Nature and Shintoism: The universal religion of My Neighbour Totoro
Clarisse Loughrey | On 01, Feb 2020Reading time: 9 mins
With Studio Ghibli films now available on Netflix UK, we delve into our archives to look back at what makes them so magical. This article was originally published in 2014.
“Back then, man and trees were friends.” – Professor Kusakabe (My Neighbour Totoro)
“This movie has nothing to do with that or any other religion.” – Hayao Miyazaki (Hayao Miyazaki: Master of Japanese Animation by Helen McCarthy)
OK, so this is the least helpful way to open an article postulating on Miyazaki’s cinematic relationship with the spiritual, yet there’s no purpose served in stumbling onwards in blissful ignorance. Commentators, critics, and academics may agree that the director’s work is developed from a deeply entrenched framework of Shinto belief, yet turn to the man himself and he’ll be quick to deny any personal attachment to the Japanese belief system.
“I will not say that my artistic step is animist or Shintoist. But as far as I am Japanese, I regard myself as a biotopist, a follower of the defence of nature and environment, like much of the people in Japan. Me, and the biotopists whom I attend, let us consider that if this tree or this fish is at this place, it is necessary to let it live where it is. There is no order to impose on the living beings. We respect nature such as it is, and not such as it should be. We approach the doctrines of Gaïa, “the nourishing earth”, according to which there does not exist difference between alive and not-alive, earth and animals.”
The problem here? What he’s just described is pretty much a beginner’s guide to Shintoism, just without the express categorisation and definition that religious belief demands. In brief, Shintoism is an indigenous belief system in Japan so ancient as to predate the existence of historical record. It’s essentially a kind of animism, in which there exists a belief that every single element of the world, from towering mountain to flowering plant, is inhabited with spirits known as kami. (Think Colours of the Wind from Pocahontas as a coherent system, instead of one person’s justification for having a raccoon as a best friend.)
And so we turn to My Neighbour Totoro, in which contextual evidence makes it almost impossible not to interpret its titular fuzzball as a kami spirit. He’s certainly supernatural by nature, crowned “Keeper of the Forest” and granted the ability to make a tree grow simply through the act of vigorous bowing. The home he makes within the camphor tree – the oldest and grandest in the forest – appears to be in keeping with the natural dwelling space of kami spirits; a notion made explicit in the presence of a traditional Shinto gate, which marks the entrance to the tree’s vicinity, and in the shimenawa, the rope of religious consecration, which wraps around its trunk.
Granted, there’s nothing in Totoro’s own bizarre combination of raccoon, cat, owl, and Japanese teenager’s backpack that bears similarity to the largely anthropomorphic kami. Then again, we can’t forget that this is a kids’ movie, and it’s far easier to elicit emotional attachment from a child through the powers of cute than with what would essentially be a chick with the fancy dialled up to 11. Nor does that exclude Totoro from possessing an air of the mystical, propelling him far past the boundaries of mere cuddle partner: the power behind his languid, heavy movements and the bellowing roar, which seems to turn the very air into a gust of howling wind, suggest a figure who demands a certain level of god-fearing awe. Totoro acts exactly as one would expect of a kami: demanding both adoration and respect from those who cross his path.
Shinto practice in action has become defined by a series of loose-set rituals, constantly evolving throughout Japan’s history, yet bound by the same notions of honour and communication with the kami. Here, the story’s central family demonstrate their respect for Totoro by gathering around his sacred tree and thanking him for looking after their youngest member, Mei. In this sense, the tree itself acts as a clearly delineated sacred space for communication.
The nature of this communication also seems resolutely tied to the essence of so much of Miyazaki’s work. As Shintoism is devoid of official scripture, individual interaction with the kami is thought to be enacted not through intellect, the utterance of words, nor patterns of thought, but entirely through feeling. It’s in the quiet, yet awe-inspiring moments in which we reflect upon the beauty of nature; those moments of absolute stillness and unification with our surroundings that we all encounter at certain points in our lives. In My Neighbour Totoro, Miyazaki enacts those moments in his own animation technique: lingering on the sight of a bubbling river or a snail climbing lazily up the stalk of a plant. Or in the moment in which Mei tumbles into Totoro’s tree-bound lair, a cathedral of sturdy bark and carpeted moss. It’s in her awe of this space that she opens herself for communication with Totoro.
