Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Hauru no ugoku shiro

To continue the long-lost Miyazaki thread: I haven’t read the novel “Howl’s Moving Castle” by English fantasy writer Diana Wynne Jones. Apparently the movie takes great liberties with it. An on its own terms, the film is maddening if you are expecting the vertiginous chase scenes and tightly-engineered uplift you find in all American animation.

It is leisurely of pace if not overlong. It explores narrow segments of a wider world whose rules, boundaries and history are unknown to us. This approach is richly suggestive: Stunning imagery and cataclysmic events are only half-explained, left for the viewer to piece together. The patient meanderings get you thinking in ways that “Shrek” never managed. I spent most of breakfast the next morning mulling various points over with my six-year-old son.

But sometimes it feels like Miyazaki stopped one draft short of a final script. For instance, it’s never really clear what motivates Howl, a youthful wizard who transforms into a birdlike monster and compulsively attacks the airborne warships that are bombing towns in arbitrary war. Maybe Bush hatred, as Miyazaki has been outspoken against the Iraq war. Meanwhile, the other protagonist, a teenaged girl named Sophie, is transformed into a 90-year-old woman by a spiteful witch, but it doesn’t seem to bother her much. She sets off on a quest to break the spell, but soon settles down as a housekeeper in the eponymous castle. The resolution doesn't quite deliver the promised emotional oomph. And Billy Crystal, who plays a fire demon, should be banned from voice work. He can’t deliver a non-grating performance – especially in an anime where everyone else has enormous doe eyes and a dubbed English accent.

But these are quibbles - even second-rate Miyazaki beats most anything out there today.

And they really do do things differently in Japan.