Youmans (pronounced like 'yeoman' with an 's' added) is the best-kept secret among contemporary American writers. --John Wilson, editor, Books and Culture

Monday, March 13, 2006

Howl's Moving Castle

Marly: On Friday I watched Hayao Miyazaki's variation on Diana Wynne Jones' magical book, Howl's Moving Castle. R. had wanted to see it ever since word filtered out about the project, and it arrived just in time to console her for being miserable and fevery.

After I mentioned this on Friday in the "comments," Megan--a bright middle schooler somewhere in the Carolinas-- wrote to ask about movie versus book. She likes the book. So do I. Would she like the movie?

It is definitely a different narrative with somewhat different characters, and I did miss the Porthaven fight between Howl and the Witch of the Waste--particularly the mermaids, with Howl staring at them when he should have been watching the Witch. And I wished that the 7-league boots had been there. But none of that mattered, as it is a flawed but perfectly delicious movie.

Megan wasn't so interested in what she called a "cartoon": in this case, Japanese anime by the master of such things, Hayao Miyazaki of Ghibli Studios. And yes, his created figures adhere to the visual conventions of anime people. But Miyazaki's painterly technique may not be much like what Megan may have imagined when she thought about a "cartoon."

One ends up feeling, as always with Miyazaki, that he invests our world with magic--the least little washing of a wave in the shallows, disclosing and half-hiding some pebbles, is beautiful. Some of the charm and whimsy of the tiny is attached to creatures, as in the fat dog's struggle to roll and stand, the mouse with a mouse baby on its back, the most diminished versions of Calcifer. The tiniest glimpses can be quite fantastic, and the sweeping vistas of mountain, meadow, and cloud are satisfying stares at a paradise of saturated color. The "secret" garden, where water and clouds are confused, reminds me of Miyazaki's love for floating islands and magical reflections.

Clendon, the P. P. C. (Pompous Palace Critic), horning in: Despite the fact that there are things to criticize--the war moral seems heavy-handed, Howl's non-participation doesn't fully make sense (as he does seem to be already a part), and Howl is a bit too feminine and lacks the edge of the book--it is a pleasure to watch. One has to be fairly analytical about Sophie's physical changes, blurring from be-spelled old lady to middle age to girl, in order to grasp why she changes at certain moments, losing herself in beauty or drama or concern for another. But it's not wholly clear who sees and understands these moments of change. One assumes that Howl does, as he has already seen her alternate from waking to sleeping, old to young, and has eyes to see many things. When or where Sophie grasps the alteration, and whether anyone else sees her as young is murky. But that could've been a translation issue. The scarecrow is very diminished from the book, though his whirling dances and his toting-about of the Witch of the Waste are amusing.

Marly: Clendon, do I care about any of these things? No!

Clendon, P. P. C.: I am also not sure how much sense the whole thing would have made had I not been familiar with the book--still vivid in my mind. Much that seems cloudy can be "read" by the light of the book. Not too important in the book, the war is essential to the movie. Yet it does not quite manage to evoke fear except when the globby henchmen are rattling the door. Likewise, Sophie's own powers are never acknowledged much in the script; it's not clear whether, say, she puts life into the turnip-headed scarecrow as she does in the book. The same problem is at issue elsewhere, and could again be a question of needing more delicacy in the translation. Does everybody see that she really has powers of her own and is a fit match for Howl, or don't they? It's never clarified, so that one ends up thinking that a number of things that occur might just be coincidence or have a different cause than Sophie's powers.

Marly: Lucky for me, I'm not a 'critic' and don't care about any of these things, because I found it scrumptious, a ravishing feast for the eye. Nice to see you, Clendon--shut the door on your way out, will you? I'll call you next time I need a high-functioning Pompousibelle at my elbow, all right?

Clendon, P. P. C. departs in a large vehicular Huff, accompanied by a small pink donkey, a violet dancing girl, and a transparent rabbit.

Marly: Good huffing! Just the change of air that I needed. Metamorphosis, transformation . . . was that what I was talking about? As always, Miyazaki's characters suffer magical changes. Sophie the mouse grows strong through the 'weakness' of imposed old age and finds that a curse is her salvation, opening up the dull gray of her life to hope, magic, wonder, and beauty. Wizard Howl a.k.a. Pendragon a.k.a. Jenkins finds that protecting and striving is better than running (although he had a pretty odd definition of running away), and even the Witch of the Waste gives up greed and hands over what she desires to someone else. The Castle, itself a character, is reborn. Cleverly, Miyazaki reveals that the first called-up "shadow of darkness" springs from Howl's own bent shadow, and the movie is a long, moving chiaroscuro that closes with a prayer, a risk taken, and a sun-washed, re-made world populated by the transformed.

Time-twisting and half-forgotten encounters in childhood come into play, as they do in other Miyazaki movies: the young woman who is Sophie grown meets the child Howl in his "secret garden" as he catches a star, and cries out that he should look for her in the future because she realizes how to save him now. The knot of time thus allows Howl to recognize and search for a young woman who is linked to his own fate. And it allows Sophie to be the one to name Calcifer, because she already knows his name in the future. This sort of salvation by time-tangling is suitable to both Miyazaki's past accomplishments and to many books by Diana Wynne Jones. The labyrinthine mesh of time is the underpinning of a book like Aunt Maria--constructed on an elaborate time-plot that J. K. Rowling seems to have borrowed for The Prisoner of Azkaban.