As the children’s father teaches them: “Back then, man and trees were friends.” Friendship is no incidental evocation here, as Shinto belief places a heavy emphasis on the interconnected, mutually beneficial nature of humanity’s relationship with nature, through the notion of musubi, or “binding together”. Shintoism has always had a peculiar place in Japan’s history, littered with attempts both to enforce it as the state religion and to suppress its belief entirely; the form in which it survives today is one associated with the more primitive, rural practices, in opposition to the “high” religions of Buddhism and Taoism.
While it may boil down to the essential practice of man caring for the land he cultivates in return for a bountiful harvest, as reflected in My Neighbour Totoro’s harvest sequence, the worship of kami deepens this relationship to express a more profound reciprocation. It’s a notion expressed in very literal terms through Totoro himself: when the family pays respect, the father utters “Thank you for taking care of Mei…from this moment on please continue to do so”; when Mei goes missing it is Totoro who inevitably becomes their last hope in what could be interpreted as evidence that man cannot function without the aid of nature.
To understand the invocation of Shinto beliefs here, as subconscious as they may be within Miyazaki’s own perception of his work, it’s important to look at the film in its own historical context. My Neighbour Totoro’s cinematic release in 1988 marked a decade in which the country experienced an economic boom that threatened the island with the smog of industrial and technological urbanisation. The result was a growing sense of nostalgia among its inhabitants, a yearning for the simple life enjoyed by rural farming communities, which were seemingly being lost. For Miyazaki, Totoro was a very personal evocation of that same nostalgia, being set in his own hometown of Tokorozawa City in the 1950s, a once lushly forested farming community now consumed by the suburbs of Tokyo.
My Neighbour Totoro was first released into cinemas as a double feature with The Grave of Fireflies, Studio Ghibli’s famously anti-war feature, which dealt with the firebombing of Kobe in 1945. It’s interesting to compare the pervasive sense of innocence lost cast over both films; it’s precisely that sense of innocence that echoes through the central sentiments of Shintoisim.
The religion’s unified vision of the world discards the notions of good and evil as clear divisions represented in Christianity through the concepts of God and Satan. Instead, everything in nature, humanity included, is inherently good; evil is but a pollution of the soul which must be removed through purification. It’s a concept at the centre of Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, in which its hordes of kami spirits gather in the bathhouse to be washed of their impurities, and in which Chihiro is tasked with cleaning the “stink god” – revealed to be a river polluted by humanity’s carelessness.
Alternatively, compare Totoro’s endearing presence with the terrifying boar kami that rampages through the forest of Princess Mononoke; a spirit polluted by the evil of man’s invention, the bullet. It’s a pollution passed to Ashitaka when he takes the boar’s head as a prize, which can only be rectified when the kami has been reunited with his head and purified by the cleansing powers of the flood. In Miyazaki’s films, he seems to indicate that nature is only to be feared when it has been corrupted by our very own actions.
It makes sense, then, that it’s only the children who can see Totoro, as they are the signifiers of humanity at its purest, and Shintoism says that only in the purest heart and most open mind, a state known as kokoro, can one interact with the kami. If My Neighbour Totoro can be summarised in one image, it’s that of the tiny Mei sleeping peacefully atop Totoro’s bulging stomach; it’s a moment of complete unification between man and nature, one defined only by the deepest love and the purest love.
It may be an arrogant manoeuvre to disregard the explicit intentions of any filmmaker, yet it’s hard to gaze upon that single moment and not see within it the reflection of Japan’s long history of belief. Perhaps it’s better to state that in My Neighbour Totoro, and in his work as a whole, the filmmaker has created a truly universal form of Shinto belief, which can be appreciated in mankind’s most basic need to awaken itself to the bond that lies between itself and nature; a relationship that provides so much for us, and which we bear the burden of responsibility to protect. Religious or not, it’s a teaching we could all learn a thing or two from.
My Neighbour Totoro is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.
Note: This was originally published in 2014. For our full Studio Ghibli retrospective, see The Magic of Miyazaki.