I wanna talk about one of the first anime I saw, and one that I've watched possibly more times than any other. (Having a young child who likes a movie will result in you watching it a lot of times.)
1. Why isn't Totoro boring?
The most surprising thing about Totoro is that it's not boring. You'd expect it to be boring! It's a little kid movie, right? It's a movie where basically nothing happens, there's no villain, there's no conflict, there's barely any plot... right?
I've watched Totoro with people of all ages, people on all points of the normie-to-weaboo spectrum, and none of them have ever been bored. Not even by the parts where "nothing is happening". It's calming, serene even, but never boring. It draws your attention and holds you in, with seeming effortlessness. How does it do that?
In American cinema we have this theory that stories are about conflict. "Every scene needs to have a conflict in it" or "every scene must advance the main conflict of the film": You'll find advice like that in hack screenwriting books like "Save the Cat" which lay out a bastardized Hero's Journey as a step-by-step checklist to follow to achieve Hollywood formula. You can tell when a writer has taken the "conflict" theory too literally because their characters will get into angry arguments all the time over basically nothing. It's melodrama. This is why a lot of our movies, especially for kids, are so hyperactive and exhausting.
Aside from being conflict-centric, Hollywood structure assumes stories are about an individual protagonist and his (almost always his) transformation into a hero in order to defeat an antagonist. Totoro isn't about an individual protagonist -- the family is the protagonist -- there's no heroic transformation, there's no antagonist, and nobody is defeated.
Hollywood theory would predict that this story, with no conflict, would be yawnsville. But Totoro is, empirically speaking based on watching it with a large sample of people, not boring. Therefore the "conflict" theory is incomplete. It must be seen as too narrow to be generally applicable, outside the extremely rigid and specialized form that is the Hollywood movie.
(That's OK! It's OK for an art form to have a rigid structure. 12-bar blues has a rigid structure; so does the sonnet. It's possible to make brilliant art within a rigid structure. What we should avoid is falling for the idea that the Hollywood structure is "the" way to tell a story.)
Luckily there are other models for analyzing story structure, predating the bastardized-Hero's-Journey. For example: Greek Tragedy, with its tragic flaws and hubris and catharsis.
But we aren't analyzing Greek animation here, are we, so let's talk about a Japanese story model...
2. Ki-shou-ten-ketsu (起承転結).
Derived from a Chinese four-line poetry format, the four parts of the ki-shou-ten-ketsu model are:
- 起 (Ki): introduction
- 承 (Shou): development
- 転 (Ten): twist, turn, change
- 結 (Ketsu): result, conclusion, tying-together
Often the "Ten" is something that comes out of left field, a seeming non-sequitur unrelated to the "ki" and "shou". And then in the "Ketsu" you tie them together, revealing how they were part of the same whole after all, creating this "A-ha!" moment via change of perspective. It's extremely satisfying if done well.
Because it's all about the arc of the audience's understanding rather than the arc of a fictional character, ki-shou-ten-ketsu isn't limited to stories about charcters: you can use ki-shou-ten-ketsu to structure a business slideshow, a Mario level, a piece of music, a persuasive argument... it's an extremely flexible structure because it's so basic.
Look how well Totoro's four acts (not the three acts that Hollywood insists you must have) fit the pattern:
- Ki: the family moves into a new house and meet the neighbors. Mei and Satuski discover the soot sprites. Dad teaches them laugh the soot sprites away.
- Shou: Mei explores the forest and meets the Totoro. Satsuki meets the Totoro while waiting for the bus in the rain, and decides to give the Totoro their umbrella, earning his friendship. Totoro repays them by growing the acorns into a magical forest and taking them on a ride into the sky. (Totoro is clearly part of the same magical world as the soot sprites, making this a deepening - Shou - of the initial theme)
- Ten: a telegram tells them that their mom's condition has gotten worse. They're worried that Mom might be dying. This strains Mei and Satsuki's relationship, they have a tear-filled argument. Mei decides she has to bring the corn to the hospital to save her mom. (this is "Ten" because it's seemingly a new theme, unrelated to the Totoro stuff, and an unexpected intrusion of real-world problems)
- Ketsu: Mei is missing and the whole community gets involved in searching, but can't find her. Satsuki, feeling responsible, seeks out the Totoro and begs for his help (prayer). Totoro summons the Catbus to bring Satsuki to Mei. (Ketsu because it ties the Totoro/Catbus story together with the hospital story).
(the sister's names are a cute bilingual pun: Satsuki is an archaic Japanese name for the fifth month, and Mei sounds like the English word "May")
3. Questions over conflicts
OK, but there's more to it than this, right? "Slice of Life" anime is a whole genre, after all, and a lot of it sucks. What makes slice-of-life not suck? What keeps our interest in a scene when big flashy stuff isn't happening? What makes us want to keep watching through the "ki" and the "shou" until we get to the "ten"?
Each act in Totoro inspires our curiosity with a question:
- (Ki): The kids are scared their new house is haunted. Question: is the house haunted? Answer: Yes, but we can laugh the ghosts away.
- (Shou): When Mei can't show her family the Totoro, she's worried that Dad and Satsuki will think she's lying. Question: Will they believe her? Answer: The family trusts each other, Satsuki makes friends with the Totoro too, and dad believes them.
- (Ten): Mei and Satsuki get the telegram and have an argument. Question: Is Mom dying? Resolution: We don't know, but Mei is going to find out in person
- (Ketsu): Mei gets lost trying to find the hospital by herself. Question: Can we find Mei? (the highest stakes question of the movie) Resolution: Catbus reunites the sisters and together they discover that their mom is OK (the telegram was a misunderstanding).
