A story about children discovering the world
Spirits show up first as the positive formulation of a negative: The intrusion of dirt or decay on a disused house. We encounter nature, in a sense, in that in which gets in the way of the work we get out of our artifacts. Thinking of soot as spirits does three things: It suggests mysterious powers of motion by giving shape to the invisible, air; it gives the uncanny a physical mark; & it makes the imagination into an instrument of discovery.
In a world where pets are fast replacing children, we get to see both children & pets, to try to understand their nature. For example, the two girls: The older plays at being her mother & is responsible–she makes lunch, accepts her younger sister as a charge even during school, & takes care of her while she sleeps waiting for the bus. It would seem the younger plays at being her father: He tells them about the spirits in nature, she is the first to discover them.
The absence of the sick mother allows the girls to discover these wild spirits, though in an essentially benevolent way that accords with their disposition. The younger discovers Totoro as a warm pillow. The elder as a fellow being needing shelter from the rain, so it makes sense to her to offer him an umbrella, like a boy offered her one.
The trusting need for companionship & independence is, from the beginning, all about discovery. Thus, when the girls plant acorns & see Totoro begging the heavens for rain, that is the same as going up the magical tree & seeing that its great height commands a view of the world to the horizon. Totoro starts out as the animal complement of their humanity. You could say the girls, in missing their mother, miss the animal warmth of the body.
But there is another part of imagination. The girls become enemies in their suffering fear in their mother’s suffering. The elder is old enough to take her sense of powerlessness & guilt out on the younger, in anger, who is young enough to think that what’s good for the body is any kind of answer to suffering, so she wants to take her mother food. Here, Totoro is the artificial complement of their animal reactions, he moves them to the hospital to see their mother.
Adults talk about spirits, but do not see them, because they have some way squared with fear & a sense of providence. Thus, the girls see their parents in the hospital, but are not seen in return. The independence of childhood shows up as a fearful, wonderful adventure because it concerns the possibility that being human is striving, not the peaceful protection of home.