My daughter’s favorite movie is about two sisters in a land populated by magical creatures. It explores themes of familial love, elemental powers, and honoring tradition.
No, it’s not “Frozen.” My 2-year-old requests a viewing of Hayao Miyazaki’s 1988 film “My Neighbor Totoro” almost every day, and I couldn’t be happier. We watch the English language dub, with Elle and Dakota Fanning as sisters Satsuki and Mei Kusakabe, and read the picture book version at most bedtimes.
After watching it dozens of times, not only am I not sick of it, but I can point to several lessons I’m glad my daughter is learning from this unexpected favorite movie:
1. Go Outside. Exploring nature is at the heart of “My Neighbor Totoro.” The sisters move from Tokyo to the countryside so their mother can recover from tuberculosis, and 4-year-old Mei’s unsupervised outdoor playtime is the catalyst for all of the film’s magic. She picks flowers, plays with tadpoles, and follows a trail of acorns to Totoro, the giant cuddly-looking forest spirit’s home. My daughter Penrose wants to go outside after each screening, climbing the hill behind our house and looking closely at bugs, seeds, and sprouts.
2. Do Your Chores. As the Kusakabes move into their new home, a falling-down summer house on the edge of an ancient forest, Satsuki and Mei help unpack, find doors and staircases, scrub the floors, and hang the laundry outside. They enjoy the novelty of the water pump and stomping on clothes to clean them in soapy water. When Penrose balks at clearing her plate or helping to feed the dog, I remind her that Satsuki and Mei help their father at home, and she does her part too.
3. Respect Tradition. Most of Miyazaki’s films—some really famous ones are “Spirited Away” and “Princess Mononoke”—include themes encouraging respect for traditional practices, like nature worship. Set in 1955, “Totoro” was intended as a reminder of those traditions in the face of post-World War II industrialization. Satsuki and Mei’s father reminds the girls of the time “when trees and people were friends,” and leads them in a respectful greeting of Totoro’s giant camphor tree. Satsuki, the older sibling, models respect to her elders and to the village shrines for her little sister.
Penrose always asks me to explain what the family is doing when they address the tree, bowing deeply, and I know it will give us an excellent reference point when she asks questions about our own family traditions.
4. Perform Mitzvot. Satsuki’s neighbor and classmate, Kanta, seems like just an annoying boy at first, but he surprises the girls by giving them his umbrella in an unexpected downpour. Satsuki continues the good deeds by trying to bring her father his umbrella at the bus stop, and is surprised by a visit from Totoro. Noticing that he is getting drenched in the rain, she gives him the umbrella instead. He gives the girls a package of acorns, which they plant in their yard, and later helps Satsuki find Mei when she tries to walk to the hospital and see her mother by herself.
None of the characters expect a reward, and Kanta refuses to take credit for his kindness. Each of these instances is a perfect example of a mitzvah, and a great example for my daughter.
5. Keep an Open Mind. Although at first Mei’s father and sister are skeptical when she says she met Totoro, they soon give her the benefit of the doubt, following her to the camphor tree where Totoro lives. Satsuki meets Totoro too, and things get weirder quickly with the arrival of the Cat Bus, which is exactly what it sounds like.
The girls never question their sanity, or try to explain away their bizarre encounters. They accept what they see, and because of it, they experience wonders. I hope that Penrose can approach every day with the same openness and lack of skepticism, for as long as possible.
“My Neighbor Totoro” is a movie that, with its strong sisterly bond, friendly magical creatures, and gorgeously rendered natural settings, should be on every parent’s DVD shelf (sadly it doesn’t seem to be streaming at the moment). It’s one that I’m always happy to snuggle in and watch with my daughter, who loves it from the opening song, which she sings along with, through the final ride in the Cat Bus.