Size / / /

Finally, the conclusion. Japanese writer and director Hayao Miyazaki has created some wonderful works of art, and I will now wrap up my look at his directorial efforts with his three most recent movies.

Previously I've looked at Miyazaki's early career and his middle years. Also on Strange Horizons, you'll be able to find a look at Spirited Away by Amy Harlib and a recent piece on Howl's Moving Castle by Laura Blackwell. I'll be disagreeing with Blackwell—and just about every other critical voice—in just a minute.

I started this series last year, but I ran into an unexpected roadblock for this third installment. I saw Howl's Moving Castle in the theatres when it came out in a dubbed version in North America, and I had an unexpectedly violent reaction against the movie. I decided to wait for it to come out on DVD—I didn't like it in theatres, but I felt like I owed it to Miyazaki to give this one a fair shake.

I should mention other Miyazaki-related DVD news. The other major release is a new version of My Neighbor Totoro—this time with a proper letterbox aspect and the original Japanese language track. This was a monumentally strange experience for me: the silly English dub of Totoro from the previously released cheapo DVD has been burned into my brain by innumerable viewings. Along with Howl and Totoro, the recent set of DVD releases includes Whisper of the Heart, a more straightforward/mundane story of a girl growing up, scripted by Miyazaki and directed by a Studio Ghibli colleague, Yoshifumi Kondo.

So we are now in a situation that was hardly imaginable just a few years ago: every Miyazaki movie, and almost everything Studio Ghibli has done, is available in North America on spruced-up DVDs. Sure, the company that released the DVDs is Disney, and they've created some cheesy English dubbing, but every movie also includes the original Japanese language track. This is a minor miracle. And I think we're heading further into an era in which the prospect of not being able to find a certain movie we want to watch is quaint, perhaps even unthinkable.

Princess Mononoke, 1997

Princess Mononoke marked the beginning of Miyazaki's current incarnation as a box-office monster in his native Japan—this movie broke all box-office records at the time of its release, and the next two movies each broke all previous records. In North America . . . not so much. The crowds here never materialized for Princess Mononoke, and this can be attributed to a mix of a few simple reasons: the marketing/hype machine that the North American movie industry relies on didn't know what to do with this movie, animation (rightly or wrongly) is still considered a kid's thing, and the fan base for anime is likely smaller than its proponents want to admit.

Critically speaking, you'll find nothing but praise for Princess Mononoke, and the devotion to Miyazaki's work is especially strong among North American animators. And if you don't know much about Miyazaki or what anime can offer, you'll discover what fans were hoping for: this is a surpisingly deep and moving story.

Be warned though: this movie is very different than his other movies. This refusal to pigeonhole his own talents deepens my respect for Miyazaki as an artist, but don't make the mistake of automatically categorizing this particular animated movie as meant for children: if your kids love My Neighbor Totoro, this one might be a little too grown-up for them.

Contrary to the title, the story begins with a character named Prince Ashitaka and sticks to him for most of the movie. Ashitaka lives in a small village that gets attacked by a terrifying boar demon; Ashitaka manages to kill the monster, but not before one of the demon tentacles has touched his arm and sunk its curse into his flesh. Within the first ten minutes, Miyazaki has established his hero, the hero's background, and sentenced the hero to death or exile in search of a cure for a demon-cursed arm—what a strong, efficient setup!

Ashitaka chooses exile, and he finds clues that the boar came from somewhere to the west. He soon locates the source of conflict: led by Lady Eboshi, the people of a fortified ironworks/village have been burning down the surrounding forest in search of more iron. The clan of boar gods have been fighting back, but when an iron bullet gets lodged in one of their bodies it drives them to madness or demonhood. Eboshi and her people are also fighting against the wolf gods: the enormous Moro, her two cubs, each bigger than a horse, and San, a woman raised by the wolves.

