god of death, and Mei is actually dead by the end of the picture. This conspiracy has been growing in popularity, to the point where Studio Ghibli had to publicly debunk it on their official blog.

Of course, here in America, we have popular movie conspiracies all the time, mostly involving Pink Floyd records. I always have a good time playing along, even though it's all complete nonsense. Still, I have to be honest. This Totoro theory is really creepy. It kinda freaks me out. Perhaps that's just because it serves as such a vivid reminder of my own horrifying premonitions of death last year, months before the sudden and shocking loss of my aunt. Just hits a little too close to the bone for my comfort, a year-long ordeal that I struggle to come to grips with.

One of the great things about Totoro is that you have this large, ferocious-looking creature that is completely benign and happy. He's peaceful. He's the monster you invite from under your bed and have tea parties. The idea that such a character could be turned into a spectre of death strikes me as a moral violation, like the rash of torture movies that have invaded our theatres the past few years. What sort of mind imagines these things?

Hmm. The more I think about this, the more I find myself wondering aloud whether Miyazaki was consciously attempting to disarm our primal, childhood fears of dark forests and large monsters. I think the conspiracy crowd in Japan has got it completely backwards on this. As if today's world needs more conspiracies. We live in an age of religious fanaticism, "enlightened" atheism, and nihilism; burning down forests, waging permanent war, crucifying their gods, and turning Totoros into monsters. Something is dangerously wrong with the souls of men.

30 comments:

Klaus said...

woah, that's certainly surprising! Totoro a God of Death... I always considered him more like the life-bringing and -safing type of God (just think of the scene with the growing seeds).
And I think that i somewhere read an interview or something where Miyazaki actually said that one of the reasons he made Totoro was that he wanted to "unscare" children.

Benjamin De Schrijver said...

How would a Death God make trees grow?

Chris Sobieniak said...

Amazing the kind of silly stuff people would think these days.

Though on some level, would that make Mei at the end of the film a exact duplicate? :-)

Really, I have to say to myself, it's just a movie!

Anonymous said...

i've been trying to search for this in english tonight cause im a bit on too tipsy (ok so im basically gone) to search in japanese. because of this, all i could find was your blog. my friends and i were talking about this, and i had a very similar reaction to you. i was extremely creeped out, but at the same time fascinated by this discovery. Whether it's true or not, who cares, but the very idea is ちょ~興味深い because it makes so much sense. After hearing the reasons i couldn't help but wonder why i didn't think of this myself.
no i have to watch it again. who cares if ghibli debunked it. its still insanely awesome!

Bart said...

...Why on earth would people coming up with theories for movies they enjoy annoy you? That'd defeat the point of a lot of movies, not to mention art in general.

"a moral violation"? oh, please.

Toongirl said...

If they want an official Cartoon God of Death, they are looking in the wrong movie.

They should check out Hubley's Black Rabbit of Death specter in 'Watership Down.'

I'm willing to go out on a limb here and say that 'Watership Down' is the Official Animated Film that Traumatized Generation X as Kids.

Especially in the UK.

Anyone wish to take me on this one? ;)

Anonymous said...

okay hold on a second. i'm from japan, and that's not exactly the rumor. Totoro is a Forest Spirit... everyone gets that. However, some people do believe that Mei died when trying to retrieve her shoe (and satsuki later when trying to save her) because in the artwork of the movie, after that scene, both girls shadows dissappear, which would mean they were ghosts. It probably didn't help that they never really were with their parents after that... But yeah... it kinda is a silly rumor, but kind of understandable. People make those kinds of symbolism stuff all the time that authors never meant to put in there... it just means that Hayao Miyazaki was that amazing at what he did...

Anonymous said...

