Tuesday, February 21, 2023

Spirited Away to Howl's Moving Castle

When it opened in September 2021, the new Academy Museum devoted its top exhibition floor to a major retrospective of the work of Hayao Miyazaki. The 82-year-old Japanese animator, who has been internationally acclaimed for his prolific work as a writer, director, and manga artist, is best known for films that explore the supernatural. Miyazaki’s work (like My Neighbor Totoro and Spirited Away) often features children in whimsical settings, but his imaginary worlds are hardly benign places. This is tougher stuff than the Disney universe., but real beauty is also present.

 While I was browsing the huge and very colorful Miyazaki exhibit, the section that caught my eye was devoted to a film I’d barely heard of. The centerpiece of Howl’s Moving Castle (2004) is an enormous, ramshackle structure with anthropomorphic elements like legs that give it movement and an entrance like a gaping mouth. When  I studied the footage of the castle, set against a gorgeous rural vista, I was completely captivated. Clearly Miyazaki was captivated too—by British author Diana Wynne Jones’s 1986 fantasy novel of the same name. As in Miyazaki’s screen adaptation, it focuses on a sensible, hard-working young woman named Sophie, who is first seen trimming bonnets in her family’s modest hat shop. Sophie lives in a market town that is vaguely Dickensian:  it’s quaintly Victorian in style but with a nervous sense of a coming Industrial Age. Magic is always lurking too: in nearby communities live kings, queens, and wizards, including the attractive but dangerous Howl. When Sophie runs afoul of the evil Witch of the Waste, she finds herself transformed into a decrepit but feisty old lady who knows better than to stick around. That’s  how she finds herself, after an encounter with a surprisingly devoted scarecrow, coming to live in Howl’s moving castle, along with a fire demon named Caliper and assorted others.

 It's a complicated novel, and Miyazaki cuts some of Sophie’s intricate family story as well as hints of Howl’s long ago and far away upbringing. Surprisingly, he turns some of Wynne Jones’ scariest characters (like that witch) into comic relief and re-thinks the whole power structure of the royal kingdom that looms so large in the book. One thing he leaves intact is Howl’s castle’s wonderfully magical doorway: from the inside you spin a knob that determines if you’ll exit into Sophie’s market town, or the bustling seaside city of Porthaven, or the royal capital of Kingsbury, or a mysterious place linked to Howl’s own past. Miyazaki clearly revels in Howl’s rather vainglorious good looks, and particularly into Howl’s ability to transform himself into giant swooping birds and other critters. He also allows us occasional glimpses of the youthful Sophie who still exists, despite her transformation into an elderly body.

 Most striking, Miyazaki adds to Wynne Jones’ story a sense of impending military doom. The stiffly uniformed legions who strut through the towns are a marked contrast to all the homey townfolk, and we see the sky being polluted by sinister aircraft. Ecological disaster is much on Miyazaki’s mind in several of his films, and war seems to be another way in which men and women push themselves to the brink of destruction. Thank goodness, though, for a happy ending.

 The English language version of Howl’s Moving Castle, lovingly overseen by Pixar, features the voices of such legendary talents as Christian Bale, Lauren Bacall (as the Witch of the Waste), and an elderly Jean Simmons as the old-lady version of Sophie. Though their voices are classy, you’ll remember Billy Crystal as a wisecracking fire demon.




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