Annalyn’s Corner: Totoro and Childlike Delight

The title character in My Neighbor Totoro is iconic. He doesn’t just represent the movie—he’s part of Studio Ghibli’s logo. He is big, imaginative, and adults and children all over the world want to hug him. But he’s not the main reason I love that movie. No, it’s the children, Satsuki and Mei, who stand out to me. Their delight in everything, small and big, manmade and supernatural, is contagious.

In many ways, this is an extension of the “role of imagination and wonder” topic I wrote on four weeks ago. But re-watching My Neighbor Totoro reminds me specifically of the importance of delighting in things big and small, and the characters set a good example of how to do so. So I look to these children for pointers in how to enjoy life—and I reflect on why this is important from a biblical perspective.

If you haven’t seen this film, you may not have heard much about how it starts: Satsuki, Mei, and their father arrive to the countryside, near the hospital where their mother is staying. They move into an old, rotting house—and they couldn’t be happier about it. They run from the vehicle and immediately notice the simple and beautiful: “Look! a creek!” Satsuki calls to her sister.

And the road up to the house? “It’s a tunnel of trees!”

The house itself is old. Satsuki immediately recognizes its potentially haunted state. Then they run up to the patio and swing around a pillar… which starts to swing with her. “It’s rotten!” she realizes, and immediately starts to shake the support to watch bits of wood and paint fall down. Satsuki and Mei shout, giggle, and run around, enjoying first the rotting exterior and grassy yard, then, following some direction from their father, the possibly haunted interior.

Satsuki pushes on the rotting pillar.
Satsuki pushes on the rotting pillar.

I love this scene partly because, as always, Miyazaki does a fantastic job portraying children. He loves them and knows them well, and that comes through in everything, from the children’s shouts to Mei’s stubborn, serious expression when she tries to catch a soot sprite. It’s satisfying to see childhood represented so well. But my enjoyment goes further than that: by this point, about five minutes into the film, I am effectively connected to the children for the duration of the movie. I get to see the world through their eyes and share their delight. Some children’s productions require you to put on a child’s perspective yourself in order to enjoy them. That’s hard for me. I’m more stiff and un-silly than most of my young adult peers. Childish fun does not come naturally, and even on TV, it almost makes me want to cry from embarrassment. When I forget myself and just have fun, it’s usually a planned, controlled fun, like when dancing or at Disneyland: I decide that I’m going to enjoy myself to the fullest measure, and that means letting go of most of my inhibitions—heaven help the person who gets in my way once I’ve decided to seriously play. But there are a few ways to yank me unexpectedly out of my head and into delight, mostly involving children.

My toddler nephew brings out a silliness that is usually buried very deep inside me, a silliness almost no one except myself has seen in a decade. With him, headphones are a delightful, fascinating way to experience music. And it’s like furniture is made just so I can jump over and climb around it for an elaborate game of peek-a-boo. He giggles in delight when I chase him, and I can’t help but giggle, too. I’m still a killjoy sometimes—”That’s a bowl,” I inform him when he picks up the nearest hollow object and calls it a hat. But I enjoy his antics without embarrassment or annoyance.

Like my nephew, the children in My Neighbor Totoro transport me out of my head and remind me how to delight in things here and now, whether that’s an acorn, a dark room, paint chips, or something supernatural. Sometimes, adults need to be reminded—especially those of us with a strong tendency to overthink or to take ourselves too seriously. Delight, these kids remind me, requires you to be available to joy, fully present, and humble. It evokes curiosity. And it’s a vital part of a balanced perspective.

You must make yourself available. That is, you can’t be so absorbed in yourself or in stuffy things that you miss opportunities to notice delightful things around you. Kids don’t let work or school absorb them completely. They play, and they’re more in tune with imagination and wonder, so they’re often more likely to view the world with open eyes. Adults are out of practice. We get bogged down with work, worry, studies, and plans. Sometimes we even get absorbed by fun things, like anime and games, and forget to look around and really see the world. So we have to purposefully step back, set aside our worries and biases, and see.

This kind of delight requires you to be fully present and focused on an object, idea, or feeling. It might just be for a moment, as when the kids look at the creek. It could be for several minutes, as when they run through the house, looking for the way upstairs, enjoying the newness and mysteriousness of the place. Or it could be much longer, as in their dream-that-wasn’t-a-dream with Totoro, helping their trees grow and playing those wind instruments with him on top of the big tree.

