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Top 10 Non-Miyazaki Anime Films for Kids and Families

John Kubalak

Published on: January 16, 2014

Anime Legends Japanese anime TV shows and films and manga (comic books) have an increasing influence on our popular culture and are injecting new life and creativity into the media our kids are consuming. If you're looking for an alternative to the standard Disney-princess fare, anime can provide strong characters and story detail that move beyond many of the clichés we're used to seeing.

Best known, of course, is the work of Hayao Miyazaki, the Japanese filmmaker who dominates best-of-anime lists the way the Beatles own the top ten on Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. There are good reasons why he enjoys more popularity outside of Japan than any other director (find our favorite Miyazaki films).

But while Miyazaki's reputation is well earned, many other filmmakers are producing movies and television shows that are also original, rich in visual inventiveness, bizarre, and entertaining. Here are some of my favorites. 

I've only scratched the surface with this list and no doubt anime fans will raise a fuss over the exclusion of some (Neon Genesis Evangelion?!*) but these are a good starting point if your kids are interested in exploring the genre further.

This list includes both television and movies. All titles are available either on DVD or streaming through Netflix or Amazon. I’ve ordered this list by age recommendation youngest to oldest.

Mobile Suit Gundam Wing (2000)

Recommended age: 8 and up

Mobile Suit Gundam is a good place to start with anime, and not just because it is a wildly popular and influential series, but also because it's also violent, which is a recurring theme with a lot of anime. The violence is focused mostly on giant robots and other vehicles but there is no shortage of implied violence to the human characters. But it's only implied, which is why I'm giving it a thumbs up for younger audiences.

AvatarAvatar: The Last Airbender (TV 2005-2008)

Recommended age: 8 and up

Avatar and Korra are not technically anime. They were produced in the U.S. for Nickelodeon but I include them here because they pay homage to Japanese anime in style and substance and are high-quality shows for younger audiences. There is a lot of martial arts action but it's enhanced by the fantasy elements where "benders" can manipulate fire, earth, air and water.

The Legend of Korra (TV, 2012)

Recommended age: 8 and up

As a currently running sequel to The Last Airbender, this series expands on the fantasy martial arts mythology of the original and spins it with a steampunk vibe.

In addition, it gives girls a strong female lead to relate to. Both Avatar and Korra are packed with action and humor as well as positive messages and are worthwhile viewing.

Speed Racer (TV, 1967-1968)

Recommended age: 8 and up

This classic auto racing melodrama was formerly known as Mach GoGoGo in Japan. When I showed this to my kids I hadn't watched it in years and was sure that it would fall into the category of things you used to think were awesome that completely fail when you see them as an adult.

But it did live up to my expectations for the most part. Everything was just as I remembered and my kids loved it. It is cheesy fun.

Star Blazers (TV, 1979-1984)

Recommended age: 8 and up

This is another one from my youth - although instead of falling completely flat, its over-the-top melodrama now cracks me up. The crew of an old Japanese battleship that has been converted to a spaceship (the Space Battleship Yamato of the original Japanese title) try to save Earth from the Comet Empire.

Riding the wave of science fiction popularity spawned by Star Wars, the serialized adventures of the Star Force were an introduction to anime for many young people in the US in the early 1980s.

Professor Layton and the Eternal Diva (2009)

Recommended age: 10 and up

There are plenty of opportunities to highlight anime that are based on toys or video games (Digimon and Pokemon, for example) but I find the marketing can overwhelm the quality of the story.

Professor Layton makes no secret of its origins as a Nintendo puzzle adventure game, but this movie is notable for its engaging story and entertaining characters. Its violence is a bit more intense so I would recommend it for somewhat older kids who can not only deal with the violence but also the puzzles that are integral to the story.

Sailor Moon (TV 1992-1997)

Recommended age: 10 and up

Sailor Moon is a quintessential example of the sub-genre of manga and anime known as Magical Girl. Fun fact: The magical girl genre was inspired by the Japanese dub of the American sitcom Bewitched. What goes around comes around.

The bottom line is that this is a cartoon about butt-kicking princesses. Girlpower, anime style. You can find a lot of Sailor Moon around but you should know that the original subtitled and uncut version is more mature, with potentially scary imagery and sophisticated relationships. The dubbed and edited version packaged for the U.S. is more appropriate for tweens but also confusing at times because it skips over some important relationship background.

The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (2006)

Recommended age: 12 and up

This anime is a sequel of sorts to the 1967 novel of the same name that has been adapted repeatedly for the screen (four times and counting). As you might guess it's the story of a teenager who discovers she can leap through time.

The interesting thing about this story, however, is that instead of using her ability to drop in on (and change) big historical events, she uses it to tweak the small moments in her life. The enduring appeal of the story is seeing the ways in which she grows by reliving moments and exploring the sometimes significant consequences in small actions.

SteamboySteamboy (2005)

Recommended age: 12 and up

The mechanized violence in Steamboy makes it innapropriate for younger audiences. However, tween and teens interested in the steampunk genre will love this movie.

Several boys I know have embraced books about airship adventure like Airborn by Kenneth Oppel and Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld. Steamboy, set in Victorian England, is cut from the same cloth and is filled with magically advanced steam-based technology and fantastic machines that clank and rattle through an exciting tale of one family's struggle to come to terms with genius and madness.

Last Exile (TV 2003)

Recommended age: 13 and up

Last Exile is sort of steampunk but not really. Anachronistic elements like Napoleonic uniforms are mixed in with interwar German aircraft in an epic story where a character might be a crewman on a ship one day and heir to the imperial throne the next.

This is another one that will likely appeal mostly to boys but the compelling art direction and many hidden historical references make this series a standout among a vast field of television science fiction anime.

Grave of the Fireflies (1988)

Recommended age: 13 and up

Grave of the Fireflies was written and directed by Isao Takahata, Hayao Miyazaki's partner in Studio Ghibli. I'm including it on this list because, as a film from Miyazaki's studio and, honestly, one of the greatest anime ever created, there's a good chance you'll come across it sooner or later. If you do, I just want to provide this caveat:

Saddest. Cartoon. Ever.

A lot of reviews of Grave of the Fireflies include this phrase, partly because it's fun to write, and partly because it is absolutely true. It's the story of a 14-year-old boy and his younger sister trying to survive in a firebombed Kobe in the final days of World War II. It's also one of the most effective anti-war movies ever made.

*Evangelion, or Eva for serious fans, is rated Mature or 17+ by most rating systems and is not appropriate for the younger audience this list is aimed at.

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