Before I settle in to think about a specific sequence from the second half of the film—where Mei and Satsuki germinate some seeds they received from the large Totoro—I want to set the stage a bit.
My Neighbor Totoro is deceptively simple. It has little or no plot; it’s just a series of incidents in the lives of the Kusakabe family: two young girls, their father, and their mother. There may be a trajectory of rising intensity in these incidents—the final one, where Mei is lost—is more intense than any that came before. Much of the dramatic interest is generated by the Totoro and their interaction with the girls. As I’ve already noted, they don’t even appear until almost half an hour into the film, and then Miyazaki introduces them gradually. Once they’ve entered the story, we’re curious about them: Just what ARE these creatures?
And one of the things we’re curious about is whether or not they’re real in the terms set within the movie, which are not the same as the terms by which we judge the characters and events from the outside. From the outside it’s obvious that the Totoro are creatures of Miyazaki’s fancy. The question is whether or not Miyazaki has made them creatures of the girls’ fancy or not.
Granny introduced one reality principle when she explained that children could see soot sprites, but adults could not. Mr. Kusakabe accepted that and had no trouble believing that Satsuki and Mei had indeed seen soot sprites. The same principle seems to apply to the Totoro. The girls can see and interact with them—first Mei, and then Satsuki—but father cannot. Yet he seems to accept their reports at face value.
But what of the audience, what does the audience think? What do we make of Granny’s reality principle? Is that a rock-bottom principle within the film itself or is Granny just a superstitious, or kindly, old lady? And what of the father’s apparent acceptance of that principle? Are the Totoro real, within the terms of the film, or not? For example, when Time Out London named Totoro the best animated film ever made, it said the film was about “two small girls retreating into their imaginations to come to terms with the responsibilities of the real world.” Though it’s difficult to know how hard to push, the obvious implication of that statement is that, no, within the film itself, the Totoro are not real. The girls are only imagining them.
That’s an easy conclusion to reach. It follows from the tacit premise that reality is reality, there’s only one of them, and children are easily mistaken about it. To rest secure in that premise one must overlook Granny’s stated belief, which is easily done, and the father’s apparent acceptance of what the children say. That is also easily done. But that is not all that one must overlook. The film is more subtle than that.
Let’s examine a sequence that starts roughly 55 minutes into the film. Satsuki has written a letter to her mother and we see her mother reading it (while hearing Satsuki narrate):
Satsuki explains how Totoro had given her a packet of nuts and seeds wrapped in bamboo leaves (see picture at upper left corner in the screen shot above) which she and Mei had planted in a garden. But nothing happened, Mei watched them and watched them and they failed to grow. Mrs. Kusakabe reads the rest of the letter and our focus returns to the farmhouse, where the girls are going to bed. During the night Satsuki awakens, looks out, and sees the Totoro dancing around the garden where she and Mei had planted the seeds. She awakens Mei, and they go out a join the Totoro. As they dance, gesturing to the seeds to grow, they germinate and begin growing:
The seedlings quickly become small trees, the small trees become larger and larger, and begin merging into one huge tree:
Notice that Mr. Kusakabe is working in his study. The trees continue merging and become one large tree, which dwarfs the house:
At one point Mr. Kusakabe looks up from his work and looks outside (notice the fan he’s holding):
Apparently he sees nothing and continues his work. Meanwhile, the large Totoro has produced a top, which he sets spinning. The two smaller Totoro and the two girls attach themselves to him, he stands on the top spindle, and he takes them flying:
At some point Mr. Kusakabe hears a gentle cooing sound and looks up from his work:
And then gets back to it. The camera shows us what he heard: the girls and the Totoro playing ocarinas high up in the trees:
The image fades to black, and then . . . It’s morning. Will the large tree be there? No, it’s not. There’s a brief look of disappointment on the girls’ faces when they look out at the garden, but then the run to it, see sprouts, and start jumping for joy:
The girls shout: “We did it, we did it! It was a dream but it wasn't a dream!”
Well, was it a dream or wasn’t it?
I don’t think there’s an answer to that question, not inside the movie, and certainly not outside it. If you wish to argue that it was a dream, Miyazaki has given you reason to do so: the huge tree that emerged in the night is no longer there. If you wish to argue that it wasn’t, well, Miyazaki did nothing to frame the events as happening in a dream. In contrast, when Disney had Mickey Mouse dreaming in The Nutcracker Suite he tipped us off by showing Mickey’s mind leave his body and travel to, well, Dreamland:
Miyazaki does nothing like that nor does he use any other framing device. The girls wake up in the middle of the night, go out and dance with the Totoro, fly around with him and at one point we see them in the same frame with Mr. Kusakabe working in his study and at another point he hears them playing the ocarina. As far as the camera and microphone are concerned, they—girls, Totoro, and Mr. Kusakabe—are all in the same world at the same time.
A dream, but not a dream.
Let me suggest that, rather than try to reason things through to a conclusion, one way or the other, that we consider Miyazaki as deliberately holding the issue in suspension while at the same time asking us to consider the human and the natural to be inextricably intertwined and one and the same.