â€œI’m not a storyteller, I’m a man who draws pictures,” says Hayao Miyazaki the super-director of some of the highest grossing Japanese films of all time, such as My Neighbor Totoro, Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away and most recently, Howl’s Moving Castle.
In Hollywood, children’s films in general and animated ones in particular follow the classical storytelling mold. A state of equilibrium is disturbed, the protagonist faces difficulties attempting to restore order, and the protagonist secures a new equilibrium, overcoming said difficulties and, in the process, learning something about him- or herself. While the world that is built around these stories may be enchantingly detailed and richly populatedâ€”Iâ€™m thinking of the talking furniture of Beauty and the Beast or the fun forest friends of Bambiâ€”the story arc of the protagonist is central to the film and the tapestry is for show.
There are a few exceptions. Wizard of Oz was primarily about the land of Oz. The story of Dorothy is engaging but not as much as the many potential tangents that Oz provided. In fact, one almost wants to leave Dorothy and Toto and further explore the land alone, an opportunity that was provided in a series of L. Frank Baum books that followed and, one hundred years later, in the spin-off book and its stage production. To a greater extent, Alice in Wonderland was about the land it was situated in. The book and the subsequent film were both all tangents with no place to go. Wonderland was a fascinating place and the temptation to spend a full un-birthday with March Hare was overwhelming.
Not surprisingly, both Wonderland and Oz began in books, as did Howl’s Moving Castle, originally a children’s book by Diana Wynne Jones, written 20 years ago, but besides scopeâ€”novelistic breadthâ€”the book resembles the film only in its basic premise and parts of the filmâ€™s world. The rest is Miyazaki. Like most of director Hayao Miyazaki’s later films, Howlâ€™s Moving Castle is about the world the characters inhabit. The main characters have motivations but these serve a mere pretexts to transport the audience to an entrancing world of walking castles, cursed river gods and strong young women whoâ€”like Alice and Dorothyâ€”follow their hearts through often dark lands.
In another century, Miyazaki and Lewis Carroll might have gotten along. About his film-making style, Miyazaki says, “I don’t have the story finished and ready when we start work on a film. I usually don’t have the time. So the story develops when I start drawing storyboards. The production starts very soon thereafter, while the storyboards are still developing. We never know where the story will go but we just keeping working on the film as it develops. It’s a dangerous way to make an animation film.”
Dangerous indeed, but it is hard to argue with the results. This method of creation explains many of the flights of fancy that the films engage in. Audiences trained to expect a single conflict and a single resolution are dazzled repeatedly by multiple conflicts that are never resolved and multiple resolutions that suggest conflicts from an ancient past. As a result, Miyazakiâ€™s films feel like a keyhole into a much larger world, a world that cannot possibly be explored in a two-hour film, or a series of books, or even a lifetime.
Much of the texture of a Miyazaki film relies on mythology. To a western audience, this may
cause some discomfort, and we may be easy to dismiss the mythology as a Japanese artifact lost in the cultural translation. Or we may take a Miyazaki as instructive of the details of Japanese culture. Each is a mistake: the mythology is not Japanese, it is Miyazakiâ€™s. It comes from his own childhood fantasies and adulthood daydreaming. For example, the river god of Spirited Away is not a Japanese god, but one that Miyazaki created in his mind when, as a child, he saw a filthy river being dredged. The curses that fall like rain in the average Miyazaki film are not steeped in ancient Japanese tradition but are simply magical plot devices that allow fantastic things to happen. Of course, Howl’s Moving Castle does not even look remotely Japanese. The European landscapes, World War I era dog fights, and turn of the last century towns, coupled with the hopping scarecrow, fire demons, witches, and a crawling Castle, provide the film with a feel that is simultaneously of this earth and entirely fantastic.
Most promotional material and reviews of the film describe it as the story of a girl who is the victim of a curse that turns her in to an old lady, but this is not a description of the events that make up Howlâ€™s Moving Castle. Rather, it is only the event that sets our protagonist on a journey that is part Wizard of Oz, part Sound of Music, and part its own fantastic world, where each scene is populated with fascinating characters and objects, each character has a range of strange quirks, and each plot point has the potential to spawn days of idle childhood daydreams. This movie will make a child of you, if you are not one. If you are a child, this is a movie you will carry with you for your entire life with dreams of the magic portal door of the most magnificent Castle ever put on film. This humongous, creaking, crawling mechanical contraption is the real star of the film.
And that is the way it was meant to be. According to Hayao Miyazaki, “It’s not me who makes the film. The film makes itself and I have no choice but to follow.”
Japan, 2004. 119 min. Nippon TV Network Corp/ Studio Ghibli. Voices of: Jean Simmons, Christian Bale, Lauren Bacall, Blythe Danner, Billy Crystal; Music: Joe Hisaishi, Youmi Kimura; Produced by: Hayao Miyazaki; Written by: Hayao Miyazaki, Diana Wynne Jones; Directed by: Hayao Miyazaki