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Family Movie Night: Top 10 Hayao Miyazaki Films

Published on: January 14, 2014

Whether you’re an established anime fan or just starting out, you might ask yourself: why all the Miyazaki?

Anime fillmmaker Hayao Miyazaki, a partner in an anime studio called Studio Ghibli, dominates best-of-anime lists the way the Beatles own the top ten on Rolling Stone's "500 Greatest Albums of All Time" list. He's known as the Walt Disney of Japan and enjoys more popularity outside of Japan than any other director.

His reputation is well earned. Miyazaki's films are the best entry point for Japanese animation, also known as anime. Depending on the movie kids can start quite young and there is a good variety of material.

I’ve ordered this list by age recommendation youngest to oldest.

(Also see our list of best non-Miayazaki anime films.)

My Neighbor Totoro (1988)

Age recommendation: 5 and older

If you were to ask any anime fan which Miyazaki film a child should start with I guarantee they would say Totoro, a film about two girls who have adventures with the wondrous forest spirits who live near their mother's hospital. If you didn’t limit it to Miyazaki and let them choose from any anime director, there’s a good chance they would still say Totoro. ‘Nuff said.

Kiki's Delivery ServiceKiki’s Delivery Service (1989)

Age recommendation: 5 and up

Our kids, a boy and girl, first saw this one when they were 5 and 7 and they still watch it years later. The main character, Kiki, is a witch in a harmless and very matter-of-fact sort of way. She is a strong female lead and it is a nice-coming-of age story. Supporting characters Tombo and Kiki’s cat Jiji make this palatable for those (namely boys) not into this type of story.

Ponyo (2008)

Age recommendation: 5 and up

You may have heard of Ponyo because it was one of Miyazaki’s first films to have success as a theatrical release in the U.S. and Canada.

Ponyo, an interesting take on The Little Mermaid theme, follows the adventures of a fish (Ponyo) who wants to be a girl. It's appropriate for all ages but it’s targeted to a notably younger audience than the other films. 

Laputa: Castle in the Sky (1986)

Age recommendation: 9 and up

Chock full of sky pirates, a quest for a lost (floating) city, and lots of adventure and action, this is one of Miyazaki’s most entertaining films.

While Kiki may appeal more to girls, this one definitely has some serious boy energy, although there is plenty for girls, too, including strong girl characters. This is also where we start to break out of the all-ages recommendations. There is fighting, guns and peril that aren't appropriate for (and probably won’t appeal to) younger children.

Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)

Age recommendation: 9 and up

This film pushes up the age recommendation not just because of violence and peril but also because of creepy, mystical characters and themes that could be confusing for younger children. Which witch is good? Which witch is bad? Which witch is disguised as what?

Consider it a challenge to your child’s understanding of narrative flow and context – or yours, for that matter, considering that some threads are left unresolved and/or ambiguous.

Despite all that, this is one of my favorite Miyazaki films, following Castle in the Sky.

Porco RossoPorco Rosso (1992)

Age recommendation: 9 and up

Even if you’ve already watched a couple of Miyazaki's films, there's a good chance you haven’t seen this gem about a World War I pilot who has been turned into a half-man, half-pig flying mercenary.

If your kids are obsessed with aviation (as Miyazaki is) and the history of Fascist Italy and the Adriatic in the time between the wars then this is a must-see. Warning: There is plenty of shooting, with some smoking, drinking and “romance” too. And Fascists.

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984)

Age recommendation: 10 and up

Nausicaä was produced by Isao Takahata and is considered the start of the partnership and organization that became Studio Ghibli.

Even though it’s a relatively early film for Miyazaki as director, it is as rich and compelling as any of his other movies. Add to that yet another strong female lead character, thrilling action and a solid environmental message and you’ve got another winner.

Spirited Away (2001)
(Academy Award winner for Best Animated Feature)

Age recommendation: 11 and up

Along with Ponyo, you may have also heard of Spirited Away as it is the most successful Japanese film in history (in worldwide release), made more money than Titanic at the Japanese box office, won an Academy Award, and is often named as one of the greatest animated films of all time.

Yay for Spirited Away!

Here’s why you won't show it to your kids until they’re older: The parents of the lead character (Chihiro, another strong girl) get turned into pigs, creepy-freaky characters abound and Chihiro almost loses her identity and gets sucked forever into the nightmarish spirit world. However, once your kids are ready, it’s quite good.

Princess MononokePrincess Mononoke (1997)

Age recommendation: 12 and up

I’m going to call this Miyazaki’s most mature film purely from the standpoint of age appropriateness, which is on the tween-and-up side because of the overt violence. Maturity is, of course, a relative thing. Kiki’s Delivery Service is mature because of the complexity of her emotional self-discovery, Howl’s Moving Castle is mature because it tackles the ambiguous nature of good and evil, Porco Rosso is mature because, well, fascists. So while the violence may be a bit much for younger kids, teenagers can totally get into the epic scope of the story and the always reliably strong characters and adventure.

Bonus: Pom Poko (1994)

Age recommendation: 7 and up

In the interest of making this an actual top 10 list I’m going to throw in one more film that was directed by Miyazaki’s cofounder of Studio Ghibli, Isao Takahata.

We originally picked this one up thinking it was a Miyazaki film (ah, how naive) and despite its sometimes freakishly surreal scenes there was a period where our daughter watched it obsessively. If your child loves animals like our daughter, they would like this one. A few warnings, there is some violence as the raccoon dogs (you think they’re raccoons, but they’re not) fight with each other over their vanishing resources but the battles are very cartoonish. Also, the males have very prominent testicles (referred to in the English dub of the movie as “pouches”). This is apparently an integral part of tanuki (raccoon dog) folklore and they use them in their shape-shifting in very, shall we say, creative ways. You kind of have to see it to believe it.  

This article originally appeared on John Kubalak's blog, The Eclectic Dad.

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