Delight is humble. It requires your full attention to be on something else. When the kids run around their new house, they’re not thinking about their difficult circumstances, whether or not they’ll be able to make new friends (or what friends would think of a rotting house), or whether they’ll be able to claim the best room as their own. And when Mei finds Totoro in the tree and climbed on top of him, I guarantee she isn’t thinking about her muddy knees, how tired she is, or anything else that doesn’t involve Totoro.

I’m not sure about you, but I’m happiest when I forget myself. This isn’t because I don’t like myself—I happen to think God is doing a fantastic job with me. But I’m just one tiny part of his creation. More than that, I was created to glorify God, so I feel most right when I’m enjoying him, what he’s made, and things made by others. Delight is closely tied to worship, which is by nature other-focused. If we’re created to glorify God and enjoy him forever, then no wonder it feels so good to stop focusing on ourselves and delight in things.

Delight evokes curiosity. It often draws you in deeper. You want to know more. The kids want to know more about soot sprites and totoros. A similar curiosity is present in more mature spheres, too. When I took literary criticism in college, the word “delight” was everywhere, often connected with the intellectual or moral value of poems/texts/art. The critics we studied insisted that true delight took you deeper into the poem, to learn more about it and its topics (where “poem” means literature, art, and by extension even film). I experience this kind of delight with My Neighbor Totoro itself: I really like it on the surface. It’s a great comfort anime, the music and art please my senses, and I enjoy following the characters. And I wouldn’t want to spoil those feelings by forcing the film to become an intellectual, bloggable experience. But eventually, I can’t help but think more about it. I ask questions about Japanese culture represented in it. I notice how the music, usually non-diegetic but diegetic in certain parts, enhances scenes. I compare its portrayal of nature and the connected worldview with my own perspective on nature. I carry memories of the film into my daily life, and I thank God for Miyazaki, Joe Hisaishi (the composer), animation, and creativity. I’ve seen the film five times so far. I delight in it on a surface level, with an often childlike perspective, but also on a few intellectual levels and even on a spiritual level. And I’m able to do this without ever minimizing or cheapening the surface level.

There’s one more thing to learn about delight from Satsuki and Mei: it doesn’t need to come from naiveté. Their mother is in the hospital, and they worry about her. Satsuki is only about ten years old, but she’s stepped up to help take care of four-year-old Mei. Their mother went into the hospital with “just a cold,” but it turned out to be something worse, and she’s been there a long time. Satsuki, is especially sensitive to the reality of death, and she lets her cheerful strength fall away for a bit later in the film, when she tearily shares her fears with a neighborhood obaasan who’s helping them out.

There are a lot people hurting in this world—loved ones, strangers, ourselves. There’s sickness, death, and evil. There’s fear and sadness, and it must be felt, shared, admitted. But it must not eclipse the good. One does not negate the validity of the other. It’s not selfish or wrong to delight in something good when there are others suffering, unless you ignore their feelings and never empathize with them. (On the flip side, it’s not selfish or wrong to feel sad or hurt about something bad when others are rejoicing, unless you ignore their feelings and never rejoice with them.) Satsuki is being neither selfish nor ignorant when she enjoys her new home, even though her mother is still in the hospital. The ability to delight in things is part of a balanced perspective—a sign of a joyful heart. I’d argue that the ability to delight in good things, small and big, is the opposite of naiveté: it’s a sign of understanding.

I have a few more notes about delight for Christians:

First, if your faith is nearly devoid of delight, it’s time to check your perspective. Delighting in God, his creation, and what he’s given us is part of truly knowing him. David was a great example, both in his actions (like dancing in front of the Ark) and his songs. And Paul instructs us to rejoice in the Lord. I think that, with God’s help, we can cultivate joyful hearts predisposed to delight. It comes from habitually seeking out and celebrating the good—and to do so on its terms. I’ve noticed that I’m the most joyful when I’ve been regularly studying God’s Word, memorizing it, and applying it. When I read Psalms of praise and use them to prompt my own praise, I’m more likely to notice things about God and his creation that make me excited.

