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Howl’s Moving Castle

Above: "Howl's Moving Castle"

After each new film he makes, Hayao Miyazaki says it will be his last. That's because the 64-year-old filmmaker still draws some of his own animation and his vision has been getting progressively worse. So fans will be thrilled with the release of yet another Miyazaki anime, this one based on a children's novel, Howl's Moving Castle (opening June 10 at Landmarks Hillcrest Cinemas).

Miyazaki is one of a group of grand old men of anime with a new film out. Recently Mamoru Oshii delivered Ghost in the Shell 2 after a ten-year absence and Akira's Katsuhiro Otomo made his dream project Steam Boy after a similar absence from directing. Miyazaki has been called the Disney of Japan by Western journalists. Maybe that's why Disney Studios has bought his library of films for U.S. release and is currently distributing his latest film Howl's Moving Castle. But the label is not really appropriate.

Helen McCarthy, author of Hayao Miyazaki: Master of Japanese Animation, says that the label reveals more about Western needs to label creative talent in a manner that makes it more palatable. She wrote: I would prefer to call Miyazaki the Kurosawa of animation. Not only does his work have the same rare combination of epic sweep and human sensitivity that the great live action director possessed, but it also fails to fit into any of the neat, child-sized boxes into which the west still tends to stuff the animated art form.

Howl's Moving Castle, Miyazaki's latest, is a very loose adaptation of the children's fantasy novel by Dianna Wynne Jones. As with many of Hayao Miyazaki's films, this one once again focuses on a young girl. Sophie (voiced by Emily Mortimer) is a mousy milliner in her family's hat shop. She looks out on the world from the shop window but you suspect she rarely interacts with it. Then she meets Howl (Christian Bale), a magical prince who lives in a moving castle and who has a reputation for stealing the hearts of beautiful young girls. Since Sophie considers herself plain, she cant see why anyone, especially Howl, would take an interest in her. But just as her dreamy romantic hopes start to rise, the Wicked Witch of the Waste (a deliciously husky Lauren Bacall), casts a spell on her and turns her into an old woman (Jean Simmons delightfully takes over vocal duties at this point).

The transformation is definitely inconvenient -- she can't move as fast and the cold bothers her more -- yet Sophie doesn't seem overly troubled by her new, more elderly state. In fact, the change make her more confident, more spunky and more self-assured. Her aged exterior seems to free her from youthful concerns about appearance and romance. As an old lady she feels that she has nothing to lose and no one to impress, so she becomes more outspoken and more physically active than she ever was before. Now she's inspired to take action not only to free herself from the witch's curse but also to help Howl who seems trapped by either an evil spell or his own personal demons.

As with his Oscar-winning Spirited Away, Howl's Moving Castle offers a journey of self-discovery and empowerment. As with the young heroine of Spirited Away, Sophie learns to depend on herself. She discovers that she's smarter, tougher and more resilient than she ever imagined. And both of these Miyazaki heroines discover a compassion for others that they had never really tapped into before. They also learn to see the world from a less self-centered perspective.

Miyazaki frequently uses young girls as his main protagonist from simple tales such as Kiki's Delivery Service to classics such as Nausicaa. But in Howl's Moving Castle, Miyazaki literally transforms his young heroine into an old lady, and there are not many animated films that would gamble on such a character choice (it does not cater to the youthful demographic that American animation constantly strives for). In fact, Miyazaki peoples this film with a trio of roles for older actresses. In addition to the aged Sophie and the mountainous Wicked Witch of the Waste, there's the Queen, played in the U.S. version by Blythe Danner as silky, subtle and nasty. But that's what's so great about Miyazaki's films. He doesn't go for the conventional, and in defying formulas and expectations he ends up creating works that are more broadly appealing and far richer than what his western counterparts create. Even in a lesser work like this, he displays more humanity, imagination, complexity and darkness than anything Disney has created in decades. Disney's animation from the sixties onward panders to kids and focuses on technological innovations. Miyazaki on the other hand, never panders, and he still relies on hand drawing (along with computers) and is less distracted by new state of the art technology. His films are rapturously artistic and allow space for the imagination of viewers to fill in the details.

Another strength to be found in Miyazaki's work is a refusal to paint a world in black and white terms. Characters that are presented as evil don't always stay evil because we find shadings in them that prompt us to re-evaluate our initial opinion. In many of his films, he blurs the line between friend and foe, monster and human. The Wicked Witch of the Waste, for one, ends up drawing not only our compassion but also that of Sophie, her cursed victim. Miyazaki's ability to create well-rounded and sometimes surprising characters makes his films rich and worthy of multiple viewings.

Unfortunately, though, the fact that Disney is distributing Miyazaki's films in the U.S. means that they are trying as best they can to Disney-fy the films. The partnership between Disney and Miyazaki's Studio Ghibli got off to a rocky start when Disney tried to edit the violent Princess Mononoke. But Miyazaki had cleverly protected his film from any alternations and would not budge despite requests from the American studio. The anime got passed on to Disney's then subsidiary Miramax for distribution. So with Howl's Moving Castle, Disney has managed to still leave their thumbprint but working within their contractual limitations. Since they cannot edit the film, they have dubbed it and hired their own animation people -- executive producer John Lasseter (Toy Story) and director Peter Docter (Monsters, Inc.) -- to oversee the American translation. This has resulted in such things as casting Billy Crystal as the character Calcifer and letting him yuck it up a la Robin Williams so that it is no longer a character in the film but a Hollywood comedian showing off. Other foreign animated films are often made available in both dubbed and subtitled versions for audiences to choose between, but apparently that is only an option in cities such as New York and San Francisco.

Although Howl's Moving Castle is not Miyazaki's best work, it still far outshines anything you can find from Hollywood. Miyazaki's best films remain Nausicaa, Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, Porco Rosso and for sheer delight Totoro. Those films sustain better, more satisfying narratives. Howl still displays Miyazakis fanciful imagination that places the real and the magical right next to each other. In Miyazakis universe, people can walk on air, black blob like henchmen can ooze out of walls and spells are given out almost as often as morning greetings. And all these things are treated as if they were common occurrences. In Miyazaki's films, the magical is part of the everyday and it doesn't lose its wonder by being more routine -- instead, it simply opens your eyes to the fact that anything is possible and nothing should be taken for granted.

Although Miyazaki often insists that he makes films only to entertain, Howl returns to themes that you can find in earlier works. Once again he voices concern for nature and disgust for the destructiveness of war.

Howl's Moving Castle (rated PG) is a splendid example of Miyazaki's work. I took part of my middle school anime club to a screening, and although the kids were a little hesitant about a film that focused on an old lady, by the end, even the rowdy boys who always want more action, said they loved it.

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