Understanding My Neighbour Totoro's Bizarre Timeline

It’s often said that My Neighbour Totoro takes place during the last half of the 1950s. But when exactly? The movie’s story might seem contained over a few months, so it should be easy to pin down when. But that’s where things get strange.

The Art of Totoro, which is filled with Ghibli production drawings, contains the storyboard map below, showing the setting and listing the time period as 昭和30年代初期, which means “Early Showa 30s.”

This is using the Japanese numbering system for years, and it’s fairly easy to follow: Showa 30 means the 30th year in the Showa Emperor’s reign, which is the year 1955. According to this storyboard, the movie would take place sometime after that year. Case closed, right? Nope!

The movie does not appear to closely follow this timeline, because 1955 is the year television broadcasts began in Japan. The world of Totoro definitely seems to be pre-television. Moreover, the dates that do appear in the movie jump around, further abstracting timeline.

Photo: Luke Plunkett, Kotaku

Fansite Ghibli no Sekai pointed out the various timeline inconsistencies in the movie.

For example, the calendar for May shows the year 1955, which would be the year Showa 30. Well, that makes sense, right? But wait...

Screenshot: Ghibli no Sekai

The way the dates fall on the calendar in the mother’s hospital room corresponds to July 1958.

Screenshot: Ghibli no Sekai

Then, there’s this telegram, which is marked 昭和32年8月11日 or August 11, Showa 32. This means the telegram is dated 1957.

Screenshot: Ghibli no Sekai

But then later in the movie, the hospital calendar for August corresponds with 1952.

1952. 1955. 1957. 1958. What’s going on?

“It’s supposed to be 1955, but we weren’t terribly thorough in our research,” Totoro creator Hayao Miyazaki is quoted as saying in The Art of Totoro. “What came to mind was ‘a recent past’ that everyone can relate to.”

However, in another Ghibli book on Totoro, Miyazaki said that saying the movie took place in the early Showa 30s was “frankly, a lie.” The truth, he continued, was that My Neighbour Totoro took place in a time before television.

Whether these inconsistencies were on purpose or due to insufficient research, all of they give the movie an even more magical feel.

For more Ghibli fandom, check out Ghibli no Sekai (Japanese language only).


Comments

    I think the lesson to be learned is that we shouldn't waste too much time thinking too hard about something that really doesn't matter. Watch movie, enjoy movie. I never even bothered to notice what dates were on the calendars, and it's not like figuring out exactly when it takes place reveals any extra depth or revelations about the film.

    I've always loved the setting for Totoro and especially Kiki's Delivery Service. There's a kind of whimsy to them that feels... nostalgic. Compare it to Whispers of the Heart, which has a modern-day (well, early 1990s modern-day) setting, and as great as that film is, some of the whimsy is lost because of the setting.

    I personally support the split timeline theory. It seems obvious this is the child Totoro timeline, and we have yet to see adult Totoro.

    They live out in the sticks, of course there's no TV that soon (or immediately?) after its release.

    Disappointed. I thought there was going to be a tasty theory about how Time unsticks around Totoro and the movie are the disjointed memories of the kids as they try to reconcile the passing of their mother against their adventures with a magical fatcat.

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