What do the Ghibli Original Titles mean in Japanese? | Mononoke, Totoro, Hotaru…


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Do you know what is the original Japanese titles of Ghibli movies such as Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke? As a native Japanese, some titles sounds strange in English because I have been getting used to hearing them Japanese since childhood and some of the tiles has a deeper meaning in the original. If you are studying Japanese, you can improve your vocabulary reading this article.

風の谷のナウシカ (Kase no Tani no Naushika)

The very first Ghibli film which is directed by Hayao Miyazaki, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. This title is exactly the same as the original. 風(kaze) means ‘wind’, 谷 means ‘valley’.

天空の城ラピュタ (Tenkū no Shiro Rappyuta)

Castle in the Sky is 天空の城ラピュタ. Normally ‘sky’ is translated 空 in Japanese, and it is the word Japanese people use in everyday life, but in this title ‘天空’ is used. 天空(tenkū) is a poetic way to say sky in Japanese. And 城(shiro) means ‘castle’.

Here one interesting fact: what do you imagine when you hear the word ‘castle’? If you come from a western culture, you might imagine something you see in the European tourism sites. But Japanese castles are quite different from those from western, and I have asked quite a few Japanese people about this question.

About a half of Japanese people said they imagine Japanese castles, and the others said the image European castles. Many of the Japanese people who answered: “I imagined something like the Cinderella Castle.” They meant the one in Tokyo Disney Land, and they are younger generations. Whereas, the people who answered “Something like Himeji Castle” are older. It seems like the modern entertainment industry has been affect the image of words.

隣のトトロ (Tonari no Totoro)

My Neighbor Totoro is 隣のトトロ, and this was the one I was confused when I hear it for the first time. 隣 means just ‘next’. “Can I sit next to you?” is「隣に座ってもいいですか」in Japanese. Neighbor is usually translated 近所の人 or 隣人, in Japanese. “Love your neighbour as you love yourself.” is「隣人を自分のように愛しなさい」in Japanese.

The original title 隣のトトロ is something like: Totoro is next to me, which is not catchy in English. The nuance of the words ‘neighbor’ feels different from the perspective of a native Japanese. When the Japanese say: 隣の人はうるさい, it means “The person/people next door is noisy. They need to live your next-door or across the street. We don’t call the person ‘隣の人’ or ‘隣人’ if they live next door of our next door.

This comes from my confusion. I never considered 隣のトトロ as they are neighbours. I took the titles as “Totoro is by the side of the main characters” as you see in some image and scenes. But I suppose the English title is good because, in the film, Totoro is indeed living your neighbour forest, and in this sense, the Japanese title needs to be 近所のトトロ. 近所 means “the area someone lives”.

This is my guess, but Hayao Miyazaki might mean “My Neighbor Totoro” in English, but 近所のトトロ is not poetic, it sounds too casual, so he used the word「隣」to make it sound fantasized.

火垂るの墓 (Hotaru no Haka)

Grave of the Fireflies is originally a short story, and adopted into a film by Studio Ghibli and directed by Isao Takahata. This English title is a word-for-word translation from the original. 火垂る(hotaru) is ‘firefly’. 墓 is ‘grave’. But this Japanese title has a deeper solemn meaning other than just a grave of the fireflies.

Japanese people usually write ‘hotaru’ as 蛍 or ホタル when we mean just a firefly. However, here, the kanji 火垂る is used, which is very rare. I have never seen this way of kanji writing except in this title. And 蛍 is poetic, and used in many poetry and literary works. But here 火垂る is used in the title.

火垂る is a very old way of writing firefly and no one uses anymore and many people couldn’t read it if there was not this famous work. 火 means ‘fire’, we pronounce ‘hi’, not ‘ho’ most of the time. And 垂れる(tareru) is a verb meaning ‘fall’ or ‘drip”. The fire of fireflies looks like dots of light are falling down from the sky. And what was falling from the sky in the wartime in Japan?

Grave of the fireflies are based on the real experience of the author of the original book. Kobe, one of the biggest cities in western Japan, was bombed in 1945 and more than 140 thousand houses were burnt and one of the worst damaged city during WWⅠin Japan.

魔女の宅急便 (Manjo no Takkyubin)

This is the Japanese title of Kiki’s Delivery Service. This is also a little different from the original. 魔女(majo) means witch, a female wizard. Kiki is the main character in the film, but if you follow the original title literally, it should be ‘Witch’s Delivery Service.’ 宅急便(takkyubin) means ‘parcel delivery service’ like FedEx and DHL.

I think they didn’t use the word ‘witch’ because there is an evil image in the word ‘witch’, which comes from the fairy tales and history of the western culture, but most of the time Japanese 魔女 does not have these image. Traditionally Japanese people have considered magical powers with awe, such as Itako(spiritual medium women who are blind), 陰陽師(Midival Japanese fortune-teller), etc.

もののけ姫 (Mononoke Hime)

What does ‘mononoke’ mean? Maybe you have thought about it. I, a native Japanese, also thought about it because mononoke is an old way to say ‘demon’ or ‘(evil) spirit’ in Japanese. 姫(hime) means princess, or just a daughter if you don’t use the word for a daughter of some high ranked person. However, San, the main female character of this film is a human being. Indeed there are creatures who talk and have special powers, but she is human.

There is no official words from the director or producer of Princess Mononoke, so here is my assumption. First, mononoke means something not human. Biologically San is human, but she is not considered a human being by both the human side and the forest side.

Here is a line from my favourite scene: when wounded Ashitaka, the main male character, and Moro, the wolf god who raised San.

(The human violated the forest threw her in my path as they ran from my fang. Now she cannot be human, and she cannot be a wolf. My poor, ugly, dearest daughter…)

This is the response of Moro when Ashitaka said to her “あの子を解き放て。あの子は人間だぞ (Set her free! She’s human!)” Ashitaka tries to stop the war between humans and the forest, but human side consider San as non-human, and clearly for the creatures in the forest, San is not their side of ‘person’.

And my second hypothesis about the meaning of mononoke in this film is that Mononoke sounds similar to 獣(kemono). Kemono is a poetic way to say ‘animal’ in Japanese. It sounds strong, rough and barbaric. If someone saw the film poster of a girl with blood in her rips stanging with a wolf, a Japanese person would think of something non-human and barbarous.

Actually, Hayao Miyazaki didn’t like the film title. Miyazaki wanted it アシタカ聶記(Ashitaka Sekki), which means something like “Oral lore of Ashitaka”, but there is no word 聶記 in Japanese, Miyazaki made it up and he wanted Ashitaka in the title because he is the main character if we choose one. But the producer insisted to name the film Mononoke Hime.

千と千尋の神隠し (Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi)

Chihiro(千尋/Chihiro) is the main character of Spirited Away and she is given the name Sen(千/sen) when she is spirited away(神隠し/kamikakushi). 千 means ‘thousand’ and 尋 means pursue, and both kanjis are used often in Japanese female names.

神隠し is an unusual word. Of course it is because people are rarely spirited away, but 神 means ‘god’ and 隠す means ‘hide’, so it means “God hides something”. I didn’t know the word when I watched this film for the first time, I was 5 or 6 years old at that time, and I still remember I asked my grandma what is kamikakushi, and she explained that it means someone is missing and we cannot find him because God hid him somewhere we cannot reach.

Lina (Writer/Translator)
Lina was born and raised in Japan and studied literature and history at Waseda University. Currently working as a freelance writer and translator. Tokyo-based.

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