As Disney's Hollywood Studios pays tribute to the Movies, it's only fitting that we take a moment here on Studios Central to recognize an often-undervalued contribution that Disney has made to Japanese animation: Providing high-quality English-dub releases of the films of Hayao Miyazaki.
When I'm not wearing my mouse ears, I'm often haunting the hallways of anime conventions and similar geeky events. In fact, my family and I often present a panel, The Family That Geeks Together, Keeps Together, helping parents understand their childrens' obsession, and helping kids (usually teenagers) talk to their parents about the sometimes-puzzling world of Japanese animation. In this context, we often talk about "gateway drugs:" Anime films and series which are accessible, enjoyable, and leave you wanting more.
The films of Hayao Miyazaki are among the classic gateway drugs we recommend both for parents (who may not have grown up watching anime), and for kids (who deserve something with a richer narrative than Pokemon or Yu-Gi-Oh, and yes I'm prepared to be flamed). But before Disney began releasing these films, the American releases were often problematic.
Case in point: The Fox Searchlight release of My Neighbor Totoro was a travesty. Not only were the visuals presented as a pan-and-scan format instead of preserving every beautiful pixel, but the dub was poorly acted. Despite these failings, the movie captured my heart from the first viewing. So, when Disney re-released My Neighbor Totoro with a new English dub and full landscape aspect ratio, you'd better believe I picked it up the day it hit the shelves. The new release didn't disappoint, and now we keep three copies of this film in our home: One primary copy of the Disney release, one back-up copy of the Disney release (in case we have to loan ours out), and the Fox Searchlight version (just for kicks).
Now, there's a long-running (and currently fairly dormant) holy war within the anime fan community about whether subtitled ("subs") or English-dubbed ("dubs") are the superior way to watch a film. I'm fairly agnostic on this myself; I generally prefer subs unless the visuals are sufficiently complicated that it's difficult to follow the film if one is also reading it. I've also been known to watch a series once in each format, to extract all possible meaning from the two (sometimes different) translations to English (usually from Japanese), while also absorbing the often-superior voice acting in the original Japanese track. But for purposes of introducing newcomers to anime, a good dub is invaluable, especially for films where an American viewer may be significantly disadvantaged by lack of Japanese cultural context. (Spirited Away, for example? It's my understanding that the film makes more sense if you're already familiar with the archetypes who populate the bath house.)
Hayao Miyazaki's IMDB page provides an exhaustive list of his work, but might be a bit much to sort through for the anime neophyte, and if you're reading this column you're probably a Disney fan, looking for a Disney release. So, if you're interested in getting a taste of anime, let me recommend a few of my favorites:
* For the pre-teen who enjoys adventure films, and can stomach a little scary stuff: Princess Mononoke
* For the whole family, especially Casablanca fans: Porco Rosso
* For the whole family (well, except maybe the under-5 crowd), who are willing to live with a little cultural disorientation: What the heck, give Spirited Away a try. Yes, the radish spirit and No Face are both a little confusing, and the hopping giant heads don't explain much . . . but the beautiful River Spirit makes it all worthwhile.