Just for kicks (though I don't think this film has anything to do with the Sayama case):

http://my.opera.com/sukekomashi-gaijin/blog/2009/01/01/tonari-no-totoro?cid=10405770#comment10405770

I do, however, believe that this film incorporates death.
1- The mother has tuberculosis, which is considerably fatal even under the best care, so the family moving to the country is mostly for the mother to die in a peaceful place.
2- The children do not understand death, so their process in coping with their mother's absence is met through the spirits they encounter, such as the makuro-kurosuke and Totoro (both of whom are said to gather where death is near, such as in old, crumbling houses, or those who are touched by death). They are spirits, after all - where else would they come from but the spirit world?
3- The Cat-Bus could be seen as a ferry to the spirit world, as it travels invisibly in the wind.
4- The color palettes do change for Satsuki and Mei once they reunite, becoming paler and ghost-like.
5- Once they do reunite, they go to see their mother, but only their mother notices them as she is touched by death. The film ends with them riding away together in the Cat-Bus (the end credit imagery could be seen as memories of their lives, or all of them reuniting in the spirit world).
6- Kanta, the neighbor boy, is never shown experiencing the spirits, even though the Grandmother says that only children can see these spirits.
7- When Satsuki enter the Cat-Bus looking for Mei, one of the destination options on the bus's display-board is written as "Grave" "Road", hinting that Mei drowned.

I don't see why people get so up in arms about things like this - personally, I feel like most children's stories (ala Grimm's and children's rhymes) are the most morbid stories of them all. In Totoro's case, I believe the symbolism of death is quite prevalent, but it's pretty Buddhist in its approach - western people typically get pretty huffy about death imagery, even though we've got the most violent television programmes out there. Buddhist death is very different than Christian death, so this could be a cultural difference of incorporating such a theme into what we view as a "family film", or it could just be people finding deeper elements in this beautiful and moving work of cinema.

Daniel Thomas MacInnes said...

@toongirl: Just for the record, the cartoon that traumatized us Gen-Xers was "The Smurfs."

@Anons: The "Totoro Death" trip offends me because it's the creation of smug, spoiled rotten kids who get their rocks off spoiling childhood memories. There's a whole cottage history in childhood revisionism, and always directed at teens and college-aged boys who break their toys to prove how "adult" they are.

Family Guy and Robot Chicken are notorious for this, and even though I enjoy both shows, this has always rankled me.

One great comparison is Homestar Runner. It is obsessed with pop culture from Gen Xers' childhoods, but its attitude isn't snarky or crel. They have good hearts, and that warmth towards nostalgia is a welcome change.

There is no "God of Death" in My Neighbor Totoro. No reasonable person would entertain such a notion. It's complete bullshit and it's not even worth debating. It is a claim that can be easily refuted a dozen different ways.

The smug losers who glom onto this nonsense will grow up to embrace stupid conspiracy theories as adults. Most likely, they will still be living with their parents' basements.

Oh, and just for the record, Hayao Miyazaki never stated that the Totoros were spirits. He conceived them as forest animals.

greentea said...

Totoro as the 'god of death'? Well I won't say it's not an interesting theory, and it probably would fit with the ending if you wanted it to (though I don't imagine hardly anyone watching would assume it), but I thought Satsuki made it clear it was NOT Mei's shoe? And how/when did Satsuki die?

I dunno, Totoro just looks like a lazy cat/raccoon thing who plays with kids when he feels like it.. If he was 'death', it would be quite a contrast with the whole grimreaper image.. And this would be the only kid movie I can recall that ended with the kids dying, and it being a very happy ending. I do think this myth is interesting in that way.

But I think I understand those who wouldn't like this myth. I don't think it ruins the film, but I think a lot of people make theories about 'Alice in Wonderland' too, that it's about drugs or other 'adult' things, or whatever people come up with. I don't see a problem with seeing different things in a film, but some stuff people get out it are just too far-fetched.

Maybe it's because both Miyazaki and 'Wonderland' are pretty 'out there'. Surrealism doesn't automatically have to have a darker theme, but it seems to attract people who like that kind of symbolism.

Anonymous said...

And don't forget that the first syllable of Totoro, "tot", means "dead" in German.

*face palm*


Tonari no Totoro is and always will be my happy, cheerful favorite movie, come what MEI!

Daniel Thomas MacInnes said...

@anon: I knew there was something suspicious about tater tots.

Oh, and...ahem, the syllables for "totoro" are to-to-ro. The Japanese alphabet pairs one consonant and one vowel.

I still have my eye on those tater tots. They're up to no good.

Anonymous said...

Dear Daniel,

I stand corrected. Change "first syllable" to "first three letters".

