Director Hayao Miyazaki shares a number of revelations, including the real reason why there’s only one girl in the Totoro poster.

In recent years, Japanese broadcaster Nippon TV has been airing Studio Ghibli anime in its weekly Kinyo Roadshow Friday night movie slot during the summer holidays, and on 19 August, it was time for the 1988 animated feature My Neighour Totoro to be shown.

It’s become a tradition for Kinyo Roadshow to turn their annual Ghibli screenings into a mixed-media event, where behind-the-scenes trivia and secret information about the movie are published on their official Twitter account throughout the broadcast. So on Friday night, fans had one eye on the movie and one eye on Twitter, where a number of revelations about My Neighbour Totoro were shared, making everyone view the movie in a whole new light.

The biggest revelation that still has fans reeling today is the claim that Satsuki, the older sister in My Neighbour Totoro, was born in the same year as Setsuko, the young sister in Grave of the Firelies.

▼ Satsuki, left, with her younger sister Mei.

My Neighbour Totoro and Grave of the Fireflies are thematically two very different films, but they are forever connected as they debuted as a double feature in Japanese cinemas in 1988. Both films were the first to be created by Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata independently from each other — they worked together as director and producer respectively on Ghibli’s first feature film Castle in the Sky — since they founded Studio Ghibli with their friend and producer Toshio Suzuki in 1985.

As both films would be screened together, Miyazaki and Takahata found themselves working within the same deadlines and time constraints, and the two directors worked together to make choices to ensure the films worked well with each other as a double feature.

Some of the choices that complement and contrast the other film include the fact that My Neighbour Totoro didn’t include any fireflies in its riverside scenes, despite it being set in the summer months, so as to make the appearance of the insects more powerful in Grave of the Fireflies. Also, the reason why Satsuki chomps into a cucumber in one scene is because Seita bites into a tomato in Takahata’s film.

However, the deeper, more tear-jerking connection between the two films comes with the birth-year of two of the star characters. Grave of the Fireflies is set in 1945, at the end of World War II, when Setsuko, the young girl at the centre of the movie, is four years old, making her birth year 1941.

There’s been a lot of speculation surrounding the year in which My Neighbour Totoro is meant to be set, with the era written out as “early 1950s” by Miyazaki in the original concept art for the film. However, within the film there are calendars and postmarks that show conflicting years — the calendar for May that hangs in the father’s study has “1955” written on it, while a telegram in another scene is postmarked as “August 11, 1957“, and the calendar inside the mother’s hospital room corresponds to the year 1958. However, in the first scene when the children visit their mother, the calendar dates correspond to the year 1953.

Whether this was an intentional choice or a pure accident remains unknown, but it’s something that’s confused fans for a long time. However, like a lot of Ghibli mysteries, delving into past interviews with Miyazaki reveals the secret behind the timeline, and this time an excerpt from the movie pamphlet for From Up on Poppy Hill reveals that Miyazaki himself once said:

“‘My Neighbour Totoro’ is set in 1953, in an era without television”.

So if My Neighbour Totoro is really set in 1953, as Miyazaki says it is, that means that Satsuki, the 12-year-old sister in the film, would’ve been born in…1941.

Why is this significant? Well, scroll down now if you don’t haven’t seen Grave of the Fireflies yet and want to avoid any spoilers. In fact, if you haven’t seen Grave of the Fireflies, now’s the perfect time to put this story on hold and go give it a watch and then come back to us. Be warned, though — you’ll probably need a big box of tissues to get through that movie and it’ll leave you so emotionally drained no amount of My Neighbour Totoro rewatches will help you recover from it.

Okay, so once you’ve sobbed your way through Grave of the Fireflies, you’ll know that…Setsuko dies in the film. It’s one of those movie moments that will be forever ingrained in the memory of anyone who’s seen it, however the revelation that Satsuki in My Neighbour Totoro was born in the same year as Setsuko sheds new light on both movies.

On one hand, it makes Grave of the Fireflies even more depressing, as it gives us an image of the young girl Setsuko could’ve grown to become, if only she’d made it through the war. However, on the other hand, it makes us realise how lucky Satsuki and her four-year-old sister Mei are to be living a peaceful life in the countryside, free from fear.

As this Twitter poster who brought the revelation to everyone’s attention puts it:

“The fact that Satsuki and Setsuko were born in the same year (1941) gives me chills down my spine. Even though the story happened in the same country and at the same time, their expressions are so different. At the time of release, ‘Totoro’ and ‘Grave of the Fireflies’ were screened as a double feature. If something were different, their lives could have been the exact opposite.”

