Remain an anime fan long enough and it’s probable you’ll eventually spawn little proto-anime-fans of your own. I’m a father of three, and I’ve successfully indoctrinated them all into the cult of Japanese animation. Compared to when I was a kid, anime is so easily accessible now ; in enormous quantities, through multiple legal avenues. It’s hard enough to know where to start watching as an adolescent or an adult, but what about with children?
Responsible parents curate their young children’s viewing habits, so it’s probably best not to begin with Death Note or Berserk if you want to raise well-adjusted, non-murderous kids. As parental leisure time is often limited, a thousand-episode binge of One Piece is unsuitable. Movies with well-defined stories that end within two hours are your best bet.
Studio Ghibli‘s fantastic movies are usually the go-to source for family-friendly anime entertainment, but they’re so well-publicised even non-anime fans know about them. There are so many other great family movies produced by other studios that are worth sharing with your children/younger relatives/siblings. I’ve prepared an initial list of ten great movies that I’ve watched with my own youngest son that I’m enthusiastic to recommend.
First, some rules:
- No Studio Ghibli (or Ghibli-related) movies.
- I live in the UK, so anything certified BBFC PG or below is fair game.
- Must be available legally in English — no pirating allowed.
- No components of media franchises. (So no Pokémon, etc.)
- Stand-alone films only, no sequels.
- Regardless of rating, a child must be able to understand the movie.
Penguin Highway (BBFC PG)
Based on the novel by Tomihiko Morimi (The Tatami Galaxy, Night is Short, Walk On Girl and The Eccentric Family), Studio Colorido‘s first feature-length movie is a beautiful, whimsical coming-of-age story that features a sweet intergenerational friendship between 4th grader main character Aoyama and the unnamed adult woman he calls “The Lady”. Together with his friends, Aoyama investigates a weird floating watery space-time anomaly that materializes in the countryside near his home. Somehow an army of penguins is involved, and the scenes of the funny penguins rampaging through the streets of Aoyama’s provincial town had my son hooting with laughter.
A light-hearted but occasionally melancholy fairy tale, Penguin Highway leaves a potent bittersweet aftertaste after its gorgeous, evocative ending song. Entertaining yet meaningful, this is one of my favorite movies I’ve shared with my son.
Okko’s Inn (BBFC PG)
As many successful Disney films can attest, parental death is a potent storytelling device in children’s movies. Death is an inevitable part of life, so I think it’s important that children are introduced to the concept early, in a sensitive and honest fashion. Okko’s Inn is a delightful film that deals with death in a matter-of-fact, emotional, yet slightly fantastical way.
Based on a series of children’s novels, the film follows young Oriko “Okko” Seki as she recovers from the motor vehicle accident that claimed her parents’ lives and damaged her memory. Moving to live with her grandmother in her family-run inn, Okko discovers that she can see the friendly ghosts who haunt the establishment. Gradually Okko learns to come to terms with her personal tragedy through the help of her extended family, the inn’s guests, and her supernatural friends. It’s a fairly low-key film, and the associated TV show from 2018 has never been licensed in English, but the movie stands alone, and works well as an examination of grief and loss that even young children can understand.
Patema Inverted (BBFC PG)
Essentially Agoraphobia — The Movie. If you’re at all disturbed by wide open spaces, Patema Inverted may be best watched accompanied by a stiff whisky and through clasped fingers. It’s a compelling adventure where rebellious dreamer and high school student Age (pronounced Eiji) meets the mysterious Patema, a girl of similar age whose gravity is inverted. In their first scene together, he finds her clinging on for dear life to a flimsy metal fence to prevent herself from falling upwards into the empty blue sky…
From this intriguing setup, Patema Inverted expands its fantasy world where the laws of physics don’t quite match our own, and one person’s safe place may be another’s source of abyssal terror. A masterclass of skillful direction, with weird angles and perspective changes enhancing the characters’ (and viewers’) spatial discombobulation, watch this one gripping tightly to your child—or at least to the arms of your sofa.
