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Unravelling the disturbing theory behind Ghibli’s ‘Totoro’

Exploring the notorious conspiracy theory that links the tale of cuddly cats and child-liked innocence to a grizzly 60s murder case

This week, a comprehensive, all-encompassing exhibition devoted to the beloved anime house arrived in Tokyo’s Roppongi Hills skyscraper. Details of the interactive tribute soon surfaced; it was revealed that the building would house rare publicity posters and concept artwork alongside real-life replicas of film relics such as the giant airship from Castle in the Sky. Even the skyscraper’s restaurant presented a themed menu featuring a black burger in tribute to the soot sprites.

One of the studio’s most iconic films is My Neighbour Totoro, a tale of two girls in the countryside that meet a giant, cuddly cat named Totoro. There’s a child-like innocence that permeates the film – on the surface, it appears to be a message of hope and optimism explored through fantasy in times of hardship. There is, however, one famous fan theory that refuses to die – it’s so famous, in fact, that the studio had to release a statement denying its accusations back in 2007. Here, we unpick the theory that the film’s cuddly cat is actually a death god and that the storyline makes reference to a brutal schoolgirl murder.


The Sayama murder case is the famous tale of a 16-year-old girl snatched, raped and murdered on her way home from school in the Sayama Prefecture region, Japan. The gruesome attack took place on May 1, 1963 and controversy surrounds the suspect that was eventually arrested and charged with 31 years in prison – the theory stands that he was, in fact, innocent. These rumours were fuelled by the suicide of another man in the local area just days after the schoolgirl murder who, tests revealed, had the same blood type as the man arrested. Police explanation? Apparently the suicidal suspect couldn’t be the rapist because he suffered from erectile dysfunction.


So, you might be wondering, how the hell do you link Ghibli’s most famous cuddle cat to the brutal rape and murder of a schoolgirl? The first clue comes in the protagonists’ names, Satsuki (Japanese for ‘May’) and Mei – both of which reference the attack date. Then there are numerous clues suggesting the film takes place in Sayama, including a tea shop labelled ‘Sayama tea’ and a hospital whose name translates almost exactly to an IRL hospital located in the city.


Upon first glance I thought the soot sprites were pretty damn cute. The animated black balls are littered throughout darkness in the film but have been turned into kawaii Japanese toys adorned with googly eyes – harmless, right? Apparently not. There are contrasting reports; some believe that soot sprites are rumoured to be seen before death in Japanese folklore, whereas others maintain that they’re merely a fictional creation devised by Studio Ghibli – either way, the fact that they re-emerge just as Satsuki plans to join her sister in death seems more than coincidental.


A real-life rendering of the Cat-bus is set to be one of the main attractions at the upcoming Ghibli exhibition in Tokyo, and rightly so. Viewed through innocent eyes, the bus is a high-octane vehicle designed to transport its passengers directly to the realm of fantasy – after all, a verse in the film’s song describes Totoro as a deity that comes to you “only when you are a child”. Take a closer look, however, and one of the Cat-bus stops literally translates as ‘Path to the Grave’ – so maybe not so magical after all.


Totoro may be Ghibli’s most loveable yet enigmatic mascot, but it doesn’t appear for just anyone. It seems throughout the film that the two girls are the only characters that can actually see Totoro – why? The song verse states he’s only visible to children but Kantu, another kid, cannot see the vision, debunking this theory.

Instead, the cat is apparently a death god only visible to the deceased. Of course, there’s deeper meaning behind the accusation – this theory insinuates that Mei actually drowns in the river and Satsuki herself dies on the hunt for her missing sister. There’s a parallel between this and the Sayama case, namely that the 16-year-old victim had an older sister who responded to a ransom note by showing up at the desired location with a stash of fake banknotes. After she learned that her efforts had been in vain, she committed suicide herself.