Fleeing Disney for Miyazaki's gifts of imagination
The school holidays (and Christmas!) are right on our tails, and legions of parents are trying to figure out what they're going to do with the kids over the summer – if they (like me) are unlucky enough to not be able to take the kids away from the city for a week or more!
If you want to run screaming away from the American studios' animated offerings this summer cinema season, but need something for the kids to do, try Japanese anime for a change. I wouldn't normally encourage kids to spend their summer (or any other) holiday in front of the TV or DVD, but there are some good things worth watching!
One of my family's favourite films is from the anime (Japanese animation) stable of Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki – Spirited Away. My partner's brother gave it to my eldest boy last Christmas (he was five then).
It is full of the elements that make a great Miyazaki anime: spirits, fantasy, amazing colour and scenary detail, a fully imagined 'world', some insights into 'traditional' Japanese culture, and a gutsy heroine. More importantly, it doesn't have the violence, misogyny, bizarre sexuality and dystopian sci-fi of a lot of other Japanese anime.
In fact, one of my favourite things about Miyazaki films is that he loves girls, or young women, as his central characters – strong personality, inquisitive, sometimes fearless, other times fearful in facing many horrors. Chihiro, the central character of Spirited Away, is all this.
But, Spirited Away is no Disney cream-puff, as none of Miyazaki's films are. It has its scary bits, can be quite gross, is very long, and has a narrative arc that challenges an adult's attention span, let alone a child's (which lends itself to DVD home viewing – you can pause the movie, the kids can get up and down, get food, go to the toilet etc, and come back to it). It also has many subtle social messages as sub-texts: Chihiro's parents' gluttony ensnares them in a spell that is turning them into pigs, and Chihiro has to save them. Becoming trapped in the dangerous spirit world, Chihiro must survive in a spirit bathhouse, befriending many strange spirits, to secure their freedom.
Spirited Away was made in 2001 and is rated PG. It is available on DVD from most good video shops.
There's more on Miyazaki on Wikipedia. If you want to introduce younger kids to Miyazaki's anime, it may be better to start them with something like Kiki's Delivery Service (1989, rated G), which I'd love review another time. Earlier work My Neighbour Totoro (1988, G) would also suit younger kids.
If your kids are a bit older, or have seen Kiki or Totoro, then Spirited Away would be ideal. One word of warning – Miyazaki's most recent film, Howl's Moving Castle (2004, PG), is very dark, is concerned with the violence of war, is quite long, and definitely for older kids (say, 8/9 +).