Japan's top grosser of 2004 and Miyazaki's latest (it opens wide on June 10) is called Howl's Moving Castle, which amazes with its touches of whimsy: Its flying machine is a hideous lumbering structure teetering on turkey legs and housing an anxious, nagging fire demon named Calcifer. The heroine, Sophie, is a mousy young hat maker transformed into an old woman just as she's falling for Howl, a handsome, dysfunctional wizard. Guided by a Jack Skellington-esque scarecrow, Sophie decides to break the curse that has aged her and that dooms Howl to constant warfare.
In addition, the series offers an excellent opportunity to see the studio's more thrilling and emotionally resonant 1980s works, such as Miyazaki's Castle in the Sky and Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. The latter is a particularly outstanding example of Miyazaki's celebrations of a young girl's inner life and need to dig deeper for the sources of her confidence. How often do we get a princess who's also a mechanic, plant scientist, warrior, and aviator? One of the beauties of Castle in the Sky (and the driving force of the studio's successful 1997 release Princess Mononoke) is the partnership between a boy and a girl, who in the case of Castle feed and literally keep each other aloft in a search for a mythical flying island. A more ambiguous feminist message can be seen in the all-female labor forces of Porco Rosso and Mononoke: Are they more talented than the men or just more tractable workers?
The series ends with the work of Ghibli co-founder Takahata, who crafts elegies to mundane lives. Only Yesterday's heroine, approaching her 30s and the obligation to marry, stumbles upon her childhood self -- and her passion for organic agriculture -- in the countryside. The heartbreaking Grave of the Fireflies is similar to the recent film Nobody Knows in its subject matter (adolescent brother tries to keep his abandoned sibling alive) but intensified by its being set in the final days of war. Takahata is unafraid to subject his children to loss, loneliness, and the threat of death, and the kids are up to the challenge once adults fail them.
More boisterous and playful, Takahata's Pom Poko is a delightful romp through Japanese folk legend in which shape-shifting raccoon dogs take on what may be the most formidable power in Japan, the construction industry -- at one point using their fabled enormous testicles to smother riot police.