Available on blu-ray/DVD from GKIDS in the U.S., Anime Limited in the UK, streaming on Crunchyroll.
INTERSTELLA 5555: The 5tory of the 5ecret 5tar 5ystem (not rated by BBFC)
Anyone who grew up in the 1980s watching Star Blazers or Captain Harlock and the Queen of a Thousand Years will instantly recognize the distinctive Leiji Matsumoto character designs in this unusual musical movie. Released in 2003, it compiles every animated video from Daft Punk‘s 2001 Discovery album into a single hour-long narrative. That it succeeds in telling a compelling, though simple, story without the use of spoken dialogue is nothing short of miraculous.
The Crescendolls are a four-piece alien rock band who are abducted by an evil record company mastermind, leaving them with their memories wiped, their skin airbrushed, and their music cynically repackaged for Earth’s music industry. A lone spaceman sets out to rescue them from corporate slavery. A biting satire on the manufactured fakery endemic to the music business as well as an exciting action-filled space fantasy, it also has an incredible soundtrack. When I took my eldest son (then aged only 5) to this at the cinema, he proudly proclaimed to his teacher the next day that Daft Punk was his favorite band.
Available on Blu-ray/DVD from EMI.
Metropolis (BBFC PG)
Only loosely associated with Fritz Lang’s legendary 1927 film, director Rintaro‘s 2001 anime version instead adapts Osamu Tezuka‘s manga of the same name, itself only tenuously connected to the original film. It’s a heady movie, with a screenplay by Akira‘s Katsuhiro Otomo that makes up in spectacle for what it lacks in cohesive plot. With elements of Tezuka’s Astro Boy melded with overt references to 1927’s Metropolis, it begins like a detective story lifted from one of Isaac Asimov’s Robot tales. For those familiar with Tezuka’s works, it’s filled with his recurring “star system” characters that give the movie an attractive retro-futuristic look.
Set in a sprawling, multi-level city where humans and androids coexist, it follows the friendship between private detective Shunsaku Ban’s nephew Kenichi and the female android Tima, against a background of social unrest and revolution. Filled with truly spectacular set-pieces, this is one of the most beautiful anime movies ever made.
Available on Blu-ray/DVD from Mill Creek in the U.S. and Eureka Entertainment in the UK.
Princess Arete (BBFC PG)
And now for something really quite obscure. Princess Arete is a 2001 movie from Studio 4°C (known for the recent, stunningly animated Children of the Sea) that’s based on Diana Coles‘ story The Clever Princess, a feminist deconstruction of the patriarchal passive princess archetype so common in European fairy tales. Although largely forgotten in the West, in Japan it’s a widely read story popular enough to justify this movie adaptation.
Young Princess Arete rails against the patriarchal demands of her society, refusing to marry any of the suitors presented to her. A wicked wizard robs her of free will and steals her away to marry him instead, but Arete rebels. Only by seizing her own destiny using her intelligence and empathy, does she succeed.
A downbeat film with a very earthy color palette and almost European art style, Princess Arete doesn’t even look like an anime. The finale’s monstrous golem and a golden mechanical bird-shaped aeroplane provide some striking imagery, though the central act of the film is quite slow. It’s only available subtitled, but there are many lengthy sections without dialogue that rely on visual storytelling anyway, and my at-the-time 8-year-old son gave it his full attention. Still, it’s a shame there’s no dub.
Available on Blu-ray/DVD in the UK from Anime Limited. It’s unavailable in the U.S.
Giovanni’s Island (BBFC PG)
Thematically similar to Grave of the Fireflies, Giovanni’s Island is an only slightly less traumatic examination of the effects of (post) war on the lives of affected children. Set on the formerly Japanese island of Shikotan, part of the Kuril Archipelago north of Hokkaido, it was annexed by the Russians in 1945, and by 1949 every Japanese resident had been removed. This is a fictionalized account of the people affected.