"Questions" are a more flexible storytelling tool than conflicts. Conflicts are just a type of question, after all; we pay attention because we're interested in the question of "who will win this conflict?". Questions can resolve in more different kinds of ways than conflicts can: conflicts resolve by winning or losing, but questions can also resolve by discovery, or by synthesis, or by kindness, or by (in a movie about childhood especially) by the wisdom of parents.
You could also think of these questions as "stakes" in the sense that they inspire hope or fear -- something is "at stake", either something good that might happen or not (Satsuki might make friends with the Totoro or not, Mei might be found or not) or something bad that might happen (the mother might die or not).
The important thing is the characters care about the questions and so do we.
(The Hollywood model would require each question's resolution to escalate conflict and lead into the next act. Instead, act 1 and 2's resolutions are positive -- everything's fine. There's no winning/losing. Only Mei and Satsuki's argument in Act 3 is similar to a "conflict" in the western sense, but even that one doesn't really have a winner and a loser, it just has two kids with hurt feelings.)
Sometimes what's most interesting about a movie is the scenes that are not in it. You know what's notable by its absence? Dad's total lack of skepticism. The American sub-genre of "kids meet magical creature" always, ALWAYS includes a scene of the clueless adults not believing in the magical creature, to create conflict. Totoro never does this. Dad can't see Totoro, but knows that Totoro is real. There's no need to force conflict into every scene by having the parent be an antagonist.
Dad's not surprised to find out about Totoro, because Dad picked this place for the family to live based on the giant camphor tree with the paper zig-zags it. This is clearly marked as a place that a Kami lives. Kami are real and Dad knows that Kami are real, because in this movie, Shinto is true.
Totoro is a religious, conservative movie. That sounds weird because the surface aesthetics are so different from what would make something a conservative religious movie in America. It's fluffy and full of childlike whimsy! It's not preaching anything! But Shinto, the least-organized and least doctrine-focused of all surviving religions, has space in it for the whimsical, and very little in the way of preaching.
It's conservative, because what is "good" in this movie is traditional Japanese values, especially pre-industrial countryside agricultural tradition and a strong family unit. But it's not obnoxious because it's not conservative in a rigid, stupid way. We see a Dad perform childcare duties, which would traditionally be womens' work, and it's fine, he doesn't complain about it, because it's for the good of the family. The love of the pre-industrial countryside doesn't mean we have to hate modernity. Even the Kami are modernizing: they have a bus now! A catbus. They can modernize without losing their essential Shinto-ness.
It's religious, because the climactic problem is solved by Satsuki praying to Totoro for help, and he helps. Totoro is a literal Shinto Kami and she literally prays to him.
You know who else prays? Grandma prays "Namu Amida Butsu" and then Mei is found beneath a Jizo statue. Jizo is a boddhisatva who protects travelers and lost children. Buddhism is also literally true in this movie. It co-exists with Shinto. There's no conflict.
5. Ma (間)
In Japanese music, "ma" is the space between the notes, and the idea of the silence being as important as the notes themselves.
In all kinds of Japanese narrative art there's an emphasis on dramatic pauses -- think of the long beat between when the samurai slices and when the opponent falls down dead
Ghibli movies specifically pace themselves with these shots of nature and the everyday -- a snail crawling up a plant. A frog croaking in a puddle in the rain. The shadow of a cloud passing over. Doing this in animation is a luxury -- it's a "waste" of animation resources which is why most companies that aren't Ghibli would skip it to save money.
The effect of these is not to advance plot or character but to advance the mood, the immersion, the realness of the world, the feeling of being somewhere and experiencing something. The unbelievably wet, unbelievably green Japanese countryside. The feeling of summer in that thin edge between the farmland and the wild mountains.
Plot is great and all, but it's not usually the thing I love about a movie. The plot is something to keep you interested while you're watching it, but more often the reason a movie sticks with me -- means something to me -- is not the plot but the vibe, the setting, the philosophy, the mood.
Totoro is both very specifically postwar rural Japan but also universal in that it portrays universal childhood experiences. I think all the best stories use something very specific and concrete to get at a universal human experience.
It works because it captures childhood honestly, without sugar-coating it. Childhood is full of intense emotions, good and bad, that you don't know how to handle yet. You're powerless, dependent on others, and constantly confronted with the unknown. Some of those experiences are terrifying! Being separated from your parents, for example, is terrifying.
This movie has multiple layers of meaning for me personally: nostalgia for when I first saw it, in the 90s when was first getting into anime. Nostalgia for when I lived in rural Japan. And now, I'm sharing it with my daughter and it resonates with my experience (and hopefully her experience) of her childhood.
Growing up is a process of learning to ignore things. You habituate to familiar stuff until you don't notice it anymore. You only notice things that get in the way of your daily routine, because you're maximizing efficiency.
A thing I love about being a parent is going outside with the kid and just looking at things with her. She sees all the things I've learned to overlook, and she teaches me to see them again. There's a birds' nest in that tree! That cloud is shaped like a dog! There's roly-polies under this rock! Wow!
And then I learn to start noticing them again too, so I can find things she might like and show them to her. With her, I get to remember what that's like. Relearning how to feel the numinous enchantment of the world around us, the wonder of plants and animals and weather and simple things... it's so good that there's a snail crawling up this plant. It's such a miracle that the snail exists and is alive and we get to see it and touch it in this moment. Why would you want to skip past the snail?
So much of Totoro is about this feeling. Look! Golly-wolly-pogs! Acorns! There is not actually any difference between the "everyday" stuff and the "magical" stuff -- finding golly-wolly-pogs and finding Totoro are two examples of the same kind of thing, which is that it's an encounter with nature, which is all magical. There is no distinction, because the world is animistic and alive, when you're a kid. And when you watch Totoro, it can be again.