The Magical Realism of Miyazaki’s My Neighbour Totoro (1998)

Zainab Mubashir
12 min readAug 19, 2020

This essay was originally written as a university assignment.

Since the term was first coined in 1925 by Franz Roh, magical realism has come to encapsulate and transcend a variety of genres and media of expression. While Roh’s conception of “magic realism” specifically referred to Post-Expressionist German art, the popularity of the notion took off after being identified with Latin American literature. Navigating elusive categorizations of magic, magical, or the marvelous, a consistent understanding of this phenomenon relies on the intersection of the magical and the real within a shared space. Theorist Wendy B. Faris acknowledges this basic premise by stating that “magical realism combines the real and the fantastic so that the marvelous seems to grow organically within the ordinary, blurring the boundary between them” (Faris, Ordinary Enchantments: Magical Realism and the Remystification of Narrative 1). Using Faris’s basic framework for identifying magical realism, this essay will attempt to read Japanese animation studio Studio Ghibli’s 1988 anime film My Neighbor Totoro (dir. Hayao Miyazaki) as a magical realist text. After briefly touching upon the compatibility between animation as a medium and magical realism as a narrative technique, this essay will identify magical realist elements within the film and discuss the unique manners in which they operate. This essay will also explore the function of magical realism as a subversive mode of story-telling that overturns dominant narratives and gives voice to hitherto unspeakable ones. This will be done by analyzing how My Neighbor Totoro uses magical realism as a tool to express children’s narratives in conjunction with narratives of trauma.

Like any other medium of artistic expression, animation as a mode of visual story-telling does not inherently contain elements of the fantastic. This disclaimer seems necessary since hand-drawn animation, including anime, is often associated with unreality because of the absence of human actors or physical locations. Animated and non-animated films alike, however, are capable of being magical realist because “animation is flowing art and hence has a narrative structure as in literature” (Mishra and Mishra). Nevertheless, animation is especially conducive to hosting magical realism because the visual medium’s descriptiveness is not reliant on narration alone. While literature ascribes to magical realist principles by ensuring that “the narrator’s presentation of the irreducible element [is] on the same narrative plane as other, commonplace, happenings” (Faris 8), film allows the elimination of authorial narration. Hence, the reader “witness[es] the story in a way that mimics actual experience” (Minkin) and can attain a greater degree of believability in the narrative. Animated films can amplify the immersiveness of this experience through an artistic rendering of real images that is capable of manipulating audience perception.

Studio Ghibli’s My Neighbour Totoro makes use of its animated medium to amplify its various magical realist tendencies. These tendencies include the five main characteristics that Wendy B. Faris recognizes as identifiers of magical realism. The films contain an “irreducible element of magic” (Faris 7) while being firmly situated within the real, or “phenomenal world,” (Faris 14) leading the reader to, at times, experience “unsettling doubts” (Faris 17) about the narrative. It also represents the “merging of two realms” (Faris 21) by allowing the intersection of the real and the spiritual, while also questioning ideas of “time, space and identity” (Faris 23) through its characters’ cultural relationship with the fantastic, as well as their personal interactions with trauma.

Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro perhaps best exemplifies the kind of tranquil, immersive experience of magic that Studio Ghibli is globally synonymous with. Chronicling the lives of two young siblings adjusting to an unfamiliar new home by befriending magical forest spirits — the totoro — they alone can see, the film showcases a clear merging of the magical within the real. However, the magical realism of the film not only relies on the existence of fantastic other-wordly creatures living within a realist setting, but also on the elevation of everyday experiences of reality into moments sprinkled with whimsy.

The light, cheerful tone of the narrative is introduced at the onset of the film, where Mei and Satsuki, five and ten years old, respectively, are shown traveling to their new home alongside their gentle-mannered father. Their drive is characterized by their playful interactions with each other and the environment around them; the wide-eyed curiosity of the young children lends itself to the audience to introduce an aura of excitement towards the narrative. The promise of the extraordinary is hence rooted within the bubbly presentation of what could have simply been an arduous undertaking of displacement and relocation. As the family proceeds to settle down into the rural locale, they are welcomed with clear blue skies, well-worn roads, friendly neighbors, and overwhelming greenery — all very much rooted within a phenomenal world. The descriptive imagery encased within the animation of the natural world is integral to creating an atmosphere of wonder within the film, such as when “rice fields and hills unravel before the spectator’s eyes at an almost hypnotic pace that makes them intensely poetical presences” (Cavallaro). The visual impression is that of openness and clarity, with hints of the magical dispersed within the presentation of natural surroundings: winds ripple through trees with extravagance, and fish shimmer surreptitiously within glittering waters. Faris addresses something similar by quoting Erik Camayed-Freixas’ summary of Irlemar Chiampi’s thesis, whereby magical realism comprises the “coexistence of the natural and the supernatural in a narrative that presents them in a nondisjunctive way, in which the natural appears strange, and the supernatural pedestrian” (Faris 11). Through the visual presentation of the natural in a manner that elevates the senses, the film succeeds in centering the source of the magic within nature itself.

