It's been long established that animation isn't just for kids. But one of the things I love so much about Hayao Miyazaki's movies is precisely that they distill that childlike candor, bringing us back to a time we were afraid of the monsters under our bed. Back when we could definitely spot spirits in the trees on a walk in the forest, and back when we were building entire sagas with two plush toys battling it out on the corner of the living room carpet.
Take My Neighbor Totoro, the delightful encounter of a bunch of adorable plushy creatures and two spirited girls, topped with sunlight filtering through the trees and illuminating the rice fields. Add a catchy song or two and you've got the perfect childhood movie, right?
All of this to say that I was pretty taken aback when I learned that such an endearing feature as My Neighbor Totoro might have found its inspiration in much darker and gruesome events. Exploring Miyazaki's filmography a little further, I found more than one movie with a bleak interpretation to it.
But there's no aim here to take apart the innocent magic of Studio Ghibli's fantastic universe; rather, I found that these theories contributed to showing how many inscrutable layers Miyazaki's works are made of, and how powerful their underlying message can be. If you're ready for a more chilling perspective, here's an alternative reading of three of these works: My Neighbor Totoro, Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke.
1. 'My Neighbor Totoro'
My Neighbor Totoro might be the Miyazaki movie that works with the youngest audience, but it could also have the most disturbing inspiration: several fans pointed out the parallels between Totoro's story and the infamous Sayama incident that took place on May 1, 1963, when a young girl disappeared before being brutally raped and killed, and her older sister committed suicide shortly thereafter — but not before stating that she had seen a "cat monster" in the woods where the body was found.
If you take this case to be the story behind the movie, it also gives a whole new meaning to Totoro: could he be the God of Death? In the movie, the younger sister Mei decides to visit her mother at the hospital despite it being way too far away for her to reach on foot. When the village goes searching for her, they find a sandal floating on a lake and fear Mei has drowned, which sends her older sister Satsuki into a panicked frenzy until she gets Totoro's help.
What if Mei had actually drowned, and Satsuki, too crushed to deal with the event, had called the death spirit Totoro to be reunited with her sister? Not only is that similar to the older sister committing suicide after the Sayama incident, there are a number of hints in the movie that support this theory. My Neighbor Totoro takes place in the Sayama Hills, while "Satsuki" means May in Japanese and Mei is the phonetic equivalent... just like the month of the Sayama incident.
What's more, one of the signs displayed by the Catbus reads "Grave Road," so could the Catbus be the carriage to the afterlife? Satsuki and Mei's bed-ridden mom also says she felt their presence when they secretly came to visit her at the hospital with the Catbus, which could confirm that the only people aware of the presence of Totoro and his friends are those close to death.
In a lighter version of this interpretation that is unrelated to the Sayama incident, Totoro could also be a death spirit because of the girls' mother's illness. That means he accompanies the girls as a sort of remedy to the weight of this life-threatening situation, like a version of the Reaper that is more acceptable for the girls, but nonetheless present.
2. 'Spirited Away'
One of Miyazaki's most successful movies, the gorgeous Spirited Away, earned the Oscar for Best Animated Feature in 2003. Although it's easy to see it as a story about a young and quite whimsical girl who learns to grow up, Miyazaki actually confirmed this one is about prostitution. His intention was to denounce the premature sexualization of young Japanese girls, and the dangers of a growing trend of teenage prostitution.
It's not too hard to see how Chihiro's story works as a metaphor for sex workers: having to pay for her parents' mistakes, just like many girls whose family's debt left them with no other solution, Chihiro has to resort to working in a brothel. There, she has to give up her real name to the madam, Yubaba, and is constantly harassed by a client who keeps on offering her more money: No Face.
But the best proof of this inspiration reveals itself when you take a closer look at the bath house.
On the door of the bath house, you can read the symbol ゆ, which reads "yu" in Japanese and translates to "hot water." As explained by this fan, a lot of bath houses were converted to brothels during the Edo period (17th-19th century), and the women working there were called "yuna," or "hot water women." Not only is that word used for the workers in the original version of Spirited Away, the name of the witch running the place is the exact same word as the one that used to qualify the madam of a bath house hosting prostitutes: Yubaba.
Thankfully, the subtext will never stop this movie from also being so goddamned cute.
(Psst. Notice how these little floofs are like the ones in My Neighbor Totoro? But that's another theory about the Miyazaki universe, and that one's not for tonight, kids.)
3. 'Princess Mononoke'
Now Princess Mononoke is notably one of Miyazaki's more sombre movies, so it might be less surprising to find that it was based on dark events. I remember being too scared to watch the first time I saw the intro's gurgling monster on screen, but even later the tale of the gun powder-wielding men against the majestic spirits of nature never lost its warning tone about the irreversible impact man can have on the environment.
But did you know that part of the movie was about leprosy? Leprosy is an infection characterized by wide-spreading granulomas, or little nodules, on the nerves, respiratory tract, skin and eyes — essentially a multitude of small bumps that make it hard to see, breathe and feel. In Miyazaki's movie, some of the workers of the Tatara factory are covered in bandages because they're hiding their scars.
Far from being just another mind-bending fan theory, this was actually explained by Miyazaki himself back in January, when he visited a sanatorium and discussed the movie on World Leprosy Day.
"While making 'Princess Mononoke', I thought I had to depict people who are ill with what's clearly called an incurable disease, but who are living as best they can."
The movie never uses the word "leprosy," however, preferring to speak of an "incurable disease." Incidentally, the Japanese word for "incurable disease," "gyobyo," also means "suffering the consequences." Which could be sending us back to the environmental metaphor, with the forest and the men having to face the consequences of an unforgiving war and everyone still trying to live as best as they can.
Either way, it's an inspiring message, and it'd be lovely to learn even more about the intentions Miyazaki had in the making of his movies.