Is (My Neighbor) Totoro the God of Death?

Yisela Alvarez Trentini
4 min readApr 12, 2016


My Neighbor Totoro is a guaranteed top spot in any list of popular anime films. A kid’s classic, this Miyakaki’s piece might be hiding a much darker and fascinating story behind its cuddly characters. Was this exactly what Miyazaki had in mind when he created the movie?

The legend goes as follows: Totoro is the God of Death, and anyone who can see him is either dead or close to dying.

On the box behind the old lady, it says “Sayama Tea”

The affirmation is strong enough on its own. We know Miyazaki looooves metaphors, and Studio Ghibli seems to have a weak spot for gods and spirits. But there’s something else that actually made me consider this legend as plausible: A link between the story and a terrible, sad accident that took place in a real Japanese town called Samaya.

The case was called The Sayama Incident. On May 1, 1963, a 16-year-old called Yoshie Nakata went missing on her way home from school. Later that night, a ransom note asking for ¥200,000 (US$556 at the time) was delivered to her house. Her sister, who later committed suicide, brought fake money to the designated place, but the man saw the policemen surrounding the site, became suspicious and escaped. On May 4, the dead body of Yoshie was found buried in an alley on a farm. The girl had been raped and then murdered. Her bigger sister, feeling responsible for the failure of the rescue, committed suicide shortly after.

The hospital (Shichikoku Byouin)

Was Miyazaki honoring the victims when he created My Neighbor Totoro? Maybe. I like to think so, after all, it’s a beautiful tribute, isn’t it?

Here are some interesting clues so you can decide for yourself:

  • The house from the film is located in Sayama Kyuryo, which means “Sayama Hills” and the movie’s location was inspired by Tokorozawa-city, which is next to Sayama City where the incident took place.
  • The Sayama Incident happened in May, and both of the sisters in Totoro are actually named “May” (“Satsuki” means “May” in Japanese, and “Mei” is the Japanese pronunciation for “May”)
  • The hospital in the film, Shichikoku Byouin has a real-life counterpart in Sayama called the Hachikoku Byouin.
  • The older sister committed suicide after her sibling’s death. It’s said that she was seeing big raccoon or cat-like ghosts before she killed herself, due to so much stress. This is apparently just a rumor, but one that could have inspired the Totoros.
Soot sprites, or Susuwatari
  • Both early in the film and when Satsuki tries to join her sister, the girls see what seems to be susuwatari, or little soot sprites. In Japanese folklore, seeing things means you’re about to die, so…. not a good sign (and you thought those black things in Spirited Away were cute)
  • Although in Japanese stories it’s usually kids who can see magic, Kanta, the old lady’s grandson couldn’t see the Totoros. Yet, the two girls could see them.
  • [SPOILERS!] If this theory is correct, it means Mei is dead. Satsuki goes to look for her, and opens death’s door, going inside. Wrought with grief, she supposedly joins her sister, like the girl’s suicide in the Sayama Incident. Oh, the Susuwatari come back during this scene.
“I felt Satsuki and Mei just laughed near the tree,” the mother said.
  • [SPOILERS!] When she’s crossed over to the other side, Totoro then helps Satsuki find her sister and then they go visit their mother. Strangely, nobody notices they were there except for her, who is apparently dying. To make it creepier and break your heart to pieces even more, the mom says “I felt Satsuki and Mei just laughed near the tree“.
  • [SPOILERS!] At the end, Satsuki and Mei hop on the Neko (meaning cat) Bus. The bus is supposed to represent a 1-way trip to heaven. As forced as this may sound, I’m fairly convinced conspiracists here might be on the right: One of the stops on the Neko Bus is called “Grave Road“.
The cat bus going to the “Grave Road”. Kinda a decisive clue, if you ask me

“No need to be alarmed. There is absolutely no truth or configuration that Totoros are the Gods of Death or that Mei is dead in My neighbor Totoro.” — said Studio Ghibli

Yeah, sure.

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Yisela Alvarez Trentini

Anthropologist & User Experience Designer. I write about science and technology. Robot whisperer. VR enthusiast. Gamer. @yisela_at