Exploring Time in Miyazaki’s Timeless Classic – How MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO Is in the Wrong Order

(Find a transcription of this video below)

My Neighbor Totoro, the whimsical tale of two young girls who move to a new home on the countryside and meet an affable forest spirit, has long been a childhood classic for many, and a symbol of Studio Ghibli’s timeless charm. I recently had the privilege of watching the movie in theaters, and something new that I discovered this time was its unique narration on the passage of time. In fact, while My Neighbor Totoro’s timeline is far from perfect, Miyazaki utilizes it in a way to create an almost subliminal effect on the viewer that heightens the emotional weight of what’s being shown onscreen. After seeing it in theaters I made it a point to study the film’s many timeline clues to determine not only when the film takes place, but how that affects the overall story and themes for the characters involved. Along the way I realized what I at first assumed must be a timeline mistake, may actually be a clue that the film’s original scene by scene order was changed for narrative purposes. So, if you’re a fan of Studio Ghibli and Hayao Miyazaki’s work, and you’re ready to learn something new about one of the greatest animated films of all time, get nice and comfy on the Catbus as we head out on our journey!

Welcome to Geekritique! My name is Dakota, and I’ll be your forensic chronologist for the day! And what a day it is! This video was published on April 16th, 2023, which marked the 35th anniversary of My Neighbor Totoro in Japan. It also happens to mark the 35th anniversary of Isao Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies, because believe it or not, the two Ghibli films were released as a double feature. If children wanted to watch My Neighbor Totoro back in 1988, they had to sit through Grave of the Fireflies first, which is widely considered the saddest anime film of all time. While My Neighbor Totoro has a happy ending, it’s certainly not a happy film, but compared to Grave of the Fireflies, which is the true story of two children starving to death in the final months of World War II, My Neighbor Totoro is a ray of sunshine. I cannot fathom these two films played back to back.

But enough about Grave of the Fireflies, let’s pivot back to My Neighbor Totoro and its unique relationship to time. When I study a title’s timeline, generally the first thing I look for is an indication of what year the project occurs in, and as such My Neighbor Totoro is extremely difficult to pin down. A cursory Google search will tell you that My Neighbor Totoro takes place in 1958, which could work based on some in film clues. If we confine our search to sometime within the 1950s, which fits the setting, most of the calendars feature months that work best in 1952 or 1958, though there is a calendar early on that also works in either 1953 or 1959. After the War, Japan took about 10 years to truly get back on its feet economically, and if we place this film in the late 50s, say around 1958, this fits really well.

But then there’s this calendar that specifically reads that the year is 1955. The fact that this is the only occurrence where a year is featured in the whole movie does lend a 1955 placement some weight, despite the fact that none of the calendars featured in the film match up with a 1955 setting. Ultimately the key to determining a year for My Neighbor Totoro may just be this map of Matsugo that Miyazaki mocked up to aid as a storyboard for the film. In the top left corner we see that this is what the layout of the village looked like in the 30th year of the Showa Era, which neatly falls in 1955. Even the English version of the official My Neighbor Totoro novelization translates this to 1955. So despite most of the calendars fitting better in 1958 or 1959, I tend to lean towards this film taking place in 1955, which seems to be the initial intent from Miyazaki.

Now this is a pretty significant timeline mistake, but it’s an easily forgivable one, for two reasons. The first reason, in 1986 and ‘87, when Miyazaki was animating this film, you couldn’t simply search Google or scroll through your phone to figure out what a calendar month looked like 30 years prior like we can today. So he did the next best thing; he used the calendars he had on hand. The calendars that match up with 1958 and 1959 also just so happen to match up perfectly with the years he was animating the film in 1986 and 1987.

And the second reason this timeline mistake is forgivable is that Miyazaki purposely made it vague. He’s stated that he ‘had no specific era in mind’, and that “…it’s actually a lie to say it was set in the latter 1950’s; the truth is that it is a story set in a time before television.” So while we’re clearly in a post war Japan, the mood that Miyazaki was going for was one of a naturalistic nostalgia for a time period before that area was swallowed up in the growing sprawl that is now part of Tokyo, before television changed the cultural landscape. And that certainly comes across in the film.

But Miyazaki’s vague attitude towards the time period is surprising as he clearly places some heavy significance on the dates and calendars scattered throughout My Neighbor Totoro’s runtime. There are several scenes where the calendar seems to purposefully take up room in the framing, as if the director wanted us to take at least partial note of it. But why does Miyazaki place such an emphasis on showing us these calendars if the era isn’t important?

It’s difficult from a passive viewing to determine exactly how long the story elapses, but it’s obvious that the film takes place over a lengthy period of time. We understand that the film must occur over some months to necessitate the prolonged heartache that the children feel at their mother being stuck in the hospital. To draw that feeling out, Miyazaki expertly places dates and calendars throughout the film to subtly showcase the passage of time. From May, to June, to July, and into August, it seems to Mei and Satsuki that their mother is never coming home, but we as viewers experience this elapsed time in an almost subliminal manner, only vaguely conscious of what these dates mean for our protagonists. And more heartbreaking on top of that, when we look at these dates in relation to the mother, Yasuko, we can see how important each passing day is to her. She keeps a calendar by her bedside, as if counting down the days until she can come home to her family.

