The story is far from a happy one. According to him, and apparently a popular urban legend in itself, Totoro and his magical friends are in fact Shinigami, that is to say the gods of death, the grim reaper. Pretty cute for a grim reaper, huh?
It begins with the susuwatari (煤渡り) (a.k.a. makkurokurosuke), those little black balls that they find in the kitchen. The story goes that if you see the susuwatari or Totoro, death is close.
The old woman says that adults can’t see the susuwatari or the other mystical beasts. Unexplained though, is why she saw them when she was young. Kanta, the old woman’s grandson doesn’t seem able to see them.
The real story comes from the history of the Sayama incident (狭山事件 sayama jiken). There seem to be too many coincidences between the Sayama incident and this movie to ignore.
The Sayama incident occured in May 1963. It’s quite an important case for discrimination in Japan. The case goes that one day, in Sayama (in Saitama prefecture), a young girl was kidnapped for ransom, raped and then murdered. Her older sister apparently found her body, but was so traumatized by it, when asked what she had seen, she merely said “I met a large Tanuki (looks like a racoon)” and “I saw a cat monster.” Sound familiar? Anyway, the older sister later commited suicide.
So let’s see. Okay I’ll start with the things that are most similar. For one, the house that the family moved to is also in Saitama. It isn’t told exactly where, but take a look at this:
Written on the box at the back is 狭山茶 sayamacha or Sayama tea. Doesn’t get much more direct than that.
Also, the hospital, 七国病院 shichikoku byouin has (or had?) a real-life counterpart in Sayama, called the 八国病院 hachikoku byouin, located in the same area as in the movie.
The real murder took place in May. Also the youngest child is named Mei (pronounced ‘May’). This could be a coincidence, but the older sister is named Satsuki, which is also another way to say May.
The Nekobus (the cat bus) is the cariage that takes one to the next world (heaven, hell, whatever). This is given a little reinforcement by the above picture, showing the destination as 墓道, the first character means grave, the second meaning road.
So in the story, the idea is that Mei is murdered after she goes missing. Satsuki, feeling grief, decides to join her.
She enters into the realm of the Shinigami (death god) - Totoro. Notice the presence again of the Susuwatari. And the monochromatic lighting. She hops into the Nekobus; the vehicle to the next world, and they go to see their mother together, but they don’t actually meet her.
There is a strong belief that after Mei goes missing, she has no shadow, apparently adding to the notion that she is dead. When I watched the movie again I found it hard to distinguish between what would be called a shadow or not so this is in debate.
One thing I did notice, though, was that Satsuki and Mei seem to be colored differently once they are both on the Nekobus.
You may ask yourself about the ending credits, which show a happy Mei and Satsuki along with the mother and friends. The favoured explanation is that these are memories from when they were still living.
Another yet stranger rumor is that the movie is segmented; some parts are the present, some are the past or future, some are the work of the father’s imagination. This seems a little off until you remember the scene with the huge tree. The children sit atop this huge tree (which umbrellas the small house) playing flutes with the Totoros.
The father looks out to see this, smiles happily and continues his writing. The suggestion is that he is writing about his deceased daughters doing exactly what they are shown doing.
When first visiting their mother, the calender at the hospital shows the 9th month (September), but nearing the end of the movie, it shows the 8th month (August) (source). According to here, this fit in perfectly with the leap year of 1952, which, as we will see, is the year before the mother in the Sayama incident is reported to have died.
Apparently this gives proof to the interpretation that the Totoro story doesn’t flow chronologically. Either that, or the mother is hospitalized for almost a year.
On that same site, it is suggested that one reason the mother couldn’t see Mei and Satsuki on the tree is because they were with the Nekobus, who can’t be seen by adults.
Another point was brought up about Mei’s clothing in the movie poster (the first image in this post), which appeared on the back of the VHS cover. Mei is wearing Satsuki’s clothes.
One of the commenters at that site also gave a little more interesting information about the Sayama incident:
The Sayama Jiken took place in Shouwa 38 (i.e. 1963), but when looking into the family of the victim, dubbed ‘Y’ (at that time she was 16, she was the third daughter of a family of 3 males and 4 females), it appears that Y’s mother was in a mental hospital (though, for a brain tumor, not mental illness). The mother died in Shouwa 28 (1953). Delving further reveals that in Shouwa 18 (1943), Y’s older sister died at age 3. Which means, at the time when their mother was in hospital, Y would have been 5-6, and her older sister (if she has still been alive) would have been 13.
The girl had two brothers, and of course there was her father (three males). On the day of the incident, the 11-year old brother received the ransom letter. There were a lot of suicides surrounding the murder. Of the six siblings, four died, not to mention others outside the family. What happened to this family? There is the world of the Totoro (the three males) and the mother and the deceased sister. The fairy tale is this scary tale minus the scary parts. It seems that the Sayama Incident follows this motif. In the 30th year of Showa (1955), Tonari No Totoro meant “Next to Tokorozawa,” or in other words, Sayama.
In the scene where Mei is lost and crying, she is sitting next to 6 地蔵 jizou Jizou statues (English — Ksitigarbha, a buddhist deity that looks after the souls of deceased children and aborted fetuses in Japanese culture. Apparently these 6 Jizou statues represent 6 people who died in the course of the incident (see above).
Apparently one of the phrases in the lyrics of the song of the Nekobus is “乗ったお客は陽気なおばけ” notta okyaku wa youki na obake, “those guests who ride are cheerful ghosts.”
It is important to note that these rumors have not been confirmed by Hayao Miyazaki or Studio Ghibli.