Those who have not seen the film, certain spoilers ahead
At first glance, we’d say that this chubby creature named Totoro brings a lot to a huge fluffy cat who meets two young sisters while playing. Totoro seems harmless like all childhood imaginary friends. Moreover, “My Neighbor Totoro” is a favorite among families with small children because of these nice form of magical creatures and animals that appear in the animation. Two sisters enjoying the beauty of nature in their home country, Japan, who, from the beginning of the story, face a secret world in the foresc near their home. But some folks point out that, at a meta-textual level, that spirit called Totoro of this magic forest, “that huge and furry thing”, a “spirit like a rabbit” is actually the god of death, which can be seen only by those who have come close to death or are already dead. Although you may think that the two children ar only seeing it (children and their imagination!), their friend, Kanta, doesn’t.
When Mei (4) got lost and when her sandal was found in the pond near the house, had died drowned. A truth hard to be absorbed by her sister, Satsuki (10), who refuse to believe that Mei died. So the big sister goes in a desperate search for the little girl, finding Totoro in the end and, thus, finding her own death, too, but willingly because of her love for Mei.
The more detailed story is that the two girls discover their home country is a home for some cute little creatures called suswatari – tiny black spirits of the house – which finally leave home. One day, Mei follows two of these rabbit-ears-creatures into the bushes until she wakes up under the roots of a camphor tree. There she meets a much bigger creature sleeping, a troll – word in Japanese is “to-ro-ru” which she misspells “to-to-ro” – which reminds her of the “Three Billy Goats Gruff” fairytale.
She falls asleep on its tummy, but when she wakes up, she cannot show her family where this camphor tree spirit sleeps. As a consolation, her father tells her that it is the guard of the forest and it appears only when he wants. One a very rainy night, the two sisters get into a fight pending their father, at which time Satsuki sees it, too. With the help of Totoro, they go visit their mother, watching her from a tree near her hospital. The only one who see the girls is their dying mother. Her reply: “I felt Satsuki and Mei laughed in the tree” – does it mean a farewell from the girls?
In the final scene, the girls seem to have no shadows, which would suggest again that they had died. Those who studied film theory believe that the god of death theory could be related to famous crime called “Sayama Incident” (The film takes place in a house in Sayama Hills!), when two sisters were found dead. It is said that one of the girls saw a cat in front of her before committing suicide. According to Japanese website Flow Management, this case is a mere urban legend that amplify the controversy of Miyazaki’s Totoro character. But in some scenes, symbols appear with indications of that place: the scene where the elder woman prepares some dishes inscriptioned with “Sayama tea” or the hospital place, Sayama. Coincidence or not?
Secondly, the names of the two sisters in the film, Mei and Satsuki, designating May as pronunciation and translation in Japanese, when the incident Sayama took place. On May 1, 1963, Saitama Prefecture of Sayama revealed a case where a man had kidnapped, raped and murdered a 16 years old, for who had asked a ransom note. Her sister killed herself after trying to pay ransom, because she loved her sister so much. Due to stress, she’d been seeing ghost-like raccoons or cats – which may have inspired the creation of Totoros…
It seems that those tiny soot spirits that appear throughout the girls house in the movie ar an ominous sign in Japanese folklore announcind the Death. They also appear later when Satsuki tries to reach her sister.
Some believe the cat-shaped bus who transport girls and Totoro is a vehicle to heaven or to hell? One of the stations is called “cemetery road”, so… who knows.
These speculations are not so new. In 2007, the Ghibli studios officially declared: “There is no truth or resemblance to the idea that Totoro is the God of Death and Mei would be dead in”My Neighbor Totoro”. But many folks know how much Hayao Miyazaki likes to hide deeper meanings into its visual stories.
The 1988 movie seems to be partly autobiographical. Miyazaki’s mother spent time in hospital because of spinal tuberculosis, when he and his brother were very young. It is expected that girls’ mother had suffered from this disease, especially when the director himself admitted that it was too painful to make the film if the protagonists were boys…