To most people, anime—Japanese animated films and television shows—is a genre that seems a little hard to get into. Worse than that, representations of anime fans in the popular culture aren’t exactly flattering. When you think of an anime fan, chances are you’ve got a guy with a 10-foot sword and a spiky, Technicolor wig in a billowing robe, and a scantily clad, barely legal girl with cat ears. Or something. Or maybe that’s just what I think of.
In any case, those ridiculous stereotypes—accurate or not—are just one reason people seem to steer clear of anime. Some view animation like comic books, that they’re not real art. Others might think they’re just for kids.
Whatever their reason for staying away, I could confidently tell them they’re missing out on something incredible. But not us. We know better.
You and I might not be the biggest fans of Japanese animation, but we can respect the arts of the cinema, no matter the medium or country of origin, can’t we? And since we’re adults (in most ways), we can view a piece of cinema or art that’s outside our comfort zone, give it a fair shot and evaluate it on its merits, not the negative perceptions around it. Right?
Now that that’s out of the way, you’ll believe me when I tell you that there’s a filmmaker I revere as highly as guys like Martin Scorsese, George Lucas, Walt Disney, Akira Kurosawa, Charlie Chaplin and Billy Wilder. His name is Hayao Miyazaki.
The man is a genius, and probably the only director of Japanese animated films who regularly gets wide theatrical release in the United States. On Feb. 17, The Secret World of Arrietty, based on the book The Borrowers by Mary Norton, was released by Disney. As writer and producer, Miyazaki contributed to a unique, beautifully 2-D-animated film.
It’s an excellent film, full of heart and perfect for the whole family. If you’re not going to catch The Phantom Menace while it’s out in 3-D—or you’ve already done so repeatedly, as I have—this is the next movie you should drag your fellow geeks and/or children to. Then, as soon as you get back, there are three other movies you need to go home and watch immediately.
My Neighbor Totoro: Easily one of the most charming films ever made, My Neighbor Totoro is an early effort from Miyazaki and tells the tale of a pair of young sisters who are moved to the countryside while their mother fights an illness—but there’s something fantastical in the woods. This is a perfect film for anyone, hearkening back to the early days of classic Disney.
Spirited Away: Imagine if Terry Gilliam were given carte blanche to make a bizarre and elegant version of Alice in Wonderland. It’s about a young girl drawn into a world where nothing is as it seems. She’ll need to align herself against dark forces if she’s to save her parents from their horrifying transformation into pigs.
Princess Mononoke: This film is high fantasy, telling the story of a young warrior who is wounded in battle and must find the cure in a magical forest. There, he finds himself thrust into the center of a conflict between a town of miners and the forest spirits. Many hail this as Miyazaki’s crowning achievement.
Disney paid for the best dubbing money could buy to make these films more palatable to wary American audiences. In these movies, you’ll find the voices of Billy Bob Thornton, Claire Danes, David Ogden Stiers, Elle and Dakota Fanning, Carol Burnett, Amy Poehler and many, many others.
Try these films out. You’ll like them. And once you’ve got a taste in your mouth for Japanese sensibilities and motifs in animated cinema, we’ll get together and talk again about the next steps you should take on your road to becoming an anime aficionado.
Bryan Young is editor-in-chief of BigShinyRobot.com.