My Neighbor Totoro

Inciting Event: When young sisters Satsuki and Mei arrive at their new house in the country, they encounter soot sprites in the house—indicating a supernatural presence. We also have an Inciting Event of another nature when we learn their mother is in the hospital.

First Plot Point: While Satsuki is at school, Mei wanders into the woods and discovers a huge furry creature, which she mistakenly calls Totoro, and which her father tells her is the “king of the forest.” The girls’ interaction with Totoro is the “adventure world” of the story, so his introduction signals their entrance into that Second Act.

First Pinch Point: Satsuki and Mei take their father’s umbrella to the bus station and wait for him. But he does not come. Mei falls asleep, and Satsuki begins to worry. Totoro arrives and Satsuki sees him for the first time. His antics eliminate her fears. He boards the Catbus, and as he leaves, the father’s bus arrives safely.

In the strictest sense, there is no plot in this movie (the characters have no great overarching story goal and hence there can be no overarching conflict that drives the story from scene to scene). We can see that clearly in this scene, since the momentary “pinch” doesn’t actually effect the plot that follows.

Midpoint: Satsuki and Mei see Totoro outside at night. Together, they make the plants grow into a tremendous tree. This is the high point of their relationship with Totoro.

Second Pinch Point: Satsuki receives a telegram from the hospital. She immediately fears for her mother’s health and runs to call her father. At first glance, this seems like a prime Third Plot Point: the pall of death hangs heavy and the characters are freaking out. However, as we see in the events that follow, this is, in fact, a fine “pinch”—an emphasis of the stakes—and, for one of the few instances in the movie, it does drive the plot right into the next structural moment.

Third Plot Point: After Satsuki, in her fear and grief, calls her sister stupid, Mei runs away. No one can find her, and everyone fears she may have drowned. This is Satsuki’s low point, as she runs the very real risk of losing her sister.

Climax: Desperate, Satsuki asks Totoro for help. He puts her on the Catbus, and they find Mei on the side of the road.

Climactic Moment: The Catbus takes them to the hospital, where they see their parents and realize their mother is fine.

Resolution: They return home to their neighbor Granny.

Notes: As I said above, this is an essentially plot-less movie. So why does it work so well? There are three primary structural reasons. One is the structure itself. Note, how, despite the lack of conflict, the story still hits all of the necessary emotional and pacing beats.

Number two is the suspenseful throughline of the mother’s health. It provides the (very subtle) pull forward, as the foreshadowing indicates that this subplot is what will take center stage later on.

Number three is the introduction of the supernatural elements right from the start. Viewers are hooked, wanting to know “what’s going to happen,” and that keeps their attention in place of conflict.

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