The movie is, like all the other Miyazaki movies, wondrous-looking. The bird-legged, fin-tailed, bagpipe-topped castle reminds me of Terry Gilliam's Monty Python "cutout" animation. It also brings to mind the paintings of James Christensen. The Witch of the Waste in her degradation also reminded me of Christensen--the hat, the cane, the compacted shape of the body and the long clothes, the act of being carried about helplessly by the scarecrow (although the helpless among Christensen's medieval-appearing people tend to end up as backpacks, carried out of charity and love.) The bedroom of the wizard, with its peacock feathers, mandrake, and surfaces encrusted with moving and bright objects is like a wonderful jewel box. Even a string of garlic is rich with purple and green, because the things of this world are really fabulous, fabulous: even the world without magic turns out to be a world with magic. The drama of small kineticism or large--smoke from a cigar, feathers blowing away (like the dragon's scales flying from Haku or "Kohaku River" in another Miyazaki dream), a firestorm--is rapid and sweeping.

In the end, I'm 'spirited away' by the movie's beauty, and I see but don't care about its faults.

***
Postscript to Megan: When my children were very little, they adored Totoro--in fact, I love Totoro because it's so sweet and joyful in the face of adversity--and still like to visit that world. Now we have each of the Miyazaki movies released in the U. S. , and I can say that there is enough of the child in me to have enjoyed them all.

14 comments:

  1. I'll take wondrous-looking over sense-making most days. Today is one. Did you hear your name being spoken in awed whispers on Saturday night, by Jeffery and me?

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  2. Hi Laura--

    Oh, that is friendly of you to say so! I'm assuming that Jeffery is the poetical Mr. Beam, since he's one of only two people I know whose parents spelled "Jeffrey" that way.

    For some reason (perhaps because we're in our 8th day of having miserable sick children at home), I'm feeling blue all the way to indigo.

    So I really needed that compliment! Now I feel blue but with a deckle of pink around the edges.

    You know, that sounds like a good description of a sea slug, doesn't it?

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  3. Oh goodness! Thanks for the post, Oh Grand- Master -Author -Who –Is- Feeling -Blue. What else can I say! I suppose now I must see the movie, since you put so much effort into describing it. My memory of the book now has huge holes, so perhaps the movie would fill them up and give my day its dose of weirdom.

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  4. Hi Marly,

    I am sorry your house resounds with sickness. My mama is in the hospital with bronchitis, but getting better. She is 83. The husband is feeling better and is building VIOLINS. He is bent on becoming a luthier, and so far he is very good at it. The first violin is a dream to play and is very harmoniously melodius.

    My son LOVES anime so I will have to ask him if he has seen this movie and read the book. He probably has.

    Also, I am writing again. I have a couple of so-so poems on my blog, but it is a start.

    I am also going to post a short-short story there tomorrow hopefully, entitled "How to Peel an Orange." Please come see the poems.

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  5. Yes, you'll like it--but you could also read the book again, Megan. Rereading is the best reading...

    Blog Queen, I hope the bronchitis is better soon. Oh, to be a luthier! Such a wonderful word. I will visit your poems tomorrow, because just now my eldest is demanding the computer.

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  6. Firmly Asserting An Opinion4:15 PM, March 15, 2006

    Anime is NOT cartoons. Miyazaki isn't, anyway. Calling his masterpieces that would be like calling a famous painting a doodle. In Japan, grown men and women read manga and watch anime daily and seriously. Saying "I don't read manga" to them would be like saying "I can't read." Some is good, some is bad. Miyazaki is the king of them all.

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  7. Well, you know that, and I know that, but it's okay that young Megan didn't know that--she'll have all the marvelous fun of finding out!

    And that seems an enviable position to be in, really... To be 13 and seeing your first Miyazaki sounds perfectly wonderful.

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  8. Even after being Megan's classmate for several years I am thoroughly awed. I am amazed at how you all talk in poems, even making the most average word sound magical. I would sit here for hours and let your chatter lap at my heart like waves upon the shore. And I agree, anime and manga should never be considered cartoons! I have several friends who are truly obsessed with that particular Japanese form of entertainment (one who even knows the Japanese language), I'll ask them if they know about Miyazaki. As a growing manga fan, I shall enjoy broadining my knowlage:)

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  9. Hello Katie--

    Thanks for popping in and leaving me a special note--I am very tickled to meet another of Ms. L's marvelous students!

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  10. So sorry very to have affended some with my ignorance. I repent.

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  11. Don't let some Anonymous bother you!

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  12. What an extraordinarily pretty way of describing the movie. I love the book more than i do the book(I've had a crush on Howl Jenkins of the book since i was 10) but it was truly a marvellous movie. I don't think Howl was at all too effeminate, though i miss the humour that was brightly apparent in the book. I was also a bit miffed that Lettie Hatter was barely-there while Martha didn't exist.
    However, on the whole the movie is a great one. I've chosen to think of the movie and book as separate stories but with similar characters. I loved it a tremendously large amount

    if you want, you can e-mail me at
    hunting_snarks@hotmail.com

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  13. buggrit. This is what i get for not checking for typos. i love the BOOK more than the MOVIE.

    sorry, sorry. please excuse me

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  14. Snark Hunter--

    Yes, I love the book. In fact, DWJ is just all-around wonderful.

    Movies just can't ever be as complex as a book, though--at least not in the same inward way. But they can be ravishing visually, like this one.

    So you love DWJ, Howl, and Carroll. Very interesting.

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Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.