Second, all truly good things are gifts from God. You don’t have to hyper-spiritualize the way you delight in them in order to glorify him and please him. Sometimes, a simple “thank you” will suffice. Think about it this way: if I spent the entire time watching My Neighbor Totoro talking about Miyazaki and praising his directing skills, I’m pretty sure he’d be displeased. And I’d be very annoyed if someone ate one of my cookies and immediately started talking about my skills as a baker (or worse, the nutritional value of it). If they want to learn about the ingredients or want more, fine, but I want them to enjoy the cookie for the cookie’s sake first, without thinking much, if at all, about me. Otherwise they’re going to miss out. That’s why baking cookies for men and children tends to be more satisfying, I think: they don’t skip the enthusiastic “yummy” step of delight. I suspect God has a similar stance, and I strongly suspect he loves childlike delight for the same reason. Enjoy nature. Enjoy people and the way their God-given creativity manifests. If you’re truly delighting in it, you should naturally want to know more about the Creator. But don’t skip steps or undervalue delight just because you think that’s what a good Christian should do. And don’t feel guilty about enjoying non-spiritual things like anime, chocolate, or the feeling of a good run. Just don’t forget where these all ultimately come from, or who gave you the senses to enjoy them.

Satsuki and Mei, led by their father, thank Totoro for looking out for Mei. It's the proper and natural extension of delighting in Totoro's presence when he does reveal himself: learn more about him, and thank him.
Satsuki and Mei, led by their father, thank Totoro for looking out for Mei. It’s the proper and natural extension of delighting in Totoro’s presence when he does reveal himself: learn more about him, and thank him.

Third, apply what you’re learning about delight to Bible-reading. This can be hard for me. I’ve been a Christian since I was about three. I got my first big Bible, an NIV, when I was five. I’ve been hearing Bible stories my whole life, and I’ve been reading my Bible at least somewhat regularly since I was about twelve. (I’m almost twenty-three now.) It’s too easy for me to lose my sense of wonder, and by extension, my ability to delight in God’s Word. I’d love to be like the poet who wrote Psalm 119, delighting in God’s commandments and decrees, but I rarely am. And it’s often because I’m too focused on myself: on getting my Bible quota read for the day, or on finding how passage applies to me. But when I’m focused on learning about God, what his commands say about him and his relationship to people throughout history, and the people and words he chose to convey them, it’s a little easier to delight in his Word. It is, again, a matter of perspective.

When you really can’t get out of your head, though, I recommend finding a relatively new Christian to talk to about the Bible. Baby Christians are like children: they are excited to explore this new world (in this case, the Bible), and they notice things longtime Christians take for granted. Listen to them, and don’t look down on any of their more simple observations. Be humble enough to let their excitement infect you.

Sometimes, delight is easy—especially when we don’t have to let our guard too far down. But sometimes, it takes children to remind you how to delight in things again. They show you how to be completely present in the moment, to let go of yourself and just celebrate life. For me, even the fictional children in My Neighbor Totoro do the trick, if I let them. I encourage you to let them do the same for you.

2 thoughts on “Annalyn’s Corner: Totoro and Childlike Delight

  1. Great Read!! Reading this reminded me of a conversation my friend and I had a few hours ago on the bus. She took one of those online personality tests and told me it claimed that she has a hard time seeing the beauty in things. She asked me if I felt similar, and I had to disagree. If fact, I would say I have a hard time living in reality! My personality gets so distracted by all the wonderful things like Mei does in Totoro that I have a hard time being serious when I would rather be chasing after pretty things in nature or even the store. That’s why one of my favorite verses is “Be Still and know that I am God.” (Psalm 46:10) It reminds me to just focus on my rock when I get too distracted. Sometimes I have to try and “adult”. 😛

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  2. I could say all kinds of boring adult things here about how as you age, you excite less often and less effectively because the threshold of charge difference you have to manage to create an action potential gets higher and higher blah blah blah…Fewer new experiences, blah. X3 But none of that is any fun, and in a sense it doesn’t get to the root of the issue.

    While we can’t be young again in a number of senses, you make a very important point here about needing to stop and smell the roses once in a while. We live in a world that is more fast-paced and more harried than any generation before us encountered. We have a million separate inputs coming into our brain every day from a million sources, and multiple stressful demands are placed on us as adults. We’ve become a society where nobody just stops to enjoy the world around them, as children of every generation and age do.

    And if I had built the world and everything in it, well….it’s like DMing a really good Roleplay. The whole point is being able to transport someone else, to watch their reactions of joy and wonder. That’s how you know that somebody really appreciates you. All the obligatory Bible-reading in the world doesn’t convey true worship of someone else. Duty without happiness in it, duty where you feel like somebody or something is nagging you to do it, is just…empty. I personally find that religion is a matter of devotion more than it is action. If you love someone enough, you’ll want to do things associated with them, like when you go to the Bible not to find some moral…but to find God. 🙂

    Those are my thoughts.

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