Ghosts, demons, vengeance—these are the hallmarks of the supernatural genre. Around this time of year, references to the unseen spiritual realm abound. From horror movies featuring unsatisfied souls to simple cartoonish depictions of ghosts, there is a universal acknowledgement of the supernatural realm in our entertainment. Often, these references contain darkness and malicious intent against the living, and this can sometimes lead to friction within Christian culture. It can be hard to see the spiritual side of life, so closely tied to our faith, portrayed in such dark ways. This is not so say that evil aspects of the supernatural do not exist, but the pervasive focus on them can feel unfair. However, this is not always the case, and entertainment that takes a kinder path with the supernatural is a refreshing contrast. The Japanese film My Neighbor Totoro is one such example, wherein two little girls discover that friendly forest spirits live near their new home. Through play and exploration, a bond develops between the girls and the spirits, and the supernatural elements are not frightening at all. The benevolence of the spirits in My Neighbor Totoro serves as a reminder that the spiritual realm—though mysterious and unlike our own—is not something to fear.
My Neighbor Totoro is a whimsical film that takes a leisurely pace to tell its story of family, adventure, and nature. Two young sisters named Satsuki and Mei move with their father to a new home out in the country so they can be closer to their mother’s hospital, where she is recovering from an unnamed illness. The girls are excited for the change in scenery and the adventures that await. Their first order of business is to explore their new surroundings, consisting of an old, run-down house and lots of untamed forest. When the girls first see the house, Satsuki screams out, “Creepy! It looks like it could be haunted!” The girls’ minds are primed for a spooky adventure. Upstairs, strange black puffballs shuffle around, and the girls initially scream at their first encounter with a spirit. The father explains that the creatures might be soot gremlins and happily says, “That’s great! I’ve always wanted to live in a haunted house!” Now assured that the soot gremlins could be fun, the girls begin to search for them, crying, “Come out, come out, wherever you are!” The search yields little results and leaves the girls sooty. Fortunately, an elderly neighbor, known as Granny, is present to explain these creatures in more detail. Satsuki asks if they’re “some kind of ghost,” to which Granny replies, “Don’t worry, dear, they’re nothing to be afraid of,” assuring them that the soot sprites mean no harm and are simply a part of rural life. There are no tricks, no pranks in the night to scare the girls. In fact, the soot sprites decide to leave after the humans move in, but not out of spite or meanness—they just want to live quietly in the company of their own kind. Satsuki and Mei’s first introduction to the supernatural world is brief, but there is nothing in it to seriously frighten them or signal that they should stay away from such things. Within the realm of My Neighbor Totoro, spirits are common and have no inherent quarrel with humans.The benevolence of the spirits in My Neighbor Totoro serves as a reminder that the spiritual realm—though mysterious and unlike our own—is not something to fear.
After this initial period of adjusting to the new house, Satsuki leaves for school, and Mei goes outside to explore the untamed nature that surrounds the house. A small, furry creature with pointy ears distracts Mei from her imaginative games, and she acquires the new quest of following this creature as it plants acorns. The furry creature does not want to be caught, and so a brief chase ensues, ending with Mei crawling through a tunnel of foliage and falling into the tree-cave of the titular character Totoro. He is asleep with a rumbling snore, and his twitching, furry tail seems like a game to Mei. She crawls on top of him without any hesitation, and she grins happily. Though a much larger version of the skittish creature Mei saw planting acorns, Totoro does not seem to mind Mei’s presence, and she greets him with excitement and wonder. Mei enthusiastically asks, “Who are you? A big soot gremlin?” Totoro roars out his name, and Mei roars back, cementing their friendship. She rests against him sleepily, scratches his nose, and immediately feels comfortable enough to fall asleep on his fluffy body. She knows that he is not merely some animal she has never heard of before. She identifies him as being the same type of thing as the soot gremlins and ghosts, but this does not scare her. As opposed to the typical manifestations of supernatural beings in the form of ghosts or demons, with the sole intent of stoking fear, Totoro is closer to a giant, grinning teddy bear. He is fluffy, gentle, and approaches Mei with openness and delight. Mei sees nothing in this unknown creature but healthy curiosity and friendship.
