One of Japan’s leading animation directors, Hayao Miyazaki makes supremely beautiful movies, offering rather surreal escapes with recurring themes such as flying, the supernatural, magic and the fragility of the natural world. It’s not unusual for characters to be on a moral journal of some sort, starting out as troubled or even unlikable, and growing through their experiences into smarter, respectful, more likeable people (or dead people/beings, if they’re really bad) in the end.
His films have been nominated for Oscars and other prestigious prizes (his Spirited Away won Best Animated Feature in 2003), and he’s considered to be at the top of the anime game at the moment.
His latest work, Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea, has been released already in Japan, and will open in summer here in the U.S. (thanks to Film Femme for bringing it up in a comment here!). The English version will feature the voices of (ready?) Matt Damon, Tina Fey, Cate Blanchett, Liam Neeson, Lily Tomlin, Betty White and Cloris Leachman. The story centers on a 5-year-old boy and his relationship with a “goldfish princess” who longs to become human. (Trailer at end of post.)
Here are some quick takes on other films by Miyazaki (in order of their release). Note that some are really not appropriate for younger kids.
Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984) (PG): This is highly rated by Miyazaki fans, and has an environmental theme, about the planet being in peril and the ensuing battle to save it. The heroine, Nausicaa, has her hands full and must use her head and her warrior skills in the best way possible. There is a bit of violence and perhaps some frightening creatures, but nothing too intense (I haven’t seen it, but did some research). K saw this without me when he was about nine or 10 and says now, “I love it.”
My Neighbor Totoro (1988) (G): This is a sweet, fantasy filled film that we all adored and had on video for years. There are gentle spirits and pixies and dancing by moonlight and a flying cat bus, and of course the cuddly, lovable Totoro... the film has an idyllic, happy vibe. (Um, except for the underlying story that the two young sisters’ mom is seriously and in the hospital, and I held my breath for the longest time thinking she was going to die: Jeezus, I wondered, do we really need to go there now?) (Spoiler: she doesn’t die.) This is fine for the younger kids, who may or may not worry about the mother like I did.
Kiki's Delivery Service (1989) (G) K saw this one years ago, but I didn’t, and after looking it up on IMDB, I’ll give it a thumbs up here for the younger ones. He liked it at the time, I remember, and it sounds like it’s a sweet as Totoro. Kiki is a young witch who sets up a flying delivery service. No big meanies here.
Princess Mononoke (1997) (PG-13): (13!) Another environmental theme here. K has seen this on TV twice, and says it’s his favorite. It’s “totally awesome and amazing.” I doubt it was edited for TV, and the description on IMDB does make it sound pretty graphic. Go at your own risk.
Spirited Away (2001) (PG): I have to say I like this one the least of all, for various reasons, and many Miyazaki fans consider this is best (it won an Oscar!). I found it sort of dark and scary, and it didn’t have that flight of fancy that I find so charming in other titles. One scene I remember in particular is early on, when a young girl’s parents are suddenly turned into pigs (most of the story is her working to turn them back). This was rather disturbing for K, who was maybe nine when we watched it. There is also a bit of violence and some menacing creatures, a bit of blood (splattering) and some cruel characters; the kind you want to protect your kids from even knowing about at a tender age.
Howl’s Moving Castle (2004) (PG): This is the story of a young woman turned into an old hag by a nasty witch, and she stumbles into a young wizard who is also dealing with his own troubles. The wizard, Howl, lives in a fantastic, moving castle that is the height of imagination: the lush detailing of its mechanical form and its ambulatory grace is just astonishingly beautiful. This was nominated for an Oscar, but didn’t win (but it lost to Wallace & Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, so it's OK). It’s my favorite Miyazaki film, and despite its PG rating, it’s very safe; a few dark magic moments might scary the very youngest ones.
Maybe I’m just a wuss.
There are more in the mighty Miyazaki’s oeuvre, and if you haven’t checked him out yet, I think you’ll be glad you did. They’re truly artful pieces of cinema. (You can get some of these in paperback graphic novel/comic form, if you’re trying to find more ways to get your non-reader interested in books. And since they’re Japanese, they read from right to left, which is sort of fun for kids, too. They’re not hard to find, just ask your local bookseller. Also, Howl’s Moving Castle is a novel by Diana Wynne-Jones, as is another Miyazaki film, Castle in the Air.)
Here are trailers for the upcoming Ponyo and for my favorite, Howl's: