Monday, January 16, 2012

Understanding Auteurs: Hayao Miyazaki (Howl's Moving Castle)

Though it’s an adaptation of a British novel by Dianna Wynne Jones, the cinematic version of Howl’s Moving Castle (2004) is essentially an amalgam of Hayao Miyazaki’s previous films.  The protagonist is a young woman who learns to grow up over the course of the narrative, similar to the heroines of My Neighbor Totoro (1988), Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989), and Spirited Away (2001).  She lives in a village that has old-fashioned architecture but is surrounded by futuristic technology, bringing to mind the settings of Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984) and Castle in the Sky (1986), while the war being waged just outside of town resembles the background action of both of those films as well as Princess Mononoke (1997).  One of Howl’s main antagonists is an imposingly blobby old lady who recalls the bathhouse owner from Spirited Away, and her shadowy henchmen feel like they could’ve stepped out of that film as well. 

The comparisons between elements of Howl’s Moving Castle and previous Studio Ghibli productions could fill an entire blog post.  For better and for worse, this may be Miyazaki’s most characteristic film.  Some of the variations on the director’s usual tropes are inspired, while others occasionally make Howl feel like a time-marking greatest hits collection.  The familiar coming-of-age structure gets an inventive workout, with heroine Sophie being literally forced to grow up after being afflicted with a curse that turns her into a 90-year old woman.  Her occasional sudden changes in age and appearance are as unpredictable as they are vividly animated.  Many of the other characters undergo transformations – the titular castle owner, for example, turns into a sinister, hulking bird before flying into combat – and while this is nothing new for Miyazaki fans, it does play to Studio Ghibli’s undeniable skill for vibrant, colorful imagery and Miyazaki’s talent for creating memorably surreal creature animations.  Other warmed-over Miyazaki tropes fare less well in Howl.  The ecstatic “everybody turns into their true form by finding their one true love” ending doesn’t have the emotional resonance that Miyazaki was clearly aiming for, largely because it feels like a rerun of the endings of both Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away.

The biggest problem with Howl’s Moving Castle is not its overly familiar feeling – and it should be noted that although the film feels very typical of Miyazaki’s style, it couldn’t be mistaken for the work of any other director – but its convoluted narrative and occasionally awkward pacing.  A number of critics, including Roger Ebert, found Howl to be baffling; when I saw it during its theatrical run, I felt that it was almost completely impenetrable.  On second viewing, I realized that the film is not hard to follow so much as it is overstuffed.  While the film’s epic expansiveness is part of what makes it feel so breathtakingly cinematic, there is simply too much going on, and the themes and characterizations are ultimately less focused than in Miyazaki’s finest work.  A lot of plot and thematic elements are introduced without being followed through on.  One scene has the conjuror Howl petulantly complaining about an accidental and unwanted change to his appearance.  The scene is exceptionally well realized in its own right, with Howl surrounded by a baroque array of random trinkets like the world’s most fantastically spoiled teenager, but the character’s vanity, which is given so much weight in this moment, is barely mentioned in the rest of the film.  It’s fine that Miyazaki didn’t turn Howl’s character arc into an obvious “don’t be a narcissist” message, except that one has the impression that this was the original intention and the film simply ran out of room for it.  Later on, a climactic revelation that a haunted, radish-headed scarecrow’s true form is a handsome prince that is in love with Sophie is an awkward conclusion to a storyline that was never really introduced.

Narrative has never been Miyazaki’s strong suit, and it’s no surprise that his masterpiece, Spirited Away, is also his least plot-heavy film (aside from perhaps My Neighbor Totoro).  Spirited Away is Miyazaki at his best because its dream logic structuring requires only the thinnest thread of plot, allowing the mesmerizing animation to take over without any unnecessary story elements getting in the way of the experience.  Contemporaneous mood pieces like David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001) and Wong Kar-wai’s 2046 (2004) are hardly less dense than Howl’s Moving Castle, but they use their minimal plots as launching pads for their directors’ spellbinding tangents, while Miyazaki’s singular imagery is weighed down by an excess of story.  Many of Miyazaki’s previous fantasy films, from Nausicaa to Mononoke, are poorly structured, but it is especially disappointing to see him revert to heavy convolution so quickly after he successfully abandoned conventional narrative structure with Spirited Away.

Despite these flaws, Howl’s Moving Castle is a must-see for anyone interested in animation or the fantasy genre.  There are enough extraordinary images in the film to make up for the randomness of the storytelling; even when a stale Miyazaki trope is the focus of a scene, there is usually something amazing to look at somewhere on the screen.  As usual, Studio Ghibli has somehow managed to top their previous work in terms of sheer grandeur and exotic beauty, and they have ambitiously incorporated a few computer-generated images into their mostly hand-drawn frames.  The titular castle, an enormous shambling mess of rusty gears and oddly jutting metals, may be the single most impressive of all of the studio’s creations.  Even at its most familiar, Hayao Miyazaki’s work is tremendously offbeat and charming.

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