Ghibli is one of the studios that cinephiles can almost always count on to provide a healthy dose of childhood nostalgia (while making us shed uncontrollable tears at the same time), but these Studio Ghibli fan theories hint at the unsettling or surprising messages hidden just beneath the surface of some of Ghibli’s most feel-good films. Be warned - once you read some of these fan theories about Studio Ghibli fims, you might not be able to think of some of your favorite Ghibli characters in the same way.
There will always be people who want to spoil the fun, telling fans who come up with these theories that they have too much time on their hands, but revisiting and analyzing favorite works of fiction is a long-standing tradition, one that can only enrich the way a person experiences a work of art. So let's dust off our thinking caps and get to analyzing - and hopefully not forever mar Ghibil related childhood memories.
Leprosy in Princess Mononoke
This was a long-running theory amongst many Mononoke fans, though many caught on sooner than others. The theory refers to the scene in Princess Mononoke when Ashitaka visits the social outcasts in Irontown. He’s told that they are suffering from “gyobyo,” which translates to incurable disease in English. For years, fans wondered what disease the townsmen were suffering from. Many guessed leprosy, and in 2016, at the International Leprosy/Hansen's Disease History Symposium, Miyazaki confirmed that the disease was indeed leprosy.
Yubaba’s Bathhouse Is Actually a Brothel
Unlike some theories on this list, this one doesn’t require a stretch of the imagination. During the Edo period, bath houses like the one in Spirited Away were frequented by men who wanted to be “taken care of” by the young women who worked there. And who ran these establishments? Older women who called themselves Yubaba. Other evidence that supports this theory is how Yubaba coerces Chihiro to change her name and forsake her identity, much in the way some prostitutes are forced to. Finally, No-Face’s actions take on a more sinister tone in light of this theory, as his numerous offerings of gold and gifts can be read as No-Face trying to “purchase” Chihiro.
San Is Wearing Her Sibling’s Skin
Some fans have theorized that the pelt San wears in Princess Mononoke is actually the skin of one of Mora’s cubs. When Moro tells Ashitaka about how she came to adopt San, she says that she killed San’s parents because they were defiling the forest. One theory posits that they were defiling the forest by attacking and murdering one of Moro’s cubs. If that were the case, it would make perfect sense for Moro to give her pup’s pelt to her new daughter. The pelt made San look more wolf-like and, in a way, she was replacing the child Moro had lost at the hands of San’s parents.
Totoro Is a God of Death
If you thought Totoro was just a cuddly forest spirit, think again. One popular theory reasons that Totoro is actually a god or angel of death. The theory posits that Totoro is a god of death who can only be seen by those close to death. Fans theorize that Mei and Satsuki can see Totoro because Mei actually drowned in the pond and, overcome by guilt and grief, Satsuki killed herself shortly after.
The theory has its roots in the Sayama Incident of 1963, when 16-year-old Yoshie Nakata went missing one day on her way home from school. Her older sister frantically searched for her but to no avail. A few days later, Yoshie was found dead and her sister committed suicide shortly after. Many of the details of the case are eerily present in My Neighbor Totoro. For example, the incident occurred in May, and both Satsuki and Mei are named after the month of May (Satsuki means May in Japanese). Also, some evidence within the film suggests that it takes place in Sayama Hills.
If that weren’t enough, towards the end of the film, when the cat bus is listing destinations, the destination just before “Mei” reads “Path to Graveyard.” That doesn’t feel like the type of detail a filmmaker would carelessly throw in there.
If your fond memories of My Neighbor Totoro are in danger of being crushed, don't worry. After this theory gained widespread attention, Ghibli issued a statement saying, “There’s absolutely no truth or configuration that Totoro is the God of Death or that Mei is dead in My Neighbor Totoro.”