There is a seemingly apocryphal quote often attributed to Sigmund Freud, the peen-obsessed psychologist of the early 20th Century, which goes something like: “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar”. In other words, a thing that seems to represent a different thing may not actually represent it at all. While Freud doesn’t appear to have actually said that, it stands as good advice anyway. Though something may look as if it is laden with secret meaning, it might just be you reading too much into it. “Fan theories” in general are exactly that.
I was prompted to write this after coming across this video by Youtuber Reina Scully about a Scary Totoro Theory (or rather, Youtube thought I’d really like it and stuck it under my nose). I did not watch the full video as it’s nearly half a bloody hour long, but I got the jist of it from this old Kotaku article. It quotes an outline of said theory from someone’s blog (now defunct):
The rumor says that Totoro is the God of Death, so the persons that can see Totoro are actually close to death, or already dead. What that means for the story is that when Mei goes missing and a sandal is found in the pond, Mei actually drowned. When Satsuki is asked about the sandal she cannot face the truth and lies about it not being Mei’s sandal. So Satsuki goes on a desperate search for Totoro, calling for him and actually opens up the door the realm of the dead herself. With Totoro’s help she finds her dead sister and they together go to their mother’s hospital. There, the only one who actually noticed that the sisters were there, was the mother, who also soon is going to die.
And in the ending scene, Satsuki and Mei don’t have any shadows some says.[sic]
There’s a whole bunch of additional stuff about this, but that’s not the crux of the matter for me. What pisses me off about the whole thing is this deeply adolescent need to read secret “scary” backgrounds into everything. There is seemingly no respite from this in certain areas of the internet. Sometimes I feel that the world and its dog are spewing out endless piffle about how Princess Peach is Stalin’s ghost trapped in a post-apocalyptic tree trunk or some such thing.
Moving away a bit from that gripe, I’d also like to address a related topic. Now, it’s annoying enough when you get fan theory nonsense about Star Wars or Three’s Company or whatever, but when applied to My Neighbor Totoro in particular it’s infuriating in how badly it misses the point of the movie. Here’s a selected quote from Roger Ebert’s 1993 review of Totoro, which sums it up better than I could:
Later, the girls go to meet their father’s bus. But the hour grows late and the woods grow dark. Silently, casually, the giant totoro joins them at the bus stop, standing protectively to one side like an imaginary friend. It begins to rain. The girls have umbrellas, and give one to the totoro, who is delighted by the raindrops on the umbrella, and jumps up and down to shake loose a cascade of drops from the trees. Then the bus arrives. Notice how calmly and positively the scene has been handled, with the night and the forest treated as a situation, not a threat. The movie requires no villains. I am reminded that ‘’Winnie the Pooh’’ also originally had no evil characters — but that in its new American version evil weasels have been written into A. A. Milne’s benign world.
(I recommend that everyone reading this takes a look at the original review in full.)
In the comments of the above Youtube video, Reina Scully says of this theory: “It’s a way more powerful story with a better plot if the fan theory were true- otherwise all that ever happens is Mei gets lost… and found. And that’s it!” I would like to stress that I have nothing against Reina as a person at all, but it is frustrating to see such a deeply boring attitude to art and entertainment, and it’s one that’s shared by many, many people. Why does everyone want everything to conform to a standard Hollywood style of storytelling? Why does everyone want secret horror to be lurking around every corner instead of the preternatural wonders of Totoro?
In TV and cinema there’s a time and a place for the likes of Jason Voorhees, and it is not “always” and “everywhere”. And the time and place for fan theories should be, in my opinion, “never” and “in a massive bin”.
(Note: I originally wrote and published this article in June 2018. I forgot to mention at the time that Miyazaki himself has refuted the theory.)