Back when it was released as a double-feature, some cinemas screened Totoro first and Grave of the Fireflies second, while others did it the other way around. Ultimately, cinema-goers would be able to choose which one they saw first or second, depending on the time of day they went to the cinema, but we can’t help but feel for those who left the cinema in tears after Grave of the Fireflies rather than a lighter heart after Totoro.

Oh and one final connection with the year 1941 — it’s the year Miyazaki was born.

Okay, now that we’ve waded through the tear-jerking connection between the two movies, there’s another connection that’s a lot brighter, and it’s the explanation behind the girl in the My Neighbour Totoro poster. As fans of the movie will know, the promo movie for the film shows one girl who’s neither Satsuki nor Mei, but somehow we understand her as being one or both of them.

According to Kinyo Roadshow, who gets its information straight from Studio Ghibli, the reason for this is due to the fact that Miyazaki had originally intended for there to only be one girl in the movie, a seven-year-old girl called Mei.

This isn’t exactly new news, as the decision to change the story to include two girls is pretty well-known in fan circles. However, the reason behind the decision has always remained a bit of a mystery, as “storyline reasons” has remained the go-to explanation.

Kinyo Roadshow has now shed light on this as well, saying:

“Initially, Miyazaki had envisioned a scene where ‘While waiting for a bus at the bus stop a ghost appears”. Originally, the main character was set to be only one girl. After that, he learned that the screening time of ‘Grave of the Fireflies’, which was set to screen alongside ‘My Neighbour Totoro’, was longer than planned, so Miyazaki changed things to include two girls so the screentime would be about the same.”

They went on to say:

“The composition of Satsuki and Mei next to Totoro was also considered for the visual on the poster, but the design didn’t turn out well, so in the end, the characteristics of Satsuki and Mei were combined into one girl, and the poster was produced.”

▼ While there’s only one girl at the bus stop on the poster, in the movie there’s two.

Originally, both films were set to be about 60 minutes in length, but when Takahata’s went over by nearly half an hour, Miyazaki stretched his film out to better match its length. Adding another character to the mix quickly created more opportunity for dialogue and story development, and now we couldn’t imagine My Neighbour Totoro any other way.

▼ Who knew Grave of the Fireflies was so influential on the creation of My Neighbour Totoro?

Other revelations from the night included:

▼ The passing Catbus may have created the gust of wind that Satsuki feels while carrying wood.

Miyazaki says Totoro isn’t a deep-thinker — he simply helped Satsuki because he thought she was cute. Totoro knew that Mei, whom Satsuki was looking for, was nearby, so he called the Catbus, and although Totoro doesn’t join Mei and Satsuki on the bus, they feel comforted by his presence. Miyazaki says that if Totoro went with them, they wouldn’t be able to return to the human world.

Although Miyazaki didn’t intentionally specify the place where the story was set, the place name ‘Matsugo’ that appears in the film is in Tokorozawa City, Saitama Prefecture, and the “Nanakuniyama” hospital is also located there. “Hachikokuyama”, which has one letter different, actually exists in Higashimurayama City, Tokyo, along the border with Tokorozawa.

▼ Miyazaki lives in Saitama Prefecture, near “Totoro’s Forest”, which he helped to create.

The Catbus has its destination set as “su“, which means “nest” in English, implying that now that it’s work is done, it gets to curl up in its nest and rest. And we’ve gotta say, with all its bounding over hills, it’s earned it.

The images seen in the end credits show what happens for Satsuki and Mei after the film — with her mother safely discharged from the hospital, Mei is a spoiled child, but she also takes care of the younger children around her, and Satsuki is released from the family’s “mother role” and regains her childhood.

The Friday night movie event wrapped up with the following thoughts from Miyazaki on the production of the film:

“The goal of My Neighbour Totoro is to make a happy and heartwarming movie…parents are moved, and reminisce about their childhood, and children want to meet Totoro and start climbing trees and exploring behind shrines. That’s the movie I want to make.”

It’s clear to see that Miyazaki has not only succeeded in his goals but exceeded them, creating a movie that’s so beloved by audiences it still generates a buzz now, 34 years later. It’s just one of many timeless classics directed by Miyazaki that continues to resonate with viewers across generations, like Spirited Away, which is also filled with tantalising secrets!

Source: Twitter/@kinro_ntv via Hachima Kikou
Top image: Studio Ghibli
Insert images: Studio Ghibli (1, 23)
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