Still, this conspiracy theory is as good as any. Especially when applied to *devilicous* tater tots. Doesn't their form remind you of a certain shape? TOTOROOO gone crispy!

Have a great weekend,
Helen

asuka said...

maybe what gives a "dark" interpretation of totoro its plausibility is the fact that the film is serious in what it's trying to do. a serious film about life and childhood is also about death and change. i love watching totoro and fireflies together: you see all those of visual echoes (e.g. fireflies/makkuro kurosuke) that add thematic resonance and darkness(/shading).
i think.

Albert said...

It's deliberate. In the movie they make clear that only kids can see Totoro, because they are innocent. When kids see the movie, they believe in a happy ending because they are innocent. We find a darker meaning because we are adults. We no longer "see" Totoro. The movie effectively show us we have lost our innocence. It's completely masterful, IMHO.

jacob said...

Oh my god Albert, that was incredibly deep.I now hate myself

jessiwha said...

I think it's silly how the op is freaking out over calling totoro a shinigami is synonymous with calling him evil and ruining a beautiful movie. Death and destruction are not evil, they are necessary for the progression of life. Think of the natural cycle of a forest. Things bloom and grow, and die. But that dying tree makes a home for bugs and mushrooms and all sorts. Totoro, a forest spirit helps them grow trees and enjoy life and when Mei disappears, reunites them in the afterlife. It's a beautiful way to analyze a wonderful movie. Seeing something in a different light should never retract from the joy of it.

Gypsy Fox said...

Mei actually mispronounces the japanese word for troll, that's where "Totoro" comes from.
And also if you keep watching the credits they go to show you the girls, very much alive, playing with other children and their parents. As well as a new baby.
I think people want to see a deeper morbid meaning, because in someway a more darker meaning makes more sense to our adult minds than the actual innocence behind the film.
I think after a certain age we stop understanding innocence.

Marina Rose said...

Um...the thing is, Totoro is shown as being a big fluffy loveable creature on purpose. Death is being welcoming. It's a safe place, a happy place for Satsuki to be reunited with Mei...

Alisa Chen said...

Totoro is not the death god. I just rewatched the movie and many people are saying Mei drowned and satsuki lied it wasnt her sandal. Satsuki DID NOT lie. If you look closely, or search up "mei's sandal totoro" on google images, you will see meis sandals have two straight lines, a parallel pattern on her sandals, while the sandal found in the pond has an X design, an intersecting line pattern, which i believe has a flower in the middle. People also say Mei and Satsuki die at the end, along with having no shadow. I couldnt determine that for sure, but most likely they didnt die and the reason why they had no shaws was because it was dark out.
Please stop worrying about totoro being a horror movie. I hate it when people ruin other's childhood. I also hate it when people believe them.
Plus why would someone even make a movie about a cute, fluffy, furry, everyone adores creature while it was actually a death god? XD

Leora Tozer said...

The sandal is clearly different from Mei's, though they are similar. But what I want to know is, if that's not Mei's shoe, then whose is it?!

Unknown said...

Death is not an enemy to be overcome or an evil to be avoided - death is simply and naturally the end of life. For me, the film sites our human fears and terrors serenely and safely in the real world of nature, where everything has its season. And the end credits reveal the afterstory, one of ongoing life.

Brooke Schlaphoff said...

What I don't understand is why everyone thinks that just because Totoro might be the 'God of Death' that it automatically means he is evil. Totoro could certainly be the god of death and not be a horrible creature. Death isn't bad, it's just what society has made us come to believe- since we don't understand it. What the conspiracy is suggesting is a calmer aspect of 'death'.

Hanma Kenta said...



#1 Mei and Satsuki rode back on the Catbus together to meet Granny and the boy (Hanma, I think) and Granny clearly saw Mei, and hugged her.If they were ghosts, Granny would've passed right through Mei.

#2 I don't CARE if the movie was made during the year of a Murder. Nobody has to care. Just because the girls had the same name, and the eldest thought she saw a racoon does not classify the movie as 'Horror'.

#3 If the Totoro's are Shinigami's of death, how did they help the girls grow acorn trees in the garden?