The family’s new house itself carries an aura of other-worldliness. Its fragile wooden beams, creaky sliding doors, and innumerable windows immediately grant it a unique character better associated with unknowable wilderness than with the firm rootedness of concrete, urban homes. This is acknowledged early on with the girls’ exclamations of delight at its structural fragility, and their unafraid musings about whether the house is haunted. The audience’s introduction to the setting through the children’s perspective plays an important function in the magical realist narration of the film. According to Wendy B. Faris, magical realist texts are often presented to adult readers as “fresh, childlike, and even primitive,” and thus encourage a “defamiliarization that appears to be natural or artless” (Faris, Scheherazade’s Children: Magical Realism and Postmodern Fiction 177). This privileging of the children’s view of their new surroundings over those of adults present within the narrative is also aided by the characterization of adults within the film. The girls’ father, for instance, humors their fascination with the house being haunted, and later also exhibits patience and belief towards their stories of the totoro and other forest spirits. In doing so, he is “rescued from the stultifyingly stereotypical category of the excessively rational adult” (Cavallaro 74). This will be further ahead discussed in terms of magical realism’s tendency toward accommodating marginalized narratives.

Defamiliarization as a magical realist narrative technique serves to “present familiar things in unusual ways to stress their innately magical properties,” (Simpkins 144) and My Neighbor Totoro is rife with relevant instances. The first promising hint of the magical or the supernatural within the film is offered in the form of an acorn seed. Discovered first by Mei soon after entering their new house, the acorn is presented as a shiny, precious collectible of mysterious origins. Not only does its discovery foreshadow Mei’s later solo adventure that leads her to the Totoro, it is also inextricably linked to it. Her discovery of the forest spirits occurs after she traces a trail of acorns to a small totoro, a squirrel-like creature, trotting along with a bag-full of them. Following the creature through a burrow of roots and into the base of a magnificent camphor tree, Mei finally finds herself acquainted with the giant, fluffy Totoro the film is titled after. Through the earlier defamiliarized presentation of a regular acorn, then, its eventual connection to the magic within the film is established. Defamiliarization also serves to set the tone of the narrative through the visual representation of mundane objects in ways not traditionally associated with them. Early in the film, Mei discovers a bucket with a hole ripped into its bottom, and peers through it to focus on her natural surroundings as if through a telescope. As the missing bottom of the bucket strips it entirely of its intended purpose, it becomes defamiliarized. As a magical realist technique, “this is used to radically emphasize common elements of reality, elements that are often present but have become virtually invisible because of their familiarity” (Simpkins 145). The defamiliarized bucket’s subsequent creative use by the child exposes her curiosity and hints toward later magical sequences within the narrative.

The greatest magic of the film, of course, lies within the Totoro and the world he inhabits. The Totoro, “a hybrid species combining characteristics of the cat, the raccoon and the owl,” (Cavallaro 71) does not engage in human communication, but instead behaves like a loving, domestic, mammalian spirit that can imbue the girls’ lives with comfort and adventure. His stomach provides the best kind of cushioning a sleepy young girl’s body could require, and his spinning top allows him to fly his new human friends atop the tallest trees just to gaze over the night sky. With a “Catbus” — a giant, many-footed cat that operates as a flying bus — at his disposal to take the girls to any location, and an adorably innocent personality to boot, the Totoro is anything but irreducibly magical. An especially magical sequence occurs when the Totoro leads his friends into a trance-like dance to encourage the acorn seeds to sprout into giant trees. The irreducible magic of the moment is acknowledged when the resultant wild winds can even be felt within the house by the father. Even when that magic is cast into “unsettling doubt” by the audience — all that remains of the incident in the morning are new plant saplings instead of the fantastic trees of the night — the girls’ conviction of its occurrence prevents it from being completely falsified.

A significant theme underlying magical realism is its allowance for non-hegemonic narratives within any given context. According to Faris, “in magical realist narrative, ancient systems of belief and local lore often underlie the text,” and there is a concentration on “rural settings” and “rural inspiration” resulting in a “postmodern pastoralism” (Faris, Scheherazade’s Children: Magical Realism and Postmodern Fiction 182). As the artistic product of a Japanese animation studio with global relevance and acclaim, Miyazaki’s film does not make efforts to concede to Western ideals of the appropriate or the real. The film features culture-specific activities like the girls bathing with their father without adding explanatory disclaimers for Western audiences, and also subverts Western notions of adult rationality or patriarchal authority by making the father figure sympathetic toward understanding fantastical events. In fact, the fantastic is dealt with a degree of respect owing to its connection with the spiritual, which is of immense importance within the indigenous Japanese Shinto religion. When Mei and Satsuki first encounter tiny “soot-spirits” inhabiting their attic, their elderly neighbour woman explains away their existence in a matter-of-fact manner, and tells the girls that they can see them because they are children. This further implies a respect not only for childrens’ imaginative narrative within a world that privileges adults, but also for their greater tendency to accept the spiritual or the Other as an acceptable part of life.