San is in fact the title character, but she is not really the protagonist (the title, as far as I can tell, is something like "princess of the wild-beast gods"). Ashitaka is definitely the main character, the viewpoint for the audience, the one who comes to an unfamiliar situation and experiences it in the same way that we do as viewers. San is perhaps one way of considering the film, the attraction of untamed nature.

I see San herself as a partial version of Miyazaki's sympathies in this film, and particularly as the wish for an intelligent yet wild champion for nature. Princess Mononoke has been accused of standing as a didactic statement by Miyazaki, but a closer examination shows that the movie is thematically complex, that Miyazaki has a clear-eyed view of that wild champion. By the end, Ashitaka and San have befriended one another, Lady Eboshi has softened her stance, and while there have been other catastrophic events, life goes on. A previously held balance has been lost, but nature soon resumes a new equilibrium.

The meeting between Ashitaka and San gets my vote as one of the best "boy meets girl" encounters in film history. San has been riding the wolf god Moro into battle, and Moro gets shot. San, Moro, and her cubs flee from Eboshi's forces and stop beside a river; they don't realize at first that Ashitaka is watching them. San proceeds to suck the poisoned blood out of the wound and spit it out onto the ground. The wolves pick up Ashitaka's scent and they all turn to look at him. San calmly faces him down, spits out one more mouthful of blood, and then rides away on the back of the giant wolf. It's not surprising that they fight some fierce battles before they can respect each other (or rather, before San can respect Ashitaka).

When I watch this movie, I'm always taken aback by the amount of cleverly designed world-building. It's also cleverly conveyed, from the headlong opening segment that I've already mentioned, through all the characters we come to care about. Ashitaka is a bit of a stick in the mud, an honourable prince, but even he takes some surprising actions that strengthen our sense of this fantastic world.

From what I have seen, Princess Mononoke isn't quite the same apppealing film as My Neighbor Totoro or Spirited Away. I would call it uncompromising, brutal, a convincing bit of world-building, complete with complex and sympathetic characters. And it doesn't have flying, which makes it a bit of an oddity in Miyazaki's career.

Spirited Away, 2001

Spirited Away followed Princess Mononoke in a nearly identical track: box-office records in Japan, critical acclaim everywhere—Spirited Away even won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature—and then modest box-office results in North America. If by modest I actually mean dismal.

As a fan, that doesn't particularly bother me. I know that Miyazaki has more than enough money and clout in Japan to do whatever project he might want (if he has not decided to retire again). And Spirited Away shares something else with Princess Mononoke: the stubborn refusal to give up its own uniqueness, whatever direction that unique spirit might lead. The two movies are miles apart in tone and content, and I admire Miyazaki all the more for that. While Princess Mononoke was a violent ecological fable for grown-ups, Spirited Away is an intensely hallucinatory trip into a spirit world and back again to reality.

Chihiro is a young girl of about ten, and her two defining traits at the beginning of the movie are clumsiness and sulkiness. She and her parents are moving to a new house, and her dad takes one shortcut and, hey presto, she is lost in a magical realm of some kind, her parents have wrongly eaten some kind of enchanted food and turned into pigs, and it's getting dark and she doesn't know where to go. This is a genuinely terrifying scene, and I'm hard-pressed to think of a similar down-the-rabbithole-type experience in a kids' story that is quite so unsettling.

Her parents thought it was an abandoned theme park, but we soon learn the truth. Chihiro has stumbled upon the bathhouse of the gods—one of the characters mentions that there are eight million of these gods or spirits, and we see a satisfyingly odd selection of them. By the logic of this world, she has to get a job if she wants any chance of rescuing her parents; she does so timidly but soon makes some friends and finds some clues as to getting her parents back.

I found the growth in Chihiro's character an interesting study in how a skilful storyteller like Miyazaki does it. At the beginning, she is the worst klutz on the planet, and scared and whiny to boot. She retains her klutziness until about halfway through, but she grows out of her frightened self much earlier. This is likely a gesture towards the adaptability of children, secondly a measure of Chihiro's courage, and thirdly Miyazaki realizing that once he has established her timidity the audience will like her more if she gets over it quickly.

