Castles In The Sky

Film still for Castles In The Sky

Veteran animator Hayao Miyazaki's new film Howl's Moving Castle draws on motifs from his past work and anime's longstanding fascination with children's literature, writes Andrew Osmond

Anime king Hayao Miyazaki's big hit Spirited Away found a worldwide audience. What will it make of Howl's Moving Castle? By Andrew Osmond.

In recent years several western films have imitated or included anime (as Japanese animation is known outside Japan), drawing on the medium's action and sci-fi strands, which have won most international acclaim. Such films include The Matrix, which borrowed some of its stylised action from Ninja Scroll (1993) and Ghost in the Shell (1995); the CGI flop Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, made by a Japanese director in Hawaii; the Daft Punk feature-length music video Interstella 5555, a France-Japan two-hander animated by Tokyo's Toei studio in a retro-homage to its 1970s sci-fi cartoons; and Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill Volume 1, whose luridly violent animated segment was created by Production I-G, the studio behind the Ghost in the Shell films. To these one might add the leaden South Korean cartoon Sky Blue, which again drew on anime sci-fi.

While France and South Korea have been inundated with anime for decades, no greater number of titles has permeated the US and UK mainstream than with other foreign cinema forms. The most popular anime films in the west include the futuristic Akira (1988), the made-for-video porno-horror Legend of the Overfiend (1989) and the cyberpunk Ghost in the Shell, followed by brand-led children's franchises headed by Pokémon. The Oscar win for Hayao Miyazaki's visionary fantasy Spirited Away (2002) changed the picture a little, as did the shift in western animation towards CGI, which meant that 'traditional' 2-D drawn animation became identified with quirkier projects such as Disney's Lilo and Stitch or Sylvain Chomet's Belleville rendez-vous. Indeed Miyazaki and Chomet are frequently linked in the press as rearguard 'classical' animators fighting CGI, though both use computer animation in their films and Miyazaki is a friend of Toy Story director John Lasseter.

When Heidi met the Moomins

Miyazaki's new film (his ninth) is adapted, albeit loosely, from a children's novel by a British writer, Howl's Moving Castle (1986) by Diana Wynne Jones, who has been writing fantasy since the 1970s. In both versions the main characters are Howl, a glamorous and vain young magician who lives in the title mobile castle, and Sophie, a dowdy young woman who works in a hat shop. Following a chance meeting with Howl, Sophie is attacked in the shop by the fearsome Witch of the Waste, who transforms her into a crone. Feeling she must leave home, she barges into Howl's castle, where she finds not just its owner but his junior apprentice Markl (Michael in the book) and the fire demon Calcifer. From this point, film and book diverge, though in both cases the plot solution hinges on the bond between Howl and Calcifer. When it comes to adaptation, Miyazaki takes what he wants and invents the rest, though the film's twists and turns are closer to the spirit of their source than the films of The Wizard of Oz or Disney's Alice in Wonderland.

On one level Howl's Moving Castle represents the meeting of two genre veterans who have worked in fantasy for decades. For at least 20 years the bulk of Miyazaki's projects have been sci-fi or fantasy, ranging from his future-world epic Nausicaä of the Valley of the Winds (1984) to his homely animist nature-poem My Neighbour Totoro (1988). But his career has been shaped by western children's writers from the start. He joined a children's-literature study group at university and among his favourite foreign authors are Antoine de Saint-Exupery (The Little Prince) and Arthur Ransome (Swallows and Amazons). His thousand-page comic-strip version of Nausicaä draws heavily on the early Earthsea fantasy novels by Ursula Le Guin, as does Spirited Away, hailed in the west for its colourful Japanese 'otherness' when few noted that the little girl Chihiro's name references the start of the second Earthseabook, The Tombs of Atuan (1970).