Junpei and Kanta are children who live through the Russian occupation of their home, and through them we see the effects of forced cultural assimilation, prejudice, and incarceration of rebels. It starts in quiet, almost slice-of-life pastoral comfort, before descending into dark, cold tragedy. Despite this, there are many instances of warm humanity, even between supposed enemies. It helps to have some familiarity with the constantly-referenced classic of Japanese literature (or its anime adaptation) Night on the Galactic Railroad. Giovanni’s Island is a sobering, thought-provoking film that invites children to learn empathy for those different to them.
Available on Blu-ray/DVD in the UK from Anime Limited. It’s unavailable in the U.S.
A Letter to Momo (BBFC PG)
When shy, 11-year-old Momo’s father dies, she reluctantly moves with her mother to her family’s home on an island in the Seto Inland Sea. Momo is resentful and standoffish, refusing to befriend the local kids. When she meets a trio of bizarre yokai (traditional Japanese folklore creatures), she’s forced to come out of her shell.
Culturally intriguing for a Westerner such as myself, Momo integrates many Shinto beliefs about death, and the afterlife, into the movie’s plot. The rural/island setting is well-realized, and the town appears alive and lived-in. Providing welcome absurd (and sometimes broad slapstick) humor, the three yokai help to lighten the tone of what otherwise might have been a heavy, melancholy movie. Suitable perhaps for slightly older children, younger kids might find their attention wandering when the yokai trio aren’t up to mischief.
Available on Blu-ray/DVD from GKIDS in the U.S., Anime Limited in the UK, streaming on Crunchyroll.
Big Fish & Begonia (BBFC PG)
Perhaps cheating slightly, being of Chinese origin rather than Japanese, Big Fish & Begonia still displays significant anime influence, particularly in its character designs. Similar to A Letter to Momo, this deals with concepts of the afterlife that will seem alien to most Western viewers, and in my opinion, it makes the film more interesting.
A thoroughly magical story, we follow Chun, a 16-year-old girl from a mystical realm where teenagers must undergo a rite-of-passage of transforming into a dolphin and spending a week in the Human Realm, without coming into contact with humans. When she breaks the rules and rescues the soul of a drowned human boy, the effects are cataclysmically apocalyptic.
Big Fish & Begonia is a beautiful fable about love, death, and sacrifice, with some utterly spectacular scenes of magical destruction. It’s very important to watch until the end of the closing credits for a scene that magnificently recontextualizes the initially downbeat ending and everything that came before. My son found this movie enthralling — he barely moved or breathed for the entire duration.
Available on Blu-ray/DVD from Shout! Factory in the U.S., Manga Entertainment/Funimation in the UK.
Wolf Children (BBFC PG)
Of all acclaimed director Mamoru Hosoda‘s films, only two are rated younger than “12” by the BBFC. One is 2018’s Mirai, the other is his tender, heartfelt 2012 ode to motherhood, Wolf Children. Hosoda’s works often feature parents and children, mixing a slice-of-life aesthetic with more fantastical elements. Understated in comparison to his virtual world movies Summer Wars and BELLE, Wolf Children is relatively grounded in its depiction of initially urban, and then rural, family life.
Conscientious university student Hana falls in love with an unnamed man who is the last of the wolf-men hybrids. They conceive two children before he dies in a tragic accident, leaving Hana to care for two hybrid infants. Terrified that her neighbors, doctors, or social workers will discover her children’s’ true natures, she moves them from their cramped apartment block to a remote farmstead. We follow the first eleven or so years of Hana’s children Yuki and Ame’s lives, their conflicting personalities and divergent choices.
It’s a movie about the self-sacrificial nature of motherhood, the search for identity and belonging, and the importance of community. As is common to Hosoda, Wolf Children‘s themes and the emotions they evoke are more important than the thin plot. I think it’s probably one of his most widely accessible films, with strong moments that evoke universal feelings.
Available on Blu-ray/DVD from Funimation in the U.S., Manga Entertainment/Funimation in the UK.
This is far from a definitive list — there are plenty more lesser-known family-friendly anime movies available in English, but ten is quite enough to be getting on with for now. Happy viewing!