One of my favourite Japanese animated movies of all time is Tonari no Totoro (となりのトトロ), released in English as My Neighbor Totoro. I love the simple story, the characters and the settings. It is a fantasy world that also sparks an instant feeling of nostalgic recognition.
What I didn’t know back in 1999 when I purchased the video was that the movie is set in the Tokorozawa area, or at least an imaginary area based on director Hayao Miyazaki’s impressionss of Tokorozawa, Miyazaki being a Tokorozawa resident.
One internet rumour is that the very name Totoro was inspired by Miyazaki’s young niece who pronounced Tokorozawa as “Totorozawa”. The movie suggests it is a mixture of Mei’s understanding of the creature’s yawned growls and her inability to pronounce “troll” (tororu” in Japanese). At any rate, Miyazaki himself has stated that the name is derived from “Tokorozawa obake” (obake, although often translated as “ghost”, being a kind of supernatural being).
I would like to point out here that there are some internet rumours and urban myths that the character Totoro is some kind of harbinger of death. None of them hold any water – their premises require that everyone in the film is a ghost – and therefore can and should be dismissed immediately.
Let’s take a quick look at some of the places in the movie that correlate with actual locations.
Matsugo (松郷) – the district the Kusakabe family move to at the beginning of the film. In real life, Matsugo was a village that was absorbed into Tokorozawa in 1950. It continues to exist as a suburban area.
It is not hard to imagine the creek that flows in front of the house to be an irrigation channel flowing from the Azuma River, or possibly a section of the river itself.
Shichikokuyama (七国山) – The area in which Satsuki and Mei’s mother is hospitalised. The name is fanciful, but clearly based on Hachikokuyama (八国山), which sits mostly in Higashimurayama and partly in Tokorozawa. Higashimurayama used to be the site of a tuberculosis treatment centre, and it is implied (never stated) that Satsuki and Mei’s mother is receiving treatment for this condition. In the early 1950s, tuberculosis was still a leading cause of death.
Whereas the film states that from the Kusakabe’s home, Shichikokuyama is “3 hours walk for an adult”, Hachikokuyama is only 5 km from Matsugo.
Ushinuma (牛沼) – There is a single passing reference to this area in the film, on the destination signs on the cat bus as it flips through a list ending with “Mei”. Ushinuma is probably where Satsuki goes to school – in real life, kids from Matsugo mostly attend Ushinuma Elementary School.
While the large camphor tree in the film is said to be copied from a similar tree in Kanagawa prefecture, or even be inspired by the trees on the island of Yakushima (which became the model for the primal forests in Miyazaki’s Princess Monoke), the Yasumatsu shrine near Miyazaki’s home is said by some to be the model for the forest area around the Kusakabe’s house. (I also live near this shrine, and it is a favourite place for collecting beetles in summer)
Following the success of Totoro, several forest areas in Tokorozawa and Higashimurayama were set up as “Totoro Forest” nature reserves. Because of the name, some people have been led to believe that the forests were the inspiration behind the movie, not the other way around.