High- and low-brow cultural goings-on in the Second City, brought to you by a roving microtechnoanthropologist

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Friday, June 10, 2005

Exit Brain, Pursued by a Bear

Tonight M and I ventured downtown to see Miyazaki's version of Diana Wynne Jones's Howl's Moving Castle.

I started rereading the book earlier this week, more out of mad love than some insane belief that it would "prepare" me for the movie. S had given me the low down: enjoyable on its own merits, but forget about the story you know, and I concur. Considering this is me (or, rather, this is I [Hamlet, the Dane]), though, that's saying something.

See, I have anime issues. It's a risk one runs as a geek girl. A woman with true affection for scifi and fantasy SURELY must love all things geekly. And should she fail to admit that Akira is the pinnacle of artistic achievement, should she shrug at the wonder that is Gon, she must be (metaphorically) beaten into submission and scorned with withering tones. It wasn't that I even really disliked anime. But being called upon to worship it and being constantly found wanting in worshipfulness was somewhat wearing.

Annnnnyyywhooo. Long ago S directed me to some advance materials on Miyazaki's take, and the castle looked sufficiently cool that I really began looking forward to the movie. It was somewhat disappointing and irritating to find that the release here was only of the Mouse-sponsored dub, without any subtitled screenings as with Steamboy. My heart also died a little when I realized that Billy Crystal was the voice for Calcifer. No real hate on for the guy (Miracle Max will always have a place in my heart), but feh, Calcifer isn't supposed to be comic relief.

Onward to the movie. The film immediately separates itself from the book by turning Japanese (does anyone know any films about . . .). Like all his landsmen, Miyazaki cannot resist the allure of the Industrial Revolution and, thus, Ingary becomes Britain sometime in the 19th century. That's at odds with HMC specifically (modern-day Wales figures into the plot of the book, and Sophie and Michael are traumatized by the technology) and at odds with the magic-technology tension in DWJ's works more broadly. Though that may sound like a whiny nitpick, I actually found it freeing. I didn't need to wonder when the stories would start to diverge, because Miyazaki had given it his stamp immediately.

However, given the very Japanese look of the background, the animation didn't immediately impress me, until the initial encounter between Sophie and Howl. Superficially, people get as little attention as they usually seem to in most anime (ok, in most anime I've seen, which is not a lot), but somehow, Miyazaki's people have infinitely more personality and life than in things like Steamboy. The movement and contact are incredibly expressive, even if the faces are as bland and simplistic as ever. Sophie, in one look over her shoulder, communicates that she's fallen for Howl. A head popping in here, a glance and casual touch there, and we know, instantly that every man in Market Chipping is mad for Lettie. Really nicely done.

The Castle itself is beautifully realized, both in its glory and in its disintegration. The face and the chicken legs add just enough of an organic touch to make it a perfect metaphor for the House-of-Weird-Love-Is-Better-Than-No-Love that it is. As different as it is from the book's description, it's absolutely true to the spirit of the Castle and maintains plenty of connections to DWJ's descriptions in the interior details. The shockingly fitlthy bathroom, the beams filled with spiders, and Calcifer's hearth all felt like home, and the mechanism of the multiple doors to multiple locations was perfect.

The blob men were also an effective addition, at least at the beginning. The boaters and Mardi Gras masks combined with the livery made them blend enough into the background to create a constant creepy, uneasy feeling when they were around. The later incarnations of the War Wizards were a bit silly, though, especially as nothing was ever really made of the distinction between Howl, who refuses to join in the war (until he has his wo-man to protect), and those who voluntarily gave up their humanity and used their magic in the service of some nation or another. I dig an anti-war message as much as the next gal, but . . .

In general, narratively and character-wise---umm . . . it's confusing at best, and there are a number of decisions that just don't work. Rolling Mrs. Pentstemmon, Wizard Suliman, and the unsavory parts of the Witch of the Waste into a single character was problematic enough from a logistical standpoint, and in terms of motivation, it's a who shot who in the what now moment when she calls off the war, because Howl's found his true love and "the game is over." Uh, yeah, sure.

I'm also not sure what to make of the Witch of the Waste in Miyazaki's view. I don't know if she was just a victim of the sexectomy (uh, not that the book is like the Happy Hooker or anything, but it's certainly largely about the fresh hell of dipping one's toe into the romantic relationship water for the first time, and that's pretty effectively quashed with Michael being a small kid, the Witch of the Waste being a Jabba the Hutt type, Martha being excised altogether, and so on) that the whole story got, or if he just wanted to round out the misfit family. In either case, although I had a certain affection for this Witch, her involvement in the real crisis of the movie was not overburdened with sensicality.

I was glad to see the slime incident included, but Howl is otherwise so good as gold that it ends up seeming a little bizarre if you don't know the vain, petulant, thoroughly loveable rake from the book. Similarly, although Sophie's age transformations were really skillfully handled through most of the movie, it was a bit sad that her final restoration to herself was a nonevent.

The English voice acting was not bad. Christian Bale occasionally suffered from some Keanu Reeves attacks, but even Billy Crystal wasn't terribly overhammy. Both Sophies were excellent and Blythe Danner did what she could in a role that I'm pretty sure defied explanation. I'll still be very interested to see the subtitled version, but S spoke truth: Even the dubbed version is thoroughly enjoyable on its own merits.

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