(spoilers for My Neighbor Totoro)
At 20 years old, my favorite film is still a kids’ movie.
When I first watched “My Neighbor Totoro” at age 10, I was drawn in by how beautiful its world is. Sisters Mei and Satsuki exist in a realm of fairytale colors and fantastical creatures, and I wanted to live in it too. In the movie, the girls, ages 10 and 4, move to the Japanese countryside with their father while their mother remains hospitalized in the city with an illness. Among larger-than-life trees and quirky neighbors, they befriend what I can only describe as a large magical rabbit called Totoro and his friends.
The movie reaches its climax when Mei, frustrated that her mother’s doctors won’t let her come home, runs away in an attempt to visit her mom at the hospital. For a few gut-wrenching moments, Satsuki and her neighbors fear a shoe washed up in a local pond belongs to Mei. Eventually Mei is found with the help of Totoro, and the film reveals at the end that the girls’ mother, while still in the hospital, is recovering.
I’ve rewatched the movie countless times over the past decade. If I had a comfort food, it would be this film. But that’s not to say I find it completely comforting. The older I grow, the less I feel like My Neighbor Totoro is a kids’ movie. Its mesmerizing surrealism can no longer hide the profound sadness of two girls missing their mother as they struggle to grow up.
Most of the movie coats this sadness in childlike dialogue and dreamlike imagery — except for one line. I decided to rewatch the movie one night over the summer with my own two sisters. As we sat on our couch, Satsuki and Mei argued, as they always do, about whether or not their mom should come home from the hospital even though her doctors worry she is too sick.
“Do you want her to die, Mei?” Satsuki suddenly asks her little sister.
The blunt delivery struck me. I noticed for the first time how it shifts Mei’s emotions from nervous hope to reckless despair, culminating in her failed journey to the hospital.
As I sat next to my own younger sisters, the climax of the movie changed places. The main struggle of the film no longer seemed to be the search for Mei, but instead Satsuki’s struggle to be a mother figure for her younger sister.
When Satsuki chides her little sister for getting the floors of their house dirty, it’s not because she actually cares about the floors; it’s because she thinks that’s what a mother would say. When she scolds Mei for throwing a tantrum when they argue about their mother, she’s not trying to be insensitive; she’s trying to teach Mei how to be resilient, a lesson no mother is there to teach her.
My home life may not look the same as Satsuki and Mei’s, but being an older sister means I too often take on the role of a parent. When a friend spreads a rumor behind my sisters’ backs, I advise them to rise above and ignore it. When they need help with their college applications, we crank out multi-hour Zoom editing sessions. When they come home after everything at school goes wrong, I’m there, even if it’s just over text.
But Satsuki simply isn’t that good at being a parent. She’s too tough on her sister, forgetting she’s only four years old. She’s not empathetic enough, which only makes Mei more upset.
At times I’m not any better. My attempts at teaching my own sisters to rise above drama veer into preaching passivity. I’m often overcritical, whether editing their essays for school or reprimanding them for arguing over a “borrowed” dress.
Watching this scene of my favorite comfort film, therefore, filled me with fear. With a single impulsive sentence from Satsuki, Mei’s tantrum spiraled into something far worse. What would happen if I made the same mistake?
With my mind racing through what-ifs, it was difficult to take comfort in a movie whose ending I could recite by heart. What Satsuki and Mei don’t know is that they exist in a predetermined world of few consequences — my sisters and I do not. While I might be able to alleviate some of their problems, I will never be able to alleviate this uncertainty.
This unsatisfying conclusion stewed in the back of my mind for months. As I went about my daily college routine, I gradually came to a more comforting verdict. In worrying if I could trust myself with the responsibility of parenting my sisters, I forgot that I can trust them. While I hate to admit it, leaving home for school has meant that I am no longer as involved in their day-to-day lives; I haven’t been for years. In that time, they have continued to exist and to grow and to mature with me watching from afar, occasionally butting in with a word of advice. I’m not Satsuki, sleeping an arm’s length from her sister every night. I’m the sibling version of an empty nester.
When we FaceTimed two weeks ago, my sisters still had problems and still wanted solutions. But those solutions could come from them — they didn’t have to come from me. We may not get the cheery movie conclusion as Mei and Satsuki, but my sisters don’t need a creature like Totoro to protect them, and they don’t need me to protect them either. Although, as their older sister, I’ll always want to.
— Magazine writer Tess C. Kelley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.