Written by Sarah Yoon
My Neighbor Totoro is another example of Miyazaki’s unusual plots arcs, yet veers away from the rollercoaster-like style of Spirited Away or Howl’s Moving Castle. Instead, the plot is driven by wonder, joy, and grief. The story digs deep into the characters’ psychology and brings out moments that melt viewers into a puddle of fond recognition. Miyazaki reawakes our childlike dreams without condescension. He never looks down on his young characters as childish; he understands their intensity, purity, and complexity.
When writing about children, you can only create a genuine likeness by delving into their psychology and seeing through their eyes. Lay under your dining room table to see the world from a different angle. Dig through the bushes in your backyard to find a good spot for a fort. Or for an easier way out, invite your friends’ kids over to watch My Neighbor Totoro. Miyazaki’s beautiful work gives 5 distinct insights into creating stories about children:
1. Focus and Tunnel Vision
Have you ever noticed how children focus so intently on the most trivial things? The cracked tiles turn into a game and reaching that toy on the shelf is the most important quest in the world. Though Satsuki Kusakabe is a very mature eleven year-old, she focuses just as intently as the rest. Her eyes latch onto a shiny acorn on the floor. Instead of waiting to take her shoes off, she rushes into the house on her knees, nearly tripping her father as he walks by. Children often ignore spatial contexts and narrow their vision, focusing on the only important object of the moment: a shiny acorn.
2. Experiences of Time
Similar to Satsuki’s concentration, her little sister Mei experiences a distorted sense of time. When their dad says that their mom will be home soon, Mei asks brightly, “So she’ll be home tomorrow?” When she plays in the backyard after breakfast, she runs by the open doors and calls, “Dad, is it lunch time already?” In her short four years, she hasn’t learned to measure minutes and hours. She is lead by strong emotions and intense focus instead of rhythmic ticking. This freedom from the march of time will wear off over the years, but it is a magical element of childhood that brings Miyazaki’s characters to life.
3. Body Language and Emotion
Endearing moments encapsulate childhood throughout the story. Mei stuffs acorns into her pocket, spilling half of them in the process. She follows Satsuki around their new home, copying her movements and her words. Body language communicates Mei’s sweet and sad moments. When she waits tearfully outside of Satsuki’s school and when she is frightened of the fox shrine at the bus stop, she silently clings to her sister. Satsuki’s skirt rumples as Mei burrows into the fabric and holds tight. These non-verbal interactions give an empathetic peek into Mei’s struggles. Unlike many adults, Miyazaki doesn’t condescend; he accepts her emotions without judging whether or not they are reasonable. Her feelings are important to her, therefore they are be important to him.
4. Responsibility, Maturity…
Satsuki deals with her sister’s ups and downs with unusual maturity as she steps into her mother’s role. She helps her father hold the family together as she cares for Mei, makes meals and brings the umbrella to the bus stop. In Critical Hit, Kyle Keene comments that the girls “have a very hard space to be in as a child, with a sick mother…You almost get the sense that if the mom were to die, they wouldn’t see the world the same way anymore.” Though Satsuki’s responsibility is a key character element, Miyazaki doesn’t label her as ‘the mature one.’ Varying levels of maturity round out her character. After Satsuki receives a worrying telegram from the hospital, she breaks down. Confidence falters as fear rises to the surface. She cannot deny that she is lost without her mother’s loving guidance.
5. …and Cooties!
If being an interim-mother figure isn’t hard enough, Satsuki is entering the complex realm of romance, crushes, and cooties. Miyazaki deftly hints at this awkward period through her interactions with Kanta, a shy neighbor boy. Their relationship starts with a natural antagonism: he sticks his tongue out at her and she sticks her tongue out at him. Before long, his sweet nature forces him to break through the wall of cooties as he gives the umbrella to Satsuki. Mouth clamped shut, he jabs the umbrella in her direction before rushing away, grinning. The children’s approach to adolescence is revealed through the kind humor of one who remembers the uncertainty and discovery of growing up.
Throughout the story, Miyazaki layers childlike mannerisms, emotions, and intensities. These animated drawings turn into bouncing, tripping, laughing, crying children—filled to the brim with life. Creating characters as rounded as Miyazaki’s is a challenge for any aspiring storyteller.
StoryForge would like to thank the incredible artists below for allowing us to use their beautiful interpretations of My Neighbor Totoro.
Sayuri Romei (Totoro Banquet, Curious Mei, Cat Bus)
365 Days of Doodles (My Neighbor Totoro – notebook sketch)