Like Pixar Studios' sophisticated, adult-friendly cartoons, the bittersweet anime of Hayao Miyazaki have one foot in the land of the fantastic and another in the "real world" of unrelenting linear time. Miyazaki's dream worlds are arenas for his child protagonists' — usually plucky heroines — rites of passage. Imaginary creatures and hideous demons don't provide an imaginary respite from the frightening world of adults, where being thrown into new environments without the comfort of friends or the attention of family members is just a painful fact of life. Instead, both worlds reciprocally reflect and influence each other, never allowing one to become subordinate to the other in importance.
Like Pixar, Miyazaki operates in the time-honored tradition of children's writers like J.M. Barrie and the Brothers Grimm, who teach children how to discern right from wrong for themselves through self-reliance. Their fantasy worlds teach them that the only way to prepare themselves for the rigors of growing up is to temper hard work with a sense of child-like wonder. In each of these five films leading up to his most recent work, Ponyo (opening today), he forces his protagonists to grow up by making them responsible for their well-being and environment, allowing them to feel at home in whichever world they choose to live.
Future Boy Conan (1978)
Miyazaki directed, storyboarded and designed characters for this 26-episode cartoon about childhood in a post-nuclear war dystopia. Young Conan learns that even in the far-flung future, he has to work for everything he gets. Living on the deserted Remnant Island, Conan's playtime often coincides with his survival needs, making him Miyazaki's ideally responsible human: playful but responsible. He sleeps in a hollowed-out rocket ship by night and, in this clip creates elaborates traps to hunt sharks for food by day.
Laputa: Castle in the Sky (1986)
Very loosely based on Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island, Castle in the Sky follows a pair of kids whose blue-collar habits make them perfect sky pirates. Sheeta, the heiress to a long-forgotten floating civilization, falls out of the sky into the arms of Tazu, a teenage miner. Tazu and Sheeta's playfulness and quick willingness to get their hands dirty puts them at odds with the military, whose lack of vision and maliciously furtive motives are embodied by their cryptic sunglass-wearing leader. The kids join forces with a group of sky-pirates to stop the military from gaining control of the Levistone, Sheeta's birthright and a potentially dangerous weapon. Here, Sheeta comically teaches the pirates to respect her work ethic, showing that, in Miyazaki's animes as in Stevenson's adventure tales, everybody, even the royalty, have to earn their place at the top.
My Neighbor Totoro (1988)
My Neighbor Totoro is probably the most serene of Miyazaki's anime, a film in which growing up means accepting one's own powerlessness. Sisters Satsuki and Mei move with their father in a new country home while their mother is hospitalized with an undisclosed illness. When the hyper pair isn't chasing dust motes, they commiserate and share boisterous visions of a big, cuddly "Totoro," a figure that teaches them the necessity of patience. In this scene, the girls sow acorn seeds and wait for some sign that their labor will bear fruit, but instead are shown that their magic friend can't provide a quick fix. Totoro teaches the kids to be happy with what they have, allowing them to wake up the next morning and be satisfied with the few changes that have occurred overnight.
Kiki's Delivery Service (1989)
Kiki's Delivery Service reverses Totoro's use of fantasy as character-builder by having the titular teen witch learn how to be responsible by finding practical uses for her magic. Because flying is the only skill Kiki knows well, Kiki starts a modest mail service. Rejecting mundane, good old-fashioned hard work is a big no-no according to Miyazaki, as in this scene where an indolent brat dismisses a fresh-baked herring and pumpkin pie cooked in a woodfire stove.
Spirited Away (2001)
Miyazaki's Oscar-winning fantasy almost immediately confronts the viewer with the knowledge that the hellish trip young Chihiro takes while working off her parents' debt in a hellish world of ghosts and monsters can't be dismissed later as a nightmare. Here Miyazaki proves that responsible children are often more mature than most adults. Chihiro's parents are punished for having lost the innate instinct that warns them to fear and respect the fog of dread that surrounds a local valley peppered with Shinto shrines. Chichiro on the other hand, show proper deference and must find a way to look after her parents after they've turned into pigs, reversing the normal responsibilities of parents and kids. In a typical Miyazaki flourish, Chihiro shows us here that sometimes the best way to act like an adult is to accept feeling like a child sometimes.
Once again, the way Chihiro assimilates to her environment is by working for her various benefactors. She has to work to be taken seriously, practically begging for the opportunity to work from a hermetic eight-legged taskmaster. With his attention wandering from task to task and his hands stretching like elastic to pick through drawers to find exactly what he needs, he could be Miyazaki's avatar: the man with his feet in the clouds and his head on nothing but work.