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THE B-LIST: Family-friendly fantasy fun — Miyazaki's four sweetest films

Hayao Miyazaki’s four sweetest films

As last week's B-List proved, writer/director — and co-creator of the Japanese animation juggernaut Studio Ghibli — Hayao Miyazaki has never believed in sparing the bloodshed and spoiling the child.

In his eyes, completely shielding children from death, suffering and war is ultimately futile and only limits their growth and development. Hence why he never sanitizes his films.

But that doesn't mean they're always full of frightening monsters and gory mayhem. This week, we'll look at four of his cuter movies, starting with:

4. "PORCO ROSSO" (1992). Thanks to an unusual curse, Marco, an Italian World War I pilot, is now an anthropomorphized pig known as Porco Rosso ("The Red Pig"). Since the war, he's become a bounty hunter chasing sky pirates. But when the American pilot Curtis becomes his rival for the affections of the glamorous Gina, Porco is shot down and has to seek out the female mechanic Fio to repair his plane.

This is a movie that doesn't bother to explain much. There's no real clarification as to why or how Marco became a pig. Fascism is taking root in Italy and World War II is on the horizon, but all of that happens in the background. The focus is on a pilot who just so happens to be a pig, a skilled lady mechanic proving her worth in a patriarchal world, a bevy of goofy sky pirates and a lot of daring flying. Miyazaki was a child during World War II and his father was the director of Miyazaki Airplane, so the influences for this story are obvious. While not as deep, moving or grand as his other films, "Porco" still has its fun moments and some very pretty animation.

3. "PONYO" (2008). Loosely based on "The Little Mermaid," "Ponyo" follows the eponymous goldfish — daughter of the Goddess of Mercy and a worrywart wizard — who wants to become a human after meeting the little boy Sösuke. In her eagerness to transform, Ponyo upsets the balance of nature and floods Sösuke's entire island. In order to repair the magical damage and make Ponyo's transformation permanent, Sösuke must pass a test and prove his love.

What a goofy charmer of a fairy tale! Ponyo runs atop waves, sometimes has chicken feet and flippers, loves ham almost as much as Sösuke and can make toy boats grow big enough to ride in. Sösuke is an earnest little hero, and there's a gaggle of hilarious old ladies (voiced by Betty White, Lily Tomlin and Cloris Leachman) at the retirement home his mother works at. Ghibli always delivers gorgeous visuals, but this one is especially sumptous and colorful, full of weird sea creatures, magical sparkles and water so viscous you can practically touch it.

2. "KIKI'S DELIVERY SERVICE" (1989). Now that she's 13, Kiki is ready to leave home and set off for the city on a traditional rite of passage: like her mother before her, Kiki must find a new place to belong and grow her skills as a witch. While some witches have special gifts for fortune telling or spellcraft, Kiki's only real knack is for flying — so she starts a delivery service in a seaside town with her black cat Jiji, meeting new friends and learning to believe in herself, and her powers, along the way.

Kiki is a stellar role model for young girls. She's brave, determined and resourceful, leaving home, starting a business and living entirely on her own. But she's not entirely perfect, either, and faces plenty of hurdles. In true Miyazaki fashion, there are some heavy themes beneath the surface sweetness: when Kiki loses her passion, she loses her magic and connection with Jiji, too, and struggles with depression. It takes some serious heart-to-hearts with an older friend — the super cool artist Ursula — for her to realize that everybody faces creative blocks and failures and needs time to recover. A great message for younger audiences to hear early on.

1. "MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO" (1988). After moving to an old house in rural Japan, sisters Satsuki and Mei meet the friendly, furry forest spirit Totoro and his yowling Catbus. While their mother undergoes treatment for an unspecified disease at a nearby hospital and their father, a professor, teaches in the next town, the girls are watched by kindly neighbor Nanny, befriend her grandson Kanta and have small, sweet adventures: growing magical seeds, lending Totoro their umbrella and riding in the Catbus.

Of all of Ghibli/Miyazaki's films, none embodies the Japanese concept of ma more than "Totoro." Ma is essentially a pause or gap, a breathing space in between events or thoughts or sounds. It's a necessary element for a peaceful, balanced life. "Totoro" is full of these minimalist pauses and spaces — there are long sweeping shots of nature, a focus on the plinking of raindrops, stretches of film where nothing happens and no one speaks. It combines to create a wonderfully dreamy, restful quality. This is a movie that doesn't really have a plot; there's no huge conflict, villain, tragedy or moment of action. It's just a slice of simple life with a handful of cute characters — proof that you don't need to be grand or complex to make a lasting impact.

• ANGIE BARRY is a page designer and columnist for The Times. To suggest future topics for The B-List, which covers pop culture, history and literature, contact her at abarry@shawmedia.com.

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