On this blog, I frequently write about the importance of focusing and enjoying the little details in our everyday lives. Incorporating it into our writing can broaden our horizons in ways we never realize. I’ve finally found an example that captures the heart of this idea: Studio Ghibli’s 1988 film My Neighbor Totoro.
The film follows the Kusakabe family as they settle into their new countryside home. Sisters Satsuki and Mei spend time exploring the nearby woods and playing with the forest spirits as their father juggles work and caring for his ill wife. The largest of the spirits, Totoro, brings wistful adventure and magic into girls’ lives.
Right from the start, Totoro shows you what it’s all about. A delightful, jaunty adventuring march plays as a small parade of characters march across the screen. Bordering the screen, little woodland insects and reptiles squirm about. There’s not a lot happening in this title sequence, but it sets the tone perfectly. Your eyes cannot help but wander the screen, looking at each creepy-crawly as they dance in place. You’re forced to explore the frame, only to find wondrous little animals typically hidden under rocks.
Mei and Satsuki embody this same sense of wonderment in their actions. Upon arrival at their new home, they race through the halls, flinging open all the doors and announcing every new thing they come across. These might be some of the best written child characters I’ve seen, and their exuberance for discovery captures their youthful thirst for discovery with grace.
Aside from the character’s behavior, My Neighbor Totoro uses setting and imagery to draw attention to small details while fleshing out the world. The filmmakers’ attention to detail comes through in almost every scene. For example, in the father’s workplace, stacks of books line the floors. Each book is skewed at a different angle, with slips of paper wedged between the sheets and sticking out at odd angles. It’s a simple part of set-dressing, but these smaller details help make the room feel like an actual place a person would exist in.
In another scene, Mei rushes around the house looking for her missing hat. She peeks underneath the house, only to find random trash, including an empty glass bottle. It’s a brief scene, and we only glance under the house for a few seconds, but it’s just as magical as other scenes with forest spirits. The attention focuses on the garbage, hidden away but oddly pristine, like a buried treasure. The filmmakers could have chosen to show Mei looking under the house from the outside, just quickly peeking and then moving on to the next location. But they made an explicit decision to show what rested underneath, and it’s a beautiful moment.
In one of the most famous sequences in Totoro, the girls and their forest spirit friends (including the titular Totoro) perform a dance in the middle of the night to make freshly-planted seeds sprout. In the morning, the girls run to the garden, and rejoice at the sight of the newgrown sprouts. In the grand scheme of things, sprouting vegetables isn’t the most exciting thing, but to these girls, it’s everything. They find joy in a moment that’s magically mundane.
To me, that’s what the film is all about: finding magic in everyday things. Between the characters’ enthusiasm for life and the moments highlighted by the filmmakers, Totoro finds awe in objects and details we frequently overlook. It’s a reminder to look under rocks and shed some light on the creepy-crawlies beneath our feet.
is a writer based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Graduating in May 2020 with a degree in English Literature with a Writing Emphasis, Ian writes comics, poetry, and scripts. He is currently an intern for The Brain Health Magazine and aims to work in the comic publishing industry. In his spare time, Ian plays Dungeons & Dragons, board games, and bass guitar.