View Full Version : Miyazaki movies and story structure/conflict

08-30-2010, 12:07 AM
Hi guys. I just had an interesting thought. I watched My Neighbor Totoro the other day for the first time, and was reminded of something I've noticed in other Miyazaki films. The storytelling structure doesn't seem to follow the sort of setup we're encouraged to have at all. In fact, they tend to be more like vignettes.

Here's a quick summary for anyone who hasn't seen it. Two young girls move with their father to a new home while their mother is in the hospital with an illness. They explore their new home, which they think is haunted, but they're enjoying it and they aren't terrified, really. It's more of that childish sense of play-fear that I think we can all remember from our own childhoods.

The youngest daughter, Mei, discovers a hidden area in a bush with a magical creature in it she calls Totoro. No one really believes her, but her sister sees it as well while they're waiting for their father one day. Then one evening, Totoro takes them on a magical little adventure while they're dreaming and flies them around the village.

Up until this point, there really isn't any conflict. The children's mother is in the hospital, but they aren't horribly distraught or troubled by this. They aren't truly afraid of the house, and even the issues with Mei not being believed aren't really issues, and her sister (Satsuki? I can't recall her name off the top of my head) sees Totoro soon after as well.

In fact, there isn't any conflict until the end when the girls receive a message from the hospital and think their mother might be hurt. Mei wants to go give her mother some corn as a present and gets lost and they have to search for her. Totoro helps find her and then they get to take a magical bus to the hospital to see that their mother is okay. Then the story ends.

There is nothing in the beginning to really indicate what the conflict at the end is going to be, and I'd be willing to say there's not even really a climax. Other Miyazaki movies tend to follow similar patterns. On the other hand, these are beautiful little tales and many people (myself included) adore them.

So what is it about them that makes it work? What can we learn from this type of story telling?

08-30-2010, 12:13 AM
Miyazaki films, to me, aren't so much about conflict and resolution as they are daydreams. I think that's the magic in them - there's nothing to expect, you just sort of float along with it and let it go where it wants to.

There may be a tacked on conflict like with Spirited Away (she wants to unpig her parents), but the conflict is more like a set of bookends with a set-up on one side and the resolution on the other, but they're only brackets to hold what's held between.

It's very much journey over destination.

08-30-2010, 12:18 AM
Honestly, I think many of Miyazaki's stories do follow arcs we can recognize. Totoro is kind of a unique one, but look at Nausicaa (both the movie and the manga), or Kiki's Delivery Service, or Mononoke Hime, or Mimi o Sumaseba/"Whisper of the Heart."

(Though admittedly, Mimi was more Kondo's work than Miyazaki's in some ways; I just felt I needed to include that one in the list. I mean, the story is in large part about a girl who likes reading more than doing her schoolwork; she decides she wants to become a writer, and we see how she matures while struggling to finish her first novel!)

Some, in particular Totoro, are more free-form, but what makes them work is that they're dreamlike and we can lose ourselves in the world.

09-03-2010, 04:14 AM
I love Howl's Moving Castle. Actually it seemed to be the opposite of what you described. It definitely had a lot of conflict, but not too much. So I decided to give the book a shot because everyone knows books are better than the movies.

Worst. Book. Ever. So confusing and random. I'm amazed they got a great movie from it.

09-03-2010, 04:22 AM
I have no contribution to this thread other than my avatar.

And to say My Neighbor Totoro is one of my favorite movies of all time.

Kitty Pryde
09-03-2010, 11:39 PM
I would disagree with the OP. I think Totoro does have a pretty traditional plot. Keep in mind the MCs are what, age 4 and 7? And the target audience is around the same age. It's not a plot for an adult, it's a plot for a preschooler. Where you see no conflict, I recognize loads of simmering fear and anger and tension.

Inciting incident: mother goes to the hospital and the kids and their dad move to a new place. The kids are generally happy and well-adjusted but they are really distraught by this event. They show it in the way they act towards each other and the people they meet (like the old lady and the boy). The conflict isn't big, not by adult plot standards. And not by American kiddie cartoon standards, where every sad moment is accompanied by a swelling symphony, a close-up on the face, and a single tear. But they're both scared and adrift. If you put yourself in that preschool mindset, the stuff that happens to the girls is really a big deal. I found it pretty dramatic. There's a lot of crying and fighting and being antisocial. Just because they aren't talking about it, doesn't mean they aren't suffering. The antagonist is the separation from the mother, the illness, and having to move.

It's not really a fantasy story in the sense of a usual fantasy story--magical malevolent forces, shining heroes, manipulation of people and surroundings. It's more a magical realism story IMO. Totoro is like the general goodness of the world, reaching out to them through nature to help them get through a very difficult time. The little sis getting lost is the climax, and the denouement (wow i spelled that right!) is them going to see mom in the hospital as she is getting better.

The ending is wonderful because it's an affirmation that after bad things upset your life, equilibrium will be restored and things will get better. That's the nature of the universe, as represented by the big fluffy friendly Totoros.

-Kitty, sekritly seven years old