the original poster art for My Neighbor Totoro, created for the 1988 theatrical release and still used to this day
My Neighbor Totoro was created by Hayao Miyazaki and released as a film in 1988. It’s one of our favorite movies that we’ve watched over and over, each time making new discoveries. However, one of those discoveries was not even in the film: it was staring right at us all this and we never even noticed it. In the poster from the original theatrical release, which continues to be used on DVDs and even on streaming sites, a small girl holds an umbrella in the rain next to Totoro. This girl is neither Satsuki nor Mei, the two protagonists of the film. In fact, she does not even make an appearance in the film.
Above is the famous scene from the film, which shows Satsuki and Mei next to Totoro. But neither of them are the girl in the poster, who appears to be wearing Satsuki’s clothes and has Mei’s pigtails. It’s as if the girl in the poster had somehow been divided into two characters. An interview with producer Toshio Suzuki, later transcribed by journalist Kenji Ando, helps explain what happened.
My Neighbor Totoro was originally a picture book for kids, which was then made into a movie. And the cover reveals that it featured just one young girl. This would become the basis for the film. But as plans progressed, it was decided that My Neighbor Totoro would air as a double-feature alongside Isao Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies. Miyazaki and Takahata are known to have been friendly rivals who motivated and inspired each other. When Miyazaki learned that Takahata’s film was going to be longer than his, he went back to his storyboard in search of ways to make his film equally long. It was this sense of competition that split his original single character and gave birth to the sisters: Satsuki and Mei.
a side-by-side comparison of the original picture book and poster
But when it came time to create the poster art for the film, Miyazaki just couldn’t find the right composition, recalls animator Hirokatsu Kihara, in a book he published about his time working on the production of the film. The poster went through several revisions and at the end, Miyazaki had reverted to his original character from the picturebook.
So why did the poster, which doesn’t even feature a character from the film, end up sticking for all these years? Kihara goes on to explain that, at the time, My Neighbor Totoro wasn’t a huge success. It wasn’t until the film was repeatedly broadcast on television that it became a sleeper hit. So there were never any inquiries about the girl in the poster and the studio never had any impetus to change it. The mysterious girl would go on to be immortalized as a reminder of the film’s origins and a symbol of Hayao Miyazaki’s competitive spirit.