If Miyazaki is simply dressing up his typical preoccupation with the story of a young girl growing up, then he has certainly succeeded in giving Chihiro some fierce obstacles! She's not sure if she can trust her new friend Haku, the bathhouse is run by a bizarrely proportioned witch named Yubaba, and the tasks at the bathhouse are tough.

One of those tasks lets Miyazaki fit in his favored environmental theme. One night a stink god arrives for a bath, and Chihiro bravely helps her friend Lin give him a scrub. They discover that under the disgusting grime and goo he's really a river god; the two clean an astonishing pile of junk out of his spectral body. The river god gives Chihiro a gift, and this gift comes in handy at least twice later in the story. A neat little metaphor for the rewards of caring for the environment around us.

Spirited Away has some other nice nods to earlier Miyazaki works, particularly My Neighbor Totoro. The unforgettable radish god looks a lot like a totoro, and the charming (and lonely) soot sprites from the earlier movie return here as workers in the boiler room. I was a little disturbed to see the bedroom prison from Castle in the Sky come back—it's a distinctive enough design that the parallel is immediate. I'm not sure what it means though!

My Neighbor Totoro and this film are close thematically as well. My Neighbor Totoro is a charmingly simple tale of growing up, while Spirited Away is like that movie as seen through the complexity of Princess Mononoke.

A word or two about the visual design of the movie. The animation in Spirited Away is gorgeous and detailed. Everything has a sheen to it, a gloss that represents painstaking effort on the part of the artists. The character design is stunning; there are a huge variety of characters in the bathhouse, yet they all seem to belong. I like the way Chihiro is drawn; she's a klutzy, easily spooked little girl, not a typical anime heroine with big eyes (the alarmingly large ocular cavities of the characters in Howl's Moving Castle are part of what turned me off of that movie). And Chihiro becomes a quite different person by the end of the film. Grown-up, and more than a little sad later in the movie. It's our turn to feel sad when Chihiro finally reunites with her parents and her trip to the bathhouse of the gods is over.

Princess Mononoke was entirely earthbound, but Spirited Away has some gorgeous moments of flying, a theme which Miyazaki still has not exhausted.

Howl's Moving Castle, 2004

My dislike of Howl's Moving Castle was a bit of a puzzle to me, considering how much I've enjoyed Miyazaki's other movies. After a great deal of thought, I've narrowed down my dislike to three factors: the voices in the dubbed English version that first played in theatres in North America, the visual design of the characters, and some elements of the basic story structure.

I'm happy to report that the DVD, with the choice of the original Japanese language track, is a great help. My main objection was to the two male leads: Christian Bale is simply miscast as Howl, while Billy Crystal destroys the character of Calcifer (more on the characters in a minute) by channeling every lame Disney sidekick. The Japanese voices feel much more integrated into the texture of the movie. Of course this could simply be a function of my ignorance of what was being said in Japanese! All the same, it's hard to imagine a worse vocal performance than Billy Crystal's here. The DVD gave me the option of avoiding one actively irritating flaw.

Unfortunately, the other two factors are built into the movie. The character design features plenty of characters with giant eyes, insipid and stereotypical anime-style facial features, and extreme close-ups, all set in a creepy version of the Europeanized cityscape of Kiki's Delivery Service. After the note-perfect designs for Spirited Away, I found this hard to take.

The third factor is that I didn't care much for the story. I've read the Diana Wynne Jones book that this movie is based on; I already knew that Jones's books are not to my taste, but I gave it a chance all the same. The original novel version of Howl's Moving Castle simply did not charm me or appeal to me, as it has so many other readers. I felt like the book was missing something, some indefinable sense of pace or character that would keep me reading.

