My Neighbor Totoro is one of Hayao Miyazaki's signature films, and the titular character is the most instantly recognizable figure from Studio Ghibli, so much so that a plush of the mythical creature made a cameo in Toy Story 3. Not only is My Neighbor Totoro Studio Ghibli's most marketable film, but the poster for the 1988 movie is also one of the most iconic in animation history.
The poster reenacts one of the most famous scenes from the film where the main human protagonists, Satsuki and Mei, are at a bus stop on a rainy night and suddenly see the giant Totoro right next to them. Initially, they're scared to suddenly see such a large and mysterious creature, but thankfully, it reveals itself to be the cuddly Totoro everyone knows and loves.
It's an image that has been homaged and parodied to this day, but there's one stark difference between what's on the poster and what's in the actual scene from the movie. Those who have seen the movie will notice that the poster features only one girl instead of the two sisters. Mei is being piggy-backed by Satsuki in the film scene, but there is clearly no other girl behind the one on the poster. Moreover, although the girl on the poster is wearing the same outfit as Satsuki does throughout the film, she looks significantly smaller and younger than her.
Since the girl on the poster has Satsuki's outfit and looks a bit like a younger version of her, it could reference a time when she first encountered Totoro before the events of the film occurred. However, the movie itself confirms that that is not the case. When first meeting Totoro in the film, Satsuki has no memory of seeing the creature in the past, although Miyazaki did have Chihiro not initially remember her spiritual encounters when returning to the real world in Spirited Away. The movie also assures its audience that this area of rural Japan with the wood spirits is the first time Satsuki and her family have visited the location, making it unlikely she was there by herself as a young child.
Further inspection of the child on the poster shows that she seems to have Mei's pigtails, making her seem like a combination of the two sisters. This was the initial idea for My Neighbor Totoro when Miyazaki made the original concept art in the 1970s as watercolor paintings, which featured Totoro and a seven-year-old girl. The potential names for that girl in early drafts include Satsuki and Mei.
Totoro was also originally going to be a 40-minute long short film before expanding into a feature film. Once the movie's production grew in the late 1980s, it made sense to turn the girl from the concept into two. Miyazaki has commented on the change saying that "If she was a little girl who plays around in the yard, she wouldn't be meeting her father at a bus stop, so we had to come up with two girls instead. And that was difficult."
Although the film became about two sisters, Ghibli decided to keep Miyazaki's original concept as the official artwork when promoting the film, hence why the poster features the original little girl even though she doesn't appear in the film. Despite what some may call a continuity error, it hasn't stopped people from buying that image as a poster, DVD cover or T-shirt.
Since there was not a large or complex plot for My Neighbor Totoro to begin with, it was a great idea to turn the story from a girl meeting Totoro to two sisters meeting the creature. As memorable as the titular character is, the heart of the film is the relationship between Mei and Satsuki as they move to a new home and take care of each other while their mother is sick. Satsuki, the older sister, is forced to step up as a guardian to Mei, but also retains her innocence when meeting Totoro and the spirit forests.
Although the original girl was changed, her legacy is sealed in Ghibli history thanks to the legendary poster -- and since a short sequel to My Neighbor Totoro exists, it's possible that her own adventures could come to life in the future.