The Nature of Healing in ‘My Neighbor Totoro’ (1988): Shinto, or Shintoism, is a religion native to Japan that has profoundly shaped the imagery of Studio Ghibli’s works and is a fundamental component of Nipponese mentality and art. Such worship is a form of animistic polytheism that involves the veneration of kami, that is, spiritual presences inherent in all components of the earth and the universe. It has no absolute commandments. It does not collect a defined set of prayers, and, most importantly, it considers no one being or kami (deity) superior to the others. Generally, it prescribes a simple life in harmony with people and nature. Consequently, nature is sacred, as it is a manifestation of the divine, and maintaining contact with it is necessary to keep close to kami—more than anything, nature should be revered because life arises from it.
Understanding the nature of Shintoism and its influence on Ghibli’s filmography is necessary to understand the depth of My Neighbor Totoro’s connection to the natural world. Hayao Miyazaki, the director, has dealt with the theme of the environment, its damage, and the dangers that come with it for the entirety of his career. But, while the conflictual nature-human relationship has a dominant presence in several features (suffice it to mention Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, Princess Mononoke, and Spirited Away), there is one movie in particular that addresses the issue with an almost diametrically opposed perspective, My Neighbor Totoro.
My Neighbor Totoro, released in 1988 and distributed by Toho Production, is not a story of conflict between man and environment but of reciprocity between the two sides. This choice enables an almost unprecedented portrayal of nature, which finally becomes a place of harmony, reclaiming its primordial role as a place of creation and healing.
Indeed, the teachings of Japanese culture propose an entirely different view than the Western view of what we call nature. On the one hand, Shinto invites a conception of nature in which the spirit is no longer a specific attribute of human beings but is also recognized in animals, plants, places, minerals, and even objects. Whereas in Western culture, the natural scale follows a vertical hierarchical model, culminating in the supreme being, the Shinto model is entirely horizontal. A human being, a lake, a chair, or a bird are all components of the same ontological order since they are all imbued with the same divine nature. On the other hand, Japan’s geographical history, ravaged by extreme natural events since ancient times, favored their reading as sacred and a source of reverence and respect.
In Miyazaki’s cinema, nature is not a passive actor. It can intervene, and its agency can be as beneficial as it can be terrifying. It provides transcendental and healing assistance to which the film’s two young protagonists, Mei and Satsuki, are subjected. The two girls have just moved with their father, an archaeology teacher, to the country village of Tokorozawa to be closer to their ailing mother, who is hospitalized in a country sanatorium.
The mother’s character is fundamental, as it is the first in the story to incorporate the theme of the healing powers of nature. Multiple studies have amply demonstrated the correlation between time spent in nature and physical benefits, and it is commonplace to consider rural areas as a place prone to convalescence.
In addition, as early as the early 1980s, the Forest Agency of Japan started recommending the so-called forest bathing, or shinrin-yoku. These forest visits are associated with lowered blood pressure, heart rate, and stress, as much as improvements in mood and immune system. The biophilia theory suggests that since humans evolved in nature, our senses and body rhythms are innately linked to other living organisms. This addresses the intelligence of the force of life, a force that aims for balance, capable of healing us.
Although My Neighbor Totoro has an autobiographical foundation linked to the director’s memories of his mother, who was ill with tuberculosis, the film’s ending shows Mei and Satsuki’s mother smiling and, potentially, recovering. Particularly emphasized is the beneficial effect of the earth’s resources, including the corn cob that Mei brings her as a gift in the film’s finale. At the same time, the two girls are facing profound emotional challenges, from their mother’s illness to moving to a new home to the fear of separation and being alone. In this sense, the primal power of nature is revealed, that of mental and spiritual healing rather than merely physical.
When Mei is left alone for the first time, as her father is working and her older sister is at school, nature spirits rush to guide her off the giant camphor tree where Totoro rests. Totoro, whom Mei mistakes for a troll, is the guardian of the forest, an animal somewhere between a bear and a raccoon, and an extension of the ecosystem he inhabits. By welcoming Mei, he gives her the same sense of warmth, love, and protection proper to a mother’s embrace.
Satsuki’s first meeting with Totoro also occurs in a similar moment of fragility. As the child is waiting at the bus stop, worried about her father’s delay and the adverse weather conditions, Totoro appears to keep her company during the wait. Totoro, again, provides a parent’s form of emotional support in response to the child’s innate need for protection from darkness and solitude.
This reversion to the primordial conveys the animism that permeates nature in Japanese tradition and the idea that humans live under the benevolent protection of divine spirits. Indeed, there are several moments when the characters linger to offer their gratitude to the forest: the girls’ father takes them to pray to the camphor tree in which Totoro rests that it may protect their family. Satsuki asks a Jizo statue for shelter from the rain. At the same time, Mei relies on the same statues after getting lost on her way to the hospital. The spiritual component with which the natural world is imbued is even more emphasized by depicting the forest as a gateway and passage between the otherworld and the physical world.
The vision of My Neighbor Totoro is partially in contrast to the vision of a more Western return to nature which (in films such as Wild or Into the Wild), in order to fulfill its spiritual function, must be inextricably linked to overcoming its pitfalls. This is an arguably fundamental difference in representation since, in the aforementioned films, nature must still be respected but simultaneously feared, and self-actualization lies in the ability to tame (and, in a sense, overpower) it.
In My Neighbor Totoro, nature is not an enemy, and this is not only when it is warm, friendly, and welcoming but also when it is unfamiliar and, at times, terrifying and incomprehensible. Getting in touch with it does not mean taming it, but recognizing that we are just one of its components and cooperating in nurturing life. Mei and Satsuki are healed spiritually, and their mother is invigorated physically. At the same time, Totoro gets assistance in planting seeds, a symbol of creation, maturation, and growth.
It should be emphasized how the perspective does not mean the absence of a stance against modernity, which is instead found in its subtext. In fact, My Neighbor Totoro represents the risk of what we are giving up and leaving behind, how we are moving away from what are the gifts we receive from nature, and a cautionary tale on how we ourselves are threatened, physically and emotionally, by its damage and disappearance. Or, as Miyazaki himself asserts:
“There is a bond between the depths of nature and the depths of the human heart, incomprehensible and mysterious, a bond that must be protected.”