In fact, world children's literature is an integral part of anime's history, especially in the years before the transgressive (for westerners) cartoon violence of Akira brought the medium to international attention. It's an irony of cross-cultural exchange that Japanese people are probably likelier to recognise the anime versions of Heidi or Anne of Green Gables, both television hits in the 1970s, than later sci-fi fare like Akira or Ghost in the Shell, which westerners think of as defining the medium. The cycle of children's anime adaptations began with a 1969 television version of Tove Jansson's Finnish Moomin stories, which had enough violence to upset the author but fascinated a generation of Japanese children with its fir trees and fierce mountain storms. Its significance was recognised by Isao Takahata (best known for his dark 1988 film Grave of the Fireflies), who with Miyazaki had experienced years of creative frustration at the Tokyo studio Toei. Both men realised that children's literary adaptations could open up the anime medium, and that anime, where drawn backgrounds often have more weight than character animation, is ideally suited to portraying foreign settings. Miyazaki and Takahata quit Toei in 1971, moving to other studios to make Heidi and the Mountain (directed by Takahata) and contribute to its successors, including Anne of Green Gables. Even after Miyazaki emerged as a fantasy-film director in the 1980s, the influence of World Masterpiece Theatre, as the television strand including Heidi and Anne was called, is evident in the slow-paced, old-fashioned domesticity of pictures like My Neighbour Totoro and Kiki's Delivery Service (1989).

Desperate to be a hero

Howl's Moving Castle is more fantastical than Totoro or Kiki, yet domesticity is at its heart. There's a long early sequence, taken from a relatively short scene in the book, that shows the main characters preparing and eating a hearty breakfast of eggs and bacon, unwillingly cooked for them by Calcifer. The richness of the heightened everyday detail - the thick slabs of bacon, the hunks of bread, the hands-on effort of making the meal - grounds the audience in Miyazaki's reality. Another signature scene has the aged Sophie resting in a chair in front of a lake of clear water and a European mountain range, having taken out the castle's washing with the help of a bouncing scarecrow. And the film's second half is all about the characters' efforts to create a family unit in Sophie's reconfigured home.

Meanwhile Howl's Jules Verne-style 'steampunk' technology - overbuilt steel battleships, steam-driven cars - goes back to Miyazaki's playful television cartoon Sherlock Hound (1984), a canine take on Sherlock Holmes, while the semi-organic flying machines are derived from sketches by Albert Robida, a French contemporary of Verne. The castle, described in Jones' book as "tall and thin and ugly", becomes a battleship walking on four chicken legs, reminiscent of a Terry Gilliam doodle from Monty Python's Flying Circus. When Howl turns into a bird creature he momentarily resembles an apocalyptic illustration in the opening titles of Nausicaä, suggesting his kind may destroy the world.

The film's most creative set-piece involves Sophie and her nemesis the Witch of the Waste (voiced in Japanese by flamboyant female impersonator Akihiro Miwa) struggling desperately up a long flight of stairs, Sophie hoisting up an indifferently lazy dog (whom she mistakenly thinks is Howl) while the Witch is reduced to a mass of sweating, sagging flesh. The sequence celebrates the cartoon medium in the same way as the slimy Stink God set-piece in Spirited Away or the fleshy giant swelling over the Olympic stadium at the end of Akira. Sophie's transformations are more underplayed, as she becomes older or younger to reflect the state of her spirit. Voiced in Japanese by Chieko Baisho (a regular in the long-running film series Tora-San), she is tough but more shy than Jones' character. At one point a walk in a glorious flower garden rejuvenates her to girlhood, only for Howl to say she's beautiful, at which point she instantly returns to a crone. Miyazaki changes her in a moment or imperceptibly over time, adding or subtracting lines in a visualisation of the cliché of being as young or as old as one feels. The device becomes a reflection on change and stability: Sophie's appearance alters yet her identity remains fixed.

Several of Miyazaki's films parallel two strong women or girls, one older than the other. According to Miyazaki's producer and friend Toshio Suzuki, the director made Howl for his wife of 40 years, whom he met when they were both animators at Toei (Suzuki says Miyazaki's wife was the better artist). If Sophie stands for Miyazaki's wife, then Howl may be a self-