It’s clear that Miyazaki’s intention with these dates was to showcase that despite time spent at school, and adventures with their new neighbor Totoro, this family, the Kusakabe’s, were incomplete, and were constantly holding their breaths for the next time they could see their mother, or get some hope of her returning. Throughout the film, he made it a point that each subsequent date and calendar featured was chronologically later than the previous, going from Spring to well into Summer. That is, it’s chronological every time except for one instance. The first calendar we see, when the Kusakabe’s visit Yasuko in the hospital reads June, but later, on the day that Mei first meets Totoro there’s a calendar that reads May. At first I took this as no more than an unfortunate timeline mistake, as May cannot fall after June. But going through the film and seeing how well Miyazaki kept the rest of the onscreen dates moving consistently forward, every single time, it becomes increasingly unlikely that this was an actual mistake, at least not originally.

It’s my belief that the original scene by scene order featured Mei discovering Totoro in the month of May, shortly after their move to the new home, but before they visit their mother in the hospital in June. Basically, I think they switched the two scenes around after they had already finished animating them. The primary reason they would switch these two sequences would be to highlight why the Kusakabe’s moved to their new home in the first place earlier in the film, which wasn’t because they wanted to meet Totoro, but because they wanted to be closer to their mother in the hospital. As it stands in the final film, they don’t even head over to the hospital to visit her until well into the 21-minute mark, and if my theory is correct and Mei’s meeting Totoro was indeed supposed to happen earlier, that means we wouldn’t have met the mother Yasuko until well past the 30-minute mark, which would have been too late narratively. It makes sense from a storytelling perspective to switch the sequences around because the entire point of the film is that these two kids are learning to cope with the possibility of losing their mother, and thematically by placing Totoro’s introduction after that point Miyazaki injects some well-timed levity and fantasy into the story to balance out the sadness. This is most likely why the June calendar appears before the May calendar in the final film.

But beyond the mismatched dates, there’s actually more evidence to support this. First, both scenes are easily interchangeable; you can flip the sequences back and forth without messing up any dialogue or logic. And secondly, there’s actually some historical precedence that the original cut of the film had certain scenes in different orders. Upon completing the animation in October 1987, My Neighbor Totoro was screened before most of the audio was added, and notably some sequences were in the wrong order. I have to imagine that this might be partially in reference to the scenes we’ve just discussed. Perhaps Mei meeting Totoro really was originally intended to be before the Kusakabe’s visit to their mother in the hospital.

Whether or not my theory is correct, one thing is certain. Time is an aspect of this film that’s deeply important, because it helps inform each character’s decisions and outlook on life. We’ve spoken about the mother’s motivations for keeping a calendar by her bedside, but that visual helps us empathize with a character who’s only role in the film is to patiently wait to get better, while her children grow up without her. “I can’t wait until I get better. When I get home, I’m gonna spoil those girls rotten.”

As is true in reality, age has a lot to do with how each character is written to perceive time. Granny, the oldest character in the movie, views another week passing by as no time at all, and offers this perspective as some comfort to young Satsuki. “The doctors say your mom just has a cold; she should be home next Saturday.” Tatsuo, the father, is often seen getting caught up in his work, to the point where time slips him by, even forgetting to eat. “Oh wow, is it that late already?” But he takes each day in stride, and doesn’t outwardly get caught up in the fact that they’ve missed so much time together as a family, but it does clearly affect him. “We’ll just have to wait a little longer for a weekend together. Don’t worry, we’ve made it this far.”

The two girls, Satsuki and Mei, take their time apart from their mother quite a bit more harshly than the adults. Satsuki writes to her mother often, keeping her abreast of what the family’s been up to in her absence. Thankfully she has school and the occasional adventure with Totoro to keep her mind off of things, but she’s always waiting for that next opportunity to be with her. “That’s great Granny, mom’s coming home on Saturday.” Yasuko’s protracted stay in the hospital does wear down on Satsuki eventually, and she grows more and more cynical that her mother will ever make a full recovery. “This is just like last time; they said mom just had a little cold, she’d be home in a few days… Granny, what will we do if she dies?”

But the one who takes the time elapsed hardest is undoubtedly Mei. “So she’ll be home tomorrow? Mom said she was gonna sleep in my bed with me!’ At only 4 years old, her ability to understand patience and the time necessary for things to happen hasn’t fully developed yet. “Mei, the doctor said that mom’s not doing well, so she doesn’t get to come home this weekend.” “No fair!” On one instance when their father’s away, Mei is incapable of waiting for Satsuki to come home from school, and drags herself and Granny all the way to the school to be with her sister. Each day feels like an age to someone with no frame of reference for time. “Do you think that they’ll sprout tomorrow?” Miyazaki gets that and he writes her lines and motivations so believably that when Mei makes the decision to go on a trip to the hospital alone, a trip that would take an adult over 3 hours, we feel true fear for her, as we know she is incapable of making it safely to her destination, and that time alone must truly have been terrifying to her.

Miyazaki’s almost casual acceptance on how age influences how you perceive time is something worth being studied. Even though most viewers won’t fixate on how much time the mom spends in the hospital or how each family member reacts to that, choosing instead to focus more of their appreciation on the more spiritual side of the film, its clear that this subtext meant something to the director. It comes as no wonder then to learn that his own mother suffered from a similar illness, spinal tuberculosis, which left her bedridden for 9 years when he was a child, the first few years of which she too was hospitalized. This film was a glimpse into his own childhood in many ways, and how he learned to cope with the possibility of never seeing his mother again. She did of course get better, as does Yasuko, as we see in the credits that she finally gets to come home and sleep beside Mei in bed. A simple, sweet ending to an incredible film.

Prior to this video My Neighbor Totoro didn’t rank in my top 5 Studio Ghibli films, but now that I’ve taken the time to really sift through what Miyazaki was trying to subtly showcase in the background of this fantastical adventure, I think I may just have to readjust my rankings. I hope you enjoyed this exploration of the film’s timeline. Am I onto something with those scenes being in the wrong order? Let me know your thoughts down below!

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