While My Neighbor Totoro manages to accord value in childrens’ imaginative and perceptive abilities, it does so while rooted within harsh truths familiar only within the most realistic settings. Characterized by “sparse plot,” the film harkens to the Japanese story-telling tradition of the dowa, “intrinsic to [which] is the presentation of events in such a way that they can be interpreted at once as products of a young imagination or as outcomes of natural causes” (Cavallaro 70). The events of the film transpire over the backdrop of an ailing mother, hospitalized for an illness only ascribed to the children as “flu.” The mother figure’s mysterious absence from Mei and Satsuki’s life lingers anxiously over the entirety of the narrative, and could arguably be the “the natural cause” behind its construction. Following this, it may be inferred that the uncertainty and fear regarding parental loss culminate into the imagination of an alternate reality that can only be conveyed through a magical realist lens. Maggie Ann Bower claims that magical realism can create “sites where the unpresentable can be expressed” (Mrak 2). Psychoanalysts Laplanche and Pontalis define trauma as “an event in an individual’s life that is defined by its intensity, by the subject’s incapacity to respond adequately to it, and by the upheaval and long-lasting effects that it brings about in the psychical organization” (Lejkowski). Childhood experiences of abandonment or loneliness, categorized by helplessness, may thus be considered traumatic.

In My Neighbor Totoro, both Mei and Satsuki have one instance each of breaking down and physically crying out of fear of losing their mother. Those rare instances reflect their inability to address their anxieties during their everyday life. In the absence of acknowledgment of their fears, and the means to attain or express it, their lives are overtaken by vivid imagination. All the encounters with the Totoro, in fact, coincide with moments of immense distress. Mei’s first encounter occurs during a moment of loneliness as she awaits her sister’s return from school. Mei and Satsuki’s collective encounter is situated on a cold, rainy night, after both children have spent hours worrying about their father’s whereabouts. The last encounter occurs when, after exhausting all realistic resources, Satsuki seeks out the Totoro and literally pleas for him to help find her missing sister. Per critic Hirashima Natsuko’s suggestion, then, the spirits are “symbols of the little girls’ anxiety over moving into a new house and fear at the possibility of losing their mother, emotions more effectively conveyed through images rather than words” (Napier 128). This is where magical realism as a narrative tool steps in to translate difficult narratives into representations that can be comfortably consumed. If traumatic events warp a victim’s sense of identity by introducing gaps within speakable narrative, then “reconstruction of traumatic memory can thus help victims of trauma to reclaim their identities” (Mohácsi 19).

Amongst the first few films that elevated the works of Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli to worldwide adoration and acclaim, My Neighbor Totoro remains a classic representation of children’s narratives respectfully envisioned and communicated. Relying lightly on plot progression and heavily on settings and characters, the film embodies the integral world-building that is common to both the experience of childhood, and to story-telling itself. As the film acknowledges the vivid role imagination plays in the construction of personal realities, it parallels it through its use of magical realism as a narrative technique. By making effort to imbue the marvelous within the mundane, and by embracing the other-wordly as gracefully as its characters do, My Neighbor Totoro achieves what any great narrative ever strives towards: it creates magic.

Works Cited:

Arva, Eugene and Hubert Roland. “Writing Trauma: Magical Realism and the Traumatic Imagination.” Interférences littéraires/Literaire interferenties, 2014

Cavallaro, Dani. The Animé Art of Hayao Miyazaki. McFarland & Co., 2006.

Faris, Wendy B. and Lois Parkinson Zamora. “Introduction: Daquiri Birds and Flaubert(Ian) Parrot(Ie)s.” Magical Realism: Theory, History, Community. Duke Univ. Press, 2005.

Faris, Wendy B. Ordinary Enchantments: Magical Realism and the Remystification of Narrative. Vanderbilt Univ. Press, 2004.

Faris, Wendy B. “Scheherazade’s Children: Magical Realism and Postmodern Fiction.” Magical Realism: Theory, History, Community. Ed. Lois Parkinson Zamora. Duke Univ. Press, 2005.

Lejkowski, Richard. “Childhood Trauma and the Imagination in American Literature.” n.d.

Minkin, Erik. “Magical Realism and Animation.” 2013, Savannah College of Art and Design, Master’s Thesis

Mishra, Manisha and Maitreyee Mishra. “Animated Worlds of Magical Realism: An Exploration of Satoshi Kon’s Millennium Actress and Paprika.” animation: an interdisciplinary journal, volume 9, issue 3, 2014.

Mohácsi, Eszter Enikő. “Ghosts of Collective Trauma: Magical Realism and Its Cultural Alterations.” 2016, Korea University, PhD dissertation

Mrak, Anja. “Trauma and Memory in Magical Realism: Eden Robinson’s Monkey Beach as Trauma.” Politics of Memory, 2013.

Napier, Susan J. Anime from Akira to Princess Mononoke: experiencing contemporary Japanese animation. Palgrave, 2001.

Simpkins, Scott. “Magical Strategies: The Supplement of Realism.” Twentieth Century Literature volume 34, issue 2 1988: pp.140–154.

Swale, Alistair D. Anime Aesthetics: Japanese Animation and the “Post-Cinematic” Imagination. Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.

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