Miyazaki Week: "My Neighbor Totoro" as a Reverse Coming-of-Age Story
The coming of age story is a common plot in cinema, and in the works of Hayao Miyazaki in particular. The coming of age can be literal, as in Kiki’s Delivery Service, where the plot revolves around the title character reaching the age when she must strike out into the world and find her own way through it. The coming of age can also be metaphorical, as in Princess Mononoke. Its male lead character Ashitaka is already a fully functioning adult at the start of the movie, so his development over the course of the film is not a literal coming of age, but his experiences as the movie unfolds make him a more mature, emotionally developed human being.
My Neighbor Totoro is a coming of age story in reverse. Rather than growing and maturing as the story unfolds, the lead character Satsuki is allowed to return to a more child-like state. If you haven’t seen the movie yet, what’s wrong with you? Go out and get it and watch it RIGHT NOW and then come on back here. The rest of this article spoils the whole movie.
In the movie, Satsuki plays three distinct roles: the Mother Substitute, the Big Sister, and the Child:
SATSUKI AS A MOTHER SUBSTITUTE
Since their mother is away in a hospital, Satsuki often serves as her surrogate in doing household chores, preparing meals, and otherwise ensuring the physical well-being of her father (who seems too absent-minded to do this sort of work) and her younger sister Mei (who is too young to care for herself properly). It’s not quite as obvious, but she is also acting in this role when she goes to the bus stop to wait for her father and meets Totoro for the first time. In fact, one might argue that she’s playing the Mother Substitute even with Totoro when she gives him her father’s umbrella. This role requires her to have the emotional maturity of an adult well before the age when it is expected of her, and it is says much about her character that she can perform this role as well as she does. Satsuki’s responsibilities in this role are more numerous, and the consequences can be serious if she fails to do them well.
SATSUKI AS A BIG SISTER
This is the role she plays at the very start of the movie, as she shares candy with her sister and leads play activities as they explore their new house. In this role, Satsuki still acts more mature than her sister and holds some responsibility for her well-being, but the responsibilities are far more limited and the demands on her are much reduced from when she is being the Mother Substitute. This is the role she usually plays when the two have adult supervision, such as their father or Granny. As the Big Sister, Satsuki is able to treat Mei more as a playmate and a peer than she can as the Mother Substitute.
SATSUKI AS A CHILD
Satsuki as a child is the rarest role she plays in the movie. While she is mature beyond her years, partially by nature and partially by necessity, Satsuki is still a young girl with the same needs for attention and emotional development that all children have. She is in this role when the family visits their mother in the hospital and when she is at school, and it is not an accident that she is visibly and uncharacteristically impatient with Mei in both of these scenes. While it’s clear that Satsuki loves her sister, the moments when she can be Satsuki the Child are rare. If Mei is present, she has to be either the Big Sister or the Mother Substitute, so it’s not too surprising that her gut reaction is exasperation when Mei attempts to force her way into the moments when Satsuki is able to play the Child role.
With these roles in mind, the true gift that Totoro gives to Satsuki is that he allows her to be Satsuki the Child, even when Mei is present. When the girls play with Totoro in the moonlight, Satsuki does not need to concern herself with her sister’s well-being, allowing her to fully engage in play activities as a Child again. It even takes her a minute to fully accept this, as seen by her initial hesitation when Totoro offers them a nighttime flight.
Totoro’s gift is even more important during the final act of the movie when Mei has gone missing. The moment when Satsuki snaps at her sister over the prospect of her mother dying is a moment when she reverts to Satsuki the Child, as is the moment shortly afterwards when she completely melts down with Granny. Both are natural, completely understandable reactions to the situation, but their combined effect is what leads to Mei running away to go see their mother. Once that happens, Satsuki is forced back into the Mother Substitute role to look for her, since her father is not present. It’s also the first time in the movie that she truly fails at this role. She’s simply out of her depth, unable to bear the weight that is being placed on her small shoulders at that moment.
When she has exhausted all her other options, she does what any child does when facing a crisis and runs to the parent or authority figure that might be able to do something about it: Totoro. While she’s able to keep it together long enough to find him, her reaction once she does is exactly that of a child, breaking down completely in tears as she chokes out what the problem is. It’s interesting to note that Satsuki can only do this with Totoro. Other than the one moment earlier, it seems she’s just not able to be anything except Satsuki the Big Sister or Satsuki the Mother Substitute even with Granny and the other villagers.
Totoro’s reaction is exactly the same as any parent to a panicking child: he pats her on the head, tells her everything is going to be all right (in his own unique way, of course), and remedies the situation in ways that Satsuki the Child isn’t capable of. The fact that his solution is to summon a magical Catbus rather than something more mundane like fixing a bike just makes him an unusually cool substitute parent. The important fact is that he allows her to be Satsuki the Child at a moment when she wouldn’t otherwise be able to.
The end credits hint that after their mother comes home, Mei and Satsuki never see Totoro or the Catbus again (notice that they’re never shown together in the stills), and Miyazaki himself has stated this in interviews as well. The gift Totoro gives is no longer as necessary or important after Satsuki’s mother returns. Satsuki will always have to play the Big Sister with Mei, but with the return of her mother, she is able to lay down the role of Mother Substitute and be Satsuki the Child. Coming of age stories depend on a character developing emotional maturity as the story goes on. My Neighbor Totoro reverses this by making Satsuki the emotionally mature character from the beginning, with her “development” over the span of the movie allowing her to revert to a less emotionally mature state by the end.
For what it’s worth, I think the only other reverse coming-of-age story in Miyazaki’s body of work is Porco Rosso, and I don’t think it’s an accident that these two movies are my favorites among his films.