#4 You have to admit that society is really, really into movies, and love making rumors just to scare the heck out of us.
What a way to exist.

#5 Do you really think that Totoro would hurt the little girls whom he befriended?

...yeah, i'm done...

....over to Satsuki!!

SATSUKI: Want an acorn?
MEI: Yeah, want an acorn?
Hee hee!

:D


Hanma Kenta said...



#1 Mei and Satsuki rode back on the Catbus together to meet Granny and the boy (Hanma, I think) and Granny clearly saw Mei, and hugged her.If they were ghosts, Granny would've passed right through Mei.

#2 I don't CARE if the movie was made during the year of a Murder. Nobody has to care. Just because the girls had the same name, and the eldest thought she saw a racoon does not classify the movie as 'Horror'.

#3 If the Totoro's are Shinigami's of death, how did they help the girls grow acorn trees in the garden?

#4 You have to admit that society is really, really into movies, and love making rumors just to scare the heck out of us.
What a way to exist.

#5 Do you really think that Totoro would hurt the little girls whom he befriended?

...yeah, i'm done...

....over to Satsuki!!

SATSUKI: Want an acorn?
MEI: Yeah, want an acorn?
Hee hee!

:D


WhyIsThereAnOtherOption said...

This is based on the assumption that Shinigami are evil, they are just doing their job, sending people to the afterlife, I'm quite fond of this idea. We must remember, in the modern (though it is quite old let's say Victorian times) fiction is filled with anti-heroes, good characters with dark motifs and vice versa, being a god of death doesn't mean you are evil.

Rainshine Hyena said...

I just want to say something which may or may not be (and I don't care, either way) "offensive" to you shallow-thinking slaves of the world. I am utterly appalled and disgusted by the idea that being a "God of Death" makes Totoro "creepy" or that if such a thing were true that it would "ruin childhoods" for people. Now, I don't care if Miyazaki meant for the story to be percieved in that way or not, but if you pay attention, it makes sense. Totoro is full of life and death, joy and sorrow, light and darkness; he is the most accurate representation of a "Reaper" (for lack of a better name) I have ever seen in mainstream media, and it sickens me that people will disrespect this beautiful figure by calling him "creepy." If my theory is correct, and Miyazaki did somehow subconsciously incorporate this deeper level of story into his film, then I believe it was only for the good. After all, how else can one ease the suffering of the world than to take the ugly and make it beautiful?

Rainshine Hyena said...

I just want to say something which may or may not be (and I don't care, either way) "offensive" to you shallow-thinking slaves of the world. I am utterly appalled and disgusted by the idea that being a "God of Death" makes Totoro "creepy" or that if such a thing were true that it would "ruin childhoods" for people. Now, I don't care if Miyazaki meant for the story to be percieved in that way or not, but if you pay attention, it makes sense. Totoro is full of life and death, joy and sorrow, light and darkness; he is the most accurate representation of a "Reaper" (for lack of a better name) I have ever seen in mainstream media, and it sickens me that people will disrespect this beautiful figure by calling him "creepy." If my theory is correct, and Miyazaki did somehow subconsciously incorporate this deeper level of story into his film, then I believe it was only for the good. After all, how else can one ease the suffering of the world than to take the ugly and make it beautiful?

Briar said...

I agree that death is not evil. It is a normal part of life. The West's multifaceted crisis has infected its view of death (and life). And in any case TB is not a 100 per cent lethal disease, as Anonymous asserts. Wikipedia says that about 8 per cent of those infected die. Granted My Neighbour Totoro is set sometime in the past, but it is clearly not far in the past. Their mother seems to have been sent to the country as part of her treatment, or perhaps to aid her recuperation. Countryside sanatoria were common, in Japan as well as in Europe and the US. My Neighbour Totoro is so clearly a film about life, about a recovery in the joy of life, that the counter theory seems wilfully contrary. The mother clearly declares her intention to get better at the end of the film, as though her recovery was being hampered by depression and fatalism, which her children's innocent explorations of Nature and its life-enhancing power sweep away.

Maryjane Garcia said...

THANK YOU FOR MAKING THIS MADNESS STOP!!!! Cause i know the creator of the movie My Neihbor tortoro would not so that.....he is a good person

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