Miyazaki's adaptation doesn't do the book any favors either. On top of Jones's clunky structure, Miyazaki throws in a heaping helping of his clumsiest antimilitaristic feeling, straight from the era of Nausicaä and the Valley of the Wind. Now, I enjoyed that movie for what it was, but it also came out twenty years ago and I prefer the nuances of Spirited Away to the earlier moments of unsubtlety in Miyazaki's work.

(As a side note, it's true that Miyazaki came into this movie in order to rescue a troubled project, so some of the missteps might not be his. But he still did put his name on it. You can find more information in this article.)

Howl's Moving Castle is a less obvious version of a growing-up/rite-of-passage story, and is it the case that this doesn't play to Miyazaki's strengths? I'm reminded of Porco Rosso, a film that is regarded, perhaps wrongly, as the one low point in his list of works, a movie that wasn't about a young character facing the world and becoming an adult. I'm not entirely convinced by this, since Miyazaki's movies have felt so different from each other despite the adolescent-to-adult thematic similarities.

I should point out another bias of mine: I tend to like the early work of a writer or director, when their style is new; later, when it's all a matter of refinements and variations on a theme, I tend to lose interest. This is not entirely true with regard to Miyazaki, as I enjoyed the movies from the second half of his career much more than his early ones.

However, Howl's Moving Castle seems to fit in neatly with my disappointment with the recent batch of anime movies from the superstars of the field. Here is a fawning Wired article that shows what my reaction to Howl's Moving Castle, Steamboy, and Ghost in the Shell 2 should have been, fan that I am of each director's previous movies. I found none of them to be satisfying. Steamboy and Ghost in the Shell 2 had their moments, but they were largely tedious. These three projects gave each respective director almost complete artistic freedom, and as I see it, the fine line between letting your own artistic impulses reign and telling a story that might appeal to other people got rubbed out.

It's the old canard about art being self-indulgent: it bloody well should be, or why would anyone do it in the first place? But you also have to be reaching out to the audience, and this balance is basically a moving target, as it's defined differently by different people, it can vary by age or genre or nationality, and if you get it wrong, your reader or viewer will certainly grumble. I don't want to get too sidetracked by this point, which might need its own column to explore fully.

A brief summary of Howl's Moving Castle, then. Sophie is not a pretty girl; her family and her co-workers in the hatters shop all tell her so. She meets the wizard Howl while walking in the city one day, and the Witch of the Waste sees them together. In a fit of jealousy, the witch curses Sophie, who now looks like an old granny and cannot tell anyone how the curse works. She leaves her job and her town, and coincidentally enough, ends up a passenger on Howl's famous moving castle. It is powered by the fire demon Calcifer, and she soon befriends a little boy named Markl who is an apprentice to Howl. She justifies her presence by cleaning and cooking.

Sophie's in love with Howl, of course, but how to get rid of the curse? And Howl gets dangerously wrapped up in the demands of the warring nations around him—will he escape the plague of militarism in time? And who is this persistent scarecrow that is always helping Sophie just when she needs it? The answer to the last question wraps up the movie on a discouraging note; earlier bright moments get darkened by this preposterous bit of stereotype.

When I first saw the movie, it seemed like everyone liked it. I've located a few reviews that are more in line with my reaction; like me, they are disappointed fans who loved the previous movies: Roger Ebert and Film Freak Central. This is the only Miyazaki movie that I would not recommend watching.

What has the influence of Miyazaki been? I don't know enough about other trends in anime to speculate. I will say, however, that a cartoon series now on Nickelodeon, Avatar: The Last Airbender, a series that originally looked like a shameless Miyazaki ripoff, is surprisingly good. It's low-brow at times, sure, with plenty of people bonking their heads to the accompaniment of silly sound effects, gross monsters sneezing extravagantly on people, and so on. But the story that the show is telling is ambitious, and it seems to be delivering so far. This is a show that appeals to grown-ups as much as kids, just like Miyazaki's best movies.

James Schellenberg lives and writes in Ottawa. This column will be his last for Strange Horizons.
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