My Neighbor Totoro (1988), is one of the most famous of the animations to come out of Studio Ghibli, directed by Miyazaki. Coming some 6 years before Pom Poko, which made our Cult Film Friday list a while back. The landmark heart-warming animation, that propelled the beautiful work of Miyazaki and the Art Director Kazuo Oga to international fame, has a possibly darker underlying theme that many people may not be aware of. The cuddly Totoro hailed as one of the greatest characters in animation ever, and more beloved by fans than Mickey Mouse, has a dark secret. He is the messenger of Death!
Not only that, but there are those that believe the whole movie is based on the Sayama Incident. The murder of a girl in May 1963, and the subsequent suicide of her older sister in the city of Sayama some 60Km north west of Tokyo.
The theory goes like this... The older sister in the movie is called Satsuki, which is Japanese for May. The younger sister is called Mei (pronounced the same as May in English). The Sayama Incident took place in the month of May. The movie is set close to the Sayama area of Japan, and the name "Sayama Tea" 狭山茶 appears early in the movie on a tea chest as they are unpacking the house.
Like the story of the Sayama Incident, the younger sister went missing and the older sister searched frantically for her. In the movie, in the her search for Mei, Satsuki gets on the Catbus which has a sign on it that uses the Japanese characters for Grave Road (墓道) written on it. Some believe that this is Satsuki travelling with Totoro's help to the land of the dead to find Mei, who has died.
There are other theories, related to the lack of shadows the girls have after Mei goes missing. Studio Ghibli have simply said that there were no need for shadows, denying the supposed connection between the movie and the true story of the Sayama Incident. The whole thing may well be just an Internet conspiracy theory, but having recently watched My Neighbor Totoro after reading the theories, it does give an new and interesting slant on what already is a wonderfully surreal and magical movie.
Weird Retro Fact: Studio Ghibli's 1994 animation movie Pom Poko featured as a Weird Retro Cult Film Friday selection.