I think the reason I enjoy Totoro so much despite the tiny scope of the conflict in the plot is in it’s careful handling of dramatic elements.
Despite the lack of epic scenarios, Totoro still strikes me as the most moving of the Miyazaki films. The problems encountered by the children seem trivial to an adult (except the final conflict of the disappearance of Mei), and so too seem the joys of resolution. Certainly, they would not have a great effect on me today. But to Satsuki and Mei, with their rich imaginations and lack of experience, the conflicts and the joys challenged their existing boundaries and suggest unfathomable possibilities joyful or dark. Living through Satsuki and Mei is to relieve a childlike fascination with the world.
The importance of relativity of experience in Totoro cannot be overstated. The representation of childlike fascination would easily be broken should the everyday life of Satsuki and Mei provide any fantastical or emotionally intense elements. The impact of the fantastic in Totoro exists solely in relativity to the mundane everyday.
Even after seeing Totoro no less than eight times, I am still awestruck by the subtle but masterful directing balancing the mundane and the fantastic.
But going back to the relativity of experience, I think this sort of relativity applies to a huge variety of settings in life. Most qualities in our lives have been stable enough to have an established baseline – qualities like the level of hardship, the requirement for patience, eventfulness, and even the sodium level of our diet to name a few. Just like our desensitization to our baseline level of sodium, other qualities become desensitized over time as well, leaving us to see only fluctuations as notable experiences.
This theory has significant implications. For example, it may seem counter-intuitive to enforce deadlines and pressure on oneself, but a lifestyle desensitized to the additional stress level may reap the benefit of added productivity. Discipline seems uncomfortable to outsiders, but perhaps this is a reason why people can stay in demanding routines. Perhaps it is possible to minimize distractions by desensitizing oneself to a low baseline of distraction quantity, and perhaps it is possible to minimize indulgence by establishing small things as indulgences.
Naturally, baselines have a limit. We cannot lower our baseline desire for water beyond our body’s minimum requirements. From my experiences however, most measures in life can be adapted for, and the range is surprisingly wide if the baseline is moved slowly.
If this is the case, most people will have lots to optimize for, and can identify simple criteria to judge their own optimization. Off the top of my head: