by Deborah Shamoon
Is Disney trying to intentionally sabotage the release of Miyazaki Hayao's films in the USA?
Deborah Shamoon pays a visit to Howl's Moving Castle, and finds her stay lacking...
After allowing Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away to sit on the shelf for years before releasing them with almost no publicity, Disney seemed surprised by the Academy award granted to Spirited Away, and (rather grudgingly) re-released it. As if determined not to make the same mistake again, Disney has now given us Howl's Moving Castle, only a year or so after its release in Japan, packed with even more star voice actors, and promoted heavily on TV. Unfortunately, it's probably his most inaccessible film to date, and his only film so far in which the story just doesn't measure up to the fantastic visuals.
Based on a novel by British fantasy writer Diana Wynne Jones, Howl's Moving Castle continues Miyazaki's infatuation with quaintly old-fashioned Europe. The story is set in a vaguely German, somewhat British town, in a time period that encompasses about 1890 to 1914 all at once. This allows Miyazaki to clothe the women in beautiful long skirts and put the men in fascinatingly clunky steam-powered flying machines. But before long, evil demons in the form of black blobs begin to ooze out of the walls, there are some nice flying sequences and you know that in spite of the unfamiliar setting you're really in a Miyazaki film. I had the good fortune to see the film with subtitles at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley, so I can't comment on the quality of the dubbing.
The main character is, as always, a teenage girl: this time a serious, plain girl named Sophie, voiced by Baisho Chieko (those of you a bit older might remember her as Tora-san's sister in the film series Otoko wa tsurai yo). Although she works as a hat maker, she is distinctly unfashionable and uninterested in romance, until she is literally swept off her feet by the titular magician Howl, who lives in a ramshackle "castle" that resembles a giant mechanical fish encrusted with cottages and chimneys. The house walks around on chicken legs like the witch Baba Yaga's hut in Russian folklore, but Howl himself is a handsome young swell who enjoys seducing the ladies. Kimura Takuya, SMAP superstar and TV drama golden boy, provides Howl's voice, signaling that we are supposed to take him as the pinnacle of masculine charm. Christian Bale is nowhere near as big a star, by the way, even if he is Batman this year.
Unluckily for Sophie, her romp with Howl incites the jealousy of the Witch of the Wastes, who supposedly is one of Howl's jilted lovers, or something. It's a little creepy to think about, since the Witch is hugely fat, extremely old, and voiced by female impersonator Miwa Akihiro. In a fit of pique, she turns Sophie into a withered old crone. After her initial shock, however, Sophie takes it in stride, commenting philosophically that at least now her clothes suit her better. Before long, she has left the hat maker's shop and joined Howl in his moving castle.
You might expect that the remainder of the movie would involve Sophie's quest to lift the curse of old age, but in fact, she hardly makes any effort in that direction. Instead, she becomes involved in caring for Howl's household, which includes a fire demon named Calcifer and a Lost Boy type urchin named Markl, and looking after Howl himself. Like any teenage boy, his house is a pigsty, filled with toys and junk, and he is given to mood swings and whining about how he just wants to be free. His main gripe is that he has been commissioned by the King of whatever country this is to aid in the war (all of which takes place in the air, or course) against some other country we never really learn anything about or even see.
It's at this point, as Sophie attempts to free Howl from his military obligation, that the plot twists start to appear every few minutes. The deeper the film moves into the politics of this imaginary country and Howl's own past, the less sense it makes. There are some visually stunning action sequences in the third act, when Sophie is finally called on to save Howl, but she makes some inexplicable choices, and the more the film dwells on the political situation, the murkier everything gets. Then suddenly, the whole thing is resolved in a deus ex machina ending that feels like a cheat. Even the audience at the PFA who had gone along with every coy and adorable conceit, cooing at the appearance of a gratuitous dog clearly inserted solely to sell toys to children, even they laughed in disbelief at some of the final revelations. Let's just say that if you were bothered by the sudden re-growth of the forest at the end of Princess Mononoke, you will really hate this ending. When it was over, my companions begged me to explain it all to them, but alas I had no answers. War is bad, love is good, and that's about it.
The other problem, aside from the plot, is that among all of Miyazaki's plucky girl heroines, Sophie is the least interesting. It's quite a daring move to have the movie revolve around an old crone, something a Hollywood movie would never allow in an action/fantasy film. But Sophie lacks the fierceness of Nausicaa or Mononoke's Sai and Eboshi, or the charm of Spirited Away's Sen or Totoro's Satsuki. Indeed, she seems to aspire to little more than to clean Howl's castle and to act as substitute mother to him and Markl. She settles into being an old woman so completely that transforming back into a girl becomes increasingly irrelevant as the narrative proceeds, and by the end is almost completely shoved aside. As a love story, this romance between a prematurely old woman and a boy in a state of arrested development is a bit weird, exacerbated by the ubiquitous boy servants who populate the background. But adult romance has never been Miyazaki's forte, and as he gets older, his distance from real teenage passion is all to apparent.
American viewers may also have a hard time accepting the oddly feminine Howl as a romantic lead. That's him on the publicity posters, looking just like a girl with his overgrown page-boy haircut, dangling earrings, and glassy blue eyes. He even falls into a nearly suicidal depression after a hair-dye disaster. Miyazaki usually stays far away from the cliches and stereotypes of the rest of manga and anime, but Howl is straight out of the pages of shojo manga, in which big-eyed, long-haired girly boys fall in love with each other. It's all about creating non-threatening, innocent romance stories which evade the unpleasant reality of gender inequality and the dangers of sex.
Still, the one thing that bothered me the most was the hollow unreality of the imaginary setting. Once upon a time, Miyazaki created richly imagined worlds, which were not only fun to look at but also advanced the narrative, such as in Laputa and Nausicaa. More recently, his best films have included some pointed criticism of Japanese society, and drawn heavily on Japanese history and folklore. Maybe it's because he's using someone else's story, but here the fake European setting never came across as anything more than an exoticized fantasy of the West. This sort of thing generally plays better in Japan than abroad (probably the reason Heidi and The Dog of Flanders was never exported), but the fantasy here feels as thin as in one of those imitation British tea rooms in Tokyo where the waitresses wear frilly French maid outfits and serve three-inch thick slices of toast. Moreover, the anti-war message at the end seems hollow and heavy-handed because we never learn anything about the politics or causes of the war. I suppose the message is that all war is meaningless. But in delivering that message, Miyazaki should have taken more care not to make his film meaningless as well.
Posted by Deborah Shamoon at 2005年08月12日 05:46