Satsuki’s relationship with Totoro takes a little longer to develop, as she only hears stories about Totoro from Mei until she has her own encounter with him. When the girls’ father is late coming home from work on a rainy night, Satsuki and Mei decide to bring his forgotten umbrella and wait at the bus stop for him. Satsuki’s anxiety grows as buses continue to stop without bringing her father and the rain pours. She stands alone at the bus stop, Mei soundly asleep as Satsuki holds her piggyback style. The ground rumbles, and suddenly Totoro appears alongside Satsuki. At first surprised by his presence, she then notices his only protection from the rain is a leaf on his head. She offers Totoro the umbrella she brought for her father, and he is thrilled by her gesture. Totoro’s whimsical fascination with the rain and umbrella distract Satsuki from her anxiety. Soon the Catbus—a large, multi-legged cat that is also a bus—arrives to whisk Totoro away, and the girls’ father arrives. Now Satsuki has her own stories about Totoro to add to Mei’s, and the father accepts these stories with no question. Whether or not he fully believes the stories is unexplored, but either way, he sees no harm in the girls’ supernatural friend and encourages them to thank the spirits for their kindness.
Standing by the girls at the bus stop is not the only time we see Totoro act as their protector, as he comes to the rescue in the film’s climax when Mei goes missing. After Satsuki receives upsetting news that her mother will have to stay in the hospital a little longer instead of coming home for the weekend, Mei runs off. The little girl is nowhere to be found, and the villagers fear that she may have drowned. Satsuki refuses to believe that her sister is dead, and Totoro and the Catbus answer her desperate call for help. The Catbus eagerly welcomes Satsuki inside and begins sprinting across the countryside, and Satsuki calms down enough to enjoy her exhilarating ride, trusting that this quirky spirit will be able to find Mei. They find Mei sitting alone and crying, as she lost her way while trying to find her mother’s hospital. The Catbus smiles as the sisters reunite and then continues its helpfulness by taking the girls the rest of the way to the hospital so they can see that their mother is still recovering and getting stronger. After a physically and emotionally exhausting day, the sisters look happy in the care of the Catbus as it takes them home.
Satsuki and Mei have an unusual relationship with the supernatural that is rarely seen in our entertainment. Though Totoro and his friend Catbus are large and imposing, the girls are never frightened, rightly trusting that Totoro will take care of them. My Neighbor Totoro shows us that the supernatural doesn’t have to be scary. In the world of Totoro, the supernatural is friendly, helpful, and sensitive to the needs of their human neighbors. This story of friendship with supernatural beings offers a drastic contrast to the more common depiction of evil spirits that we usually see.
In Christian households that want to filter the content their families consume, stories that focus on malicious demons and unsatisfied ghosts often don’t make the cut. Unfortunately, this can lead to very little presentation of the supernatural in any form, leaving the spiritual realm largely ignored. Into this void, we can add discussions about how the supernatural really does interact with our world and faith, lest we forget that our hope truly originates from a place beyond human understanding. Totoro and his friends, then, are useful tools that remind us that there is more to the spiritual realm than Hollywood’s typical fiends. An encounter with, say, an angel, would probably include more awe and trembling than the playtime scenes with Totoro, but it wouldn’t be like the pure terror presented within a horror film. Contrary to popular presentation, the supernatural is not something to avoid. Although there are dark forces within the spiritual realm, they do not deserve our complete focus and attention; they are not the sum total of the supernatural. Rather, we should remember that we have a direct relationship with the supernatural—the heavenly realms—through Jesus. Our primary relationship with supernatural beings should not be defined by terror, for our experience now has more common with the friendship and trust between Totoro and the girls.
With as much as our entertainment focuses on macabre, purposefully unsettling supernatural beings, characters like Totoro are an important exception to the pattern. Supernatural beings don’t have to be ghosts or enemies—they exist benevolently as our neighbors, reminding us that we are more than flesh and bone.