Totoro Recommends Leaving the Beaten Path

This article was originally printed on July 11, 2018 in Area of Effect magazine. It is reprinted here with permission. If you enjoy this article, we recommend you check out the Area of Effect anthology, containing pieces similar to this one and many more written by a cacophony of wonderful (and nerdy) writers.

I read once that most of our earliest childhood memories are emotional and sometimes traumatic. That’s certainly the case for me. My first memory is of crying uncontrollably, hopelessly lost as I had meandered out of my yard and to a place I didn’t recognize. Thankfully, my mother quickly ushered me across the street and back home. It didn’t take long for her to find and return me—I had toddled the whole of 50 meters from my house.

For a skittish 3-year-old, that experience was like the apocalypse and my mom was the knightly hero, rescuing me from danger and the unknown.

In My Neighbor Totoro, the classic Studio Ghibli anime, a similar event occurs. Four-year-old Mei Kusakabe moves with her sister and father to the countryside while their mother stays in the city to receive treatment for an illness. Disappointed by news that her mom won’t be able to visit after all, Mei gets into an argument with her 11-year-old sister, Satsuki, and decides to go visit her mom on her own. On the way, she gets lost. As darkness begins to overtake the rice paddies and farmland that surrounds her, Satsuki searches for her sister and finds Mei’s shoe among the watery fields. Panic begins to set in.

This story has a happy ending, though. The mystical beast, Totoro, summons Catbus, which takes Satsuki to Mei, reuniting the sisters in a moment of euphoria. Just as when I wandered off all those years ago, perhaps the danger in being lost was overstated, but the jubilation in being found was real.

Later in my life, when I was an adolescent, I became lost again. This time, as I returned from fishing at a lake in New Mexico, I ran ahead of my family, sure that I knew the way back to the campground. I approached a fork in the road that seemed straight out of a video game; the right path led into the darkness of the woods and the left road cut through sunny plains. I chose wrong, wandering into territory that looked increasingly unfamiliar. Eventually, I backtracked and f found my way back to the campsite, certain my parents would be worried and searching for me. There, to my surprise, I found that my parents were unphased. They figured I’d find my way. I was appalled that they didn’t “care enough” to come looking for me—didn’t they know I was in mortal danger? At the time, I was upset at my parents, but now I’m glad they let me find my own way back.

Nowadays, I love going off-path in the wilderness, seeing it as an opportunity for excitement, to learn something new, and indeed, to discover how to find my way back. But I doubt I would have learned to love exploring if my parents had come running every time I did something on my own. Instead of instilling me with fear, they encouraged me to ask questions, to look and think for myself.

When Satsuki finds her sister, she doesn’t chide Mei for getting lost, although that would fit her personality. Instead, Satsuki is joyful to find her alive. The two, I have no doubt, became closer because of the fear each must have had, wondering whether they’d see each other again. The ride home together on the Catbus must have been awesome, too, with the sisters experiencing the supernatural. What started out as something scary became something incredible.

Although I was more like Mei as a child, running off to have adventures, I’m definitely more like Satsuki as an adult. I play it safe, stay the course, and don’t wander off for fear of becoming lost. But perhaps I’ve forgotten that the moments when I no longer have control, when I don’t know where to go or how to solve a problem—it’s then that I learn something about the world, about others, and about myself. When I walk a straight path with a clear ending, I know what the journey will be like from beginning to end, but when I take chances, or even when I stumble off the road unintentionally, I find that I’m on a real journey where the destination is uncertain and the way there isn’t clear.

Even in the pain of family issues, job transitions, and all the other things that can make life hard, it’s only when I get lost that I can grow as an explorer, blazing a way that’s different from what I had planned. It’s only through difficulties that I can grow, so even if the journey’s end isn’t something magical like a ride aboard the Catbus, even if I only grow a tiny bit stronger or learn something, that prize itself is worth going adrift; it’s worth the discomfort of it all.

Featured art by anonamos (reprinted w/permission). The GKIDS release of My Neighbor Totoro is available for purchase on Amazon; a special 30th anniversary edition is also available.


3 thoughts on “Totoro Recommends Leaving the Beaten Path

  1. Really nice post! I loved it!

    I’m with you, it’s important to lose yourself, it’s the only way to find new things. Of course, your example as a child and Totoro are the literal meaning. However, more than letting yourself get lost in a city or in the wilding, it’s also important to come out of your comfort zone in real life.

    It’s scary as hell. However, from personal experience, it was always those times where I learned the most. At this moment, I’m going, yet again, to a completely new job, different from whatever I’ve done until this day. I’m scared as hell, but, at the same time, excited to find all the things I’m gonna learn in the process 🙂

    1. It’s funny how when we’re a kid, the things we’re scared of are so different than what we fear as adults—transitioning to a new job is the equivalent of being lost in the woods for someone young! I wish you the best of luck, and I’m encouraged by your attitude, for you’re absolutely right—when we get out of our comfort zones and let ourselves be challenged, we’re almost certain to grow. When we stand still, we often find ourselves moving backwards.

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