Disappearing Fireflies in Hayao Miyazaki’s Howl’s Moving Castle (2004) February 26, 2008Posted by Richard Bolisay in Animé, Asian Films.
Original Title: Hauru no Ugoku Shiro
Written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki
Based on Diana Wynne Jones’ novel
In the university, they teach us that films can be classified distinctly into three categories: narrative, documentary, and experimental. Someone raises a hand, Where does animation fall into? In the narrative and experimental, our professor answers matter-of-factly. She explains that animation is a technique — a way of telling a story — which can be conveyed through a thorough narrative plot (Disney, Studio Ghibli) or short experimental pieces (Norman McLaren, Rox Lee). The discussion ends there. Only three years after have I realise the propriety of her words and how the discussion seems to belittle the importance and hard work given to animation. No offense meant to her school of thought, which I believe is technically accurate but overly restrictive and standard, the world of animation can leap a thousand miles away from the limitations of narrative and experimental works (is it possible to create a docu-animation?) and by fair judgment of qualifications, some are even better than the usual fare we see in mainstream theatres.
Howl’s Moving Castle is no exception. Although it is not as accomplished as Hayao Miyazaki’s previous works, let’s say Castle In The Sky, My Neighbor Totoro, or Spirited Away, it still manages to trap us in its richly-imagined universe, filled with moments of spilling happiness — the one that engulfs with heartrending portraits of lost childhood and nuances of present-day paranoia of undeclared war. The story is based on Diana Wynne Jones’ book of the same title, with numerous changes done by Studio Ghibli and Miyazaki himself, giving them the freedom of shaping it as their own without the author’s interference. The great thing is, after seeing it, Jones finds Miyazaki’s adaptation fantastic. Like anyone who adapts the written word — there is always the dilemma of omission and finding an equivalent; but in this case, the result is entirely different. From the opening sequence (Howl’s moving castle that is) up to its initial display of sorcery (the blob men chasing Howl and Sophie, the lovely ascent to the sky, yes, the flight!), everything is undoubtedly Miyazaki. His signature themes are almost everywhere — the quest for missing pieces, the battle between two opposing forces (not necessarily good and evil), the search for one’s self — coupled by recurring motifs of flight, unearthly creatures, creepy grandmas, divine intervention, and flashes of distilled happiness, drawn intricately in finest marriage of ink colors by one of the greatest wizards of cinema. True, there are considerable shortcomings in Miyazaki’s story, which Jones’ book can sufficiently provide, like what is so urgent about the war? Will it not end if Howl decides not to take part of it? Who is the Witch of the Waste really? How is she integral to Sophie and Howl’s story? The film lacks clarity and coherence but I am compensating my viewing pleasure, and I hope yours too, with this thought: Great filmmakers do not always make great films but they always come up with a good one. Despite its shortcomings, Howl’s Moving Castle is, in fact, a visual triumph — a feast of ocular extravaganza that will never tire your eyes out — a dainty inclusion to Studio Ghibli’s portfolio of cinematic treasures.
Sometime later, I pass by the transcendental realm of the dreamgods — Sophie sees Howl in his childhood, catching a dying shooting star — Calcifer — and saving it by giving his own heart. If it is true that falling stars die, then I wonder how many of them have gone to Earth to be saved . Such debris should not be left to die. It always gives me the chills, the same way when Chihiro remembers when she first met Haku, when she has fallen in the river, their hands together, tears reaching us to our seats, as Haku transforms into a dragon — in Spirited Away.
While watching I was strangely reminded of Yuri Norstein, Russia’s most famous animator whose Tale of Tales is voted as the Greatest Animated Film of all time in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Arts Festival. I have huge respect for Norstein — not only I admire his “small masterpieces” but also his dedication to his craft; like his fans, I am also eagerly awaiting the release of The Overcoat, whose production started in 1981 and still not finished up to this day — for he has raised the inferiority of animation to serious art, elevating discourse on the intricacies of the language, and proving that masterpieces are not only restricted to narrative, documentary, and experimental films. Not only respect for Norstein but also for the world’s most telling animators — the Quay Brothers, Jan Svankmajer, Terry Gilliam, and everyone else who deserves to be seen and heard by the viewing public but not given the chance — our eyes are all set. And to Miyazaki — damn man, you’re a genius. * * *