Japanese Urban Legends and…Totoro?
As with any culture, the Japanese are susceptible to urban legends, the (usually mistaken) beliefs that people seem to accept because everyone else believes them. For example, there’s a persistent conviction in Japan that the “Lucky Strike” cigarette logo is supposed to represent the mushroom cloud over Hiroshima as seen from above, although the logo has actually been in use for a decade before WWII started. Then there’s the odd urban legend, still hotly debated on Japanese websites, that there’s a dark tale hidden inside the classic My Neighbor Totoro. It’s almost certainly wrong, but may nevertheless be interesting if for no other reason than as a study of how ideas like this spring into being.
According to the theory, Totoro — whose name may have come from a child’s mistaken attempt at pronouncing the English word “troll” from the classic Billy Goats Gruff story, though more likely it came from the city of Tokorozawa near Tokyo, where Miyazaki lived at the time — is really a shinigami (god of death) who has come to collect Mei. When Mei goes missing she actually dies by falling into a ride paddy and drowning, and when Satsuki asks Totoro, “Please take me to where Mei is!” she too, is brought to the land of death. (Some say that after this scene no shadows are drawn under the girls, though I can’t see it.) There are similarities to an event called the Sayama Incident in which a girl was tragically murdered on May 1, 1963. The names of Mei (“May”) and Satsuki (the old name for the month of May, before Japan adopted the Gregorian calendar) both seem to mirror this. There’s also a scene where the old lady is drinking tea with “Sayama Tea” written on it, which seems like a definite reference. Finally, in the last scene of the film, if the girls are not dead, why don’t they go to talk to their mother?
Or maybe it’s just some silly thing the Internet came up with.