A couple of weeks ago Maya and I took advantage of a stop over in Paris to visit Art Ludique before their exhibition of amazing Takahata and Miyazaki drawings came to a close. We had a great time studying the layouts for many of our most treasured movies. It got me thinking about why these films have become part of the scenery of our lives like the books we read again and again, our best loved bowls and mugs and the pictures we put on our walls.
I think at the heart of it is the same thing that draws me to pick out a picture book, a good story and great artwork. Stories fascinate me and my children. Don't they do that for everyone? They intrigue us and draw us in, we bond with their characters and enjoy the experience of another world even if only for a while. But more than that stories inspire us and fire our imaginations encouraging our own creativity. On an even deeper level I find they become a part of what defines who we are and what we think. How often have you had that conversation with a new friend where you go through favourite films, books or songs? Each match making you feel more and more connected.
So as a family that doesn't own a television and tries to limit screen time*, we think carefully about what we do watch. From the beginning with my eldest daughter I wanted her to have a wider diet than I felt Disney could offer. Not that there aren't some great Disney films out there and not that we haven't watched any of them (Frozen!) but somehow for me, they didn't seem like the soundtrack to our life together. I wanted her to have other role models than Disney princesses who so often stand around waiting. I wanted her heroines (and heroes) to be actors of their own destinies.
Enter Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata. The first of their films to grab our attention was the wonderful My Neighbour Totoro with the likeable gutsy little Mei and the mature and intelligent Satsuki. This film has been on our screens for more than six years now as each child has watched and fallen in love with the story and surprisingly, even the adults haven't grown tired of it. Watching Totoro has come to mean the comfort of home for me in many ways, being cosy under a blanket on a rainy day, something to rescue us when I was too sick to play, the perfect end to a lazy Sunday. In the same way their other films have seeped into our lives, we drink Ponyo tea (chamomile with spoonfuls of honey) and dress up like Kiki the witch and Princess Mononoke. We have tried out the violin thanks to repeated viewings of Whisper of the Heart and even learnt some Japanese from singing along to the soundtracks.
These films have inspired my kids imaginative play and provided role models who are strong and independent. Kiki leaves home to see if she can make it as a Witch facing many difficulties along the way. Nausicaa has an amazing bond with animals and seeks to live peacefully with all creatures, not only is she a natural scientist, she's also very brave and resourceful. Shiziki and Seiji are adolescents trying to find out who they are and who they want to be in an authentic and touching way. We never tire of watching these films as they are in my opinion quite simply some of the best animation around.
Below is my own little guide to some of their films. I know a lot of people are looking for great films to watch as a family and these really do fit that bill.
My Neigbour Totoro
Shiziki and Mai have just moved to a new home. Their mother is in the hospital and their father is a rather absent minded but kind university professor. Together the girls get to know the Totoro a friendly tree spirit. This film is infused with a love of nature and is wonderfully evocative both visually and audibly. Raindrops plic and ploc and you can almost feel the wind you hear and see blowing across the fields and trees. There are sad and scary moments in this film but it's overall ambience is one of comfort and security and it is suitable for young children.
Kiki's Delivery Series
Although this is probably my least favourite Studio Ghibli movie my daughter loves it. She has worn her homemade kiki costume originally created for a halloween party, many many times and her little brother even has a cat costume so he can be Jiji. It's a film about striking out on your own and finding what your good at. Kiki learns a lot in the film about herself, about friendship and being herself. It's a nice film with no very scary parts.
Brunhilde is a goldfish with some very special powers due to her parents, a wizard and a goddess. Looking for adventure she escapes her father's watchful eye and floats away. Unfortunately she encounters a fishing net and gets trapped in a bottle. Washed up on the shore she's is found and and rescued by Sosuke a little boy. He takes care of her and she decides she wants to be human, her efforts to achieve this provoke unbalance in the universe and cause much trouble and danger for the humans. Sosuke's character is a very sweet, caring little boy and I really love that. Nature is portrayed in the film as something of great beauty but also danger. In some scenes the ocean is extremely menacing and some children find this quite frightening. These scenes are interspersed with the comforts of home, noodles and hot tea for example. Small children will find some scenes frightening but overall I think this is a suitable film for 5+.
Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind
Nausica is a post apocalyptic film which treats the themes of war and the environment. It's heroine is an inspiring young woman who believes in the value of life whatever its form. This is for older viewers, 8+, as the themes are complex and there is some violence. I feel the central character is a great role model.
Laputa, Castle in the Sky
Sheeta and Pazu fight to stop the evil Muska from taking control of Laputa a castle that floats in the sky. It's not always easy to know who the good guys are in this film and there are some scary moments. Better for slighlty older viewers probably 8+.
Howl's Moving Castle
Based on the book by Dianna Wynne Jones, this is a fantasy film about a young 18yr old girl called Sophie who encounters the wizard Howl, the Witch of the Waste and is precipitated into old age and adventure. Sophie is a loveable heroine with self confidence issues that are somewhat relieved by her new 90yr old body, gradually she learns to love herself and Howl whom she encourages out of the adolescent state he's trapped in. 8+
Whisper of the Heart
This film follows the encounter between Shiziki and Seiji, two young high school students. I really love the way this film captures adolescents and their intensity. It is a gently love story and an inspiring look at young people and their aspirations to do something with their lives. My daughter has been watching this since she was 6 their is nothing unsuitable except the use of the phrase 'stupid jerk' which is actually quite difficult to understand.
This is my daughter's current favourite. She's nearly 9 and we only let her watch this film recently as I felt their was some scenes in it that she might have found upsetting previously. It's central theme is the environment and how humans interact with it. There are violent scenes and I definitely would recommend keeping it for older children.
|I created a heroine who is an ordinary girl, someone with whom the audience can sympathize. It's not a story in which the characters grow up, but a story in which they draw on something already inside them, brought out by the particular circumstances. I want my young friends to live like that, and I think they, too, have such a wish.|
|— Hayao Miyazaki|
*I know this is a much debated issue. We decided to follow guidelines from neuro-scientists and allow about 6hrs a week for our nine year old films and games combined, less for the 5yr old and nothing to occasional viewing for the 2yr old. For the oldest, this breaks down as two screen free days a week and an hour to hour and a half on the other days which she can divide between film watching and game playing or save up to watch a whole movie. We try to watch with the children but our eldest daughter likes to watch things by herself now and skips around in the movie to watch and rewatch her favourite scenes. We often discuss whatever she's been watching afterwards because she spontaneously brings it up. If it's a new film we always watch it together first.