Totoro Recommends Leaving the Beaten Path

"Totoro and Mei - Excursion" | Art by Syntetyc. Used with permission.

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 Neighbour 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.

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.

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.

I doubt I would have learned to love exploring if my parents had come running every time I did something on my own.

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.

Charles Sadnick

Charles Sadnick

Contributing Writer at Area of Effect
Converted from the moment he first heard Han Solo reply, “I know,” Charles resisted his nerdy urges until Hayao Miyazaki, Spike Spiegel, and Evangelion Unit-01 forced him to confront the truth of his inner geekery. Baptized into otakudom, Charles masks himself in the not-so-secret identity of TWWK as he blogs endlessly about anime and faith.

He can also be found, however, feeding his other nerd habits, including A Song of Ice and Fire. Charles also remains hopelessly stuck in the 90's, maybe best demonstrated by his unexplainable passion for The Phantom Menace.

A historian and director at a government agency by day, Charles joins in the work of college and digital ministry is his off-time, while growing each day in the round-the-clock charge of being a husband and father.
Charles Sadnick