My Neighbors TOTORO and PONYO Essay

Miyazaki’s World

I was first introduced to the animated movies of Hayao Miyazaki when looking for different films for my young children. Disney was great but what else was there? Both Japan and the United States have a love relationship with cartoon animations. This has culminated into a wealth of beautiful animated imports traveling both ways overseas. In fact, many of these films transcend the term cartoon and I believe are examples of moving, talking art.

These two movies both have:

  • Mysterious and appealing creatures that draw humans into their world.
  • Lush backgrounds that look almost like they were painted with watercolor.
  • A situation in which a loved one goes missing and must be found or saved.
  • A child that has to reach into their soul to figure out how to solve a big problem.
  • Parents and adults are a stable force that give their children a safe launching pad to explore.

What about the differences?

  • One is tied to the ocean, the other to the forest.
  • One is based on a Hans Christian Anderson story, the other is based on general folklore.


Just like Peter PanAlice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz, the story of My Neighbor Totoro transports you to an alternate reality in which the rules of nature have changed. People fly and animals interact, live together, and sometimes even talk.

But in contrast to the others, the Totoro story remains rooted to Terra Firma. Intelligent creatures with magic-spirit power inhabit the earth along with us. They are sort of like fairies or sprites. The children in the story are lifted up high above the trees, but are never that long or far away from Earth. They always return back home safely.

My journey with the director Hayao Miyazaki began with My Neighbor Totoro. I had seen Japanese cartoon shows like Speed Racer and Marine Boy, but it wasn’t until a friend recommended this movie for our daughters that I was introduced to the amazing, lush animation done by Miyazaki and his Ghibli Studios Team. His movies touch on a sort of mystical, magical sentiment that fills out the stories of adventurous children. It’s the perfect selection for a Family Movie Night.

Why I love Totoro:

  • He’s big but not scary (once you get used to him!)
  • He communicates without speaking.
  • He has magic to grow plants and mushrooms quickly.
  • He has these strange little fairy-like friends.
  • He’s cute.
  • He has a cat bus.

My family continued renting and ultimately purchasing more Miyazaki films. We have the remarkable Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle. Others we have are PonyoCastle in the Sky and Kiki’s Delivery Service.


Ponyo is a delightful reinterpretation of the Hans Christian Anderson tale The Little Mermaid. And of course there’s the undercurrent message of taking care of our oceans and environment.

Scene Description

The little boy Sosuke and his mother, Risa, had just saved the fish-turned-girl Ponyo from the storm outside. They get to the house to get warm and dry, safe up high on a hill above the swirling tsunami. The house has a generator for light and cooking. Risa makes a noodle dish with vegetables, a fried egg and ham. When Ponyo opens her soup bowl, she exclaims joyfully and she and Sosuke eat heartily.

My Ponyo Experience

Do what I did and act out a beloved scene from the movie Ponyo while giving your children a new type of eating experience.

I searched through Amazon for sturdy and attractive covered soup bowls that would encourage our kids to try something new at mealtime. After the bowls arrived I kept them hidden.

I surprised the whole family for dinner one night. I kept everyone out of the kitchen, filled each bowl with the soup and placed a covered bowl at each seat of the table. Then my family sat down and we opened the bowls at the same time — 1, 2, 3! “HAM!”

The deep ceramic bowls gave us a comforting feeling as we ate. Our girls experimented with covering their bowls and opening them again.

Kim’s Ponyo Soup Recipe

Make your own Ponyo Soup. This is my version but you can add or take away anything you want. It’s a hearty meal for a cold day.

Cook Time

Prep time: 10 min
Cook time: 10 min
Ready in: 20 min
Yields: 4


  • dry rice noodles or ramen noodles
  • spring onions
  • basil or baby spinach (or your choice of greens)
  • precooked ham portioned for four (you can buy giant cooked slices prepackaged at the store)
  • 4 eggs
  • chicken broth
  • couple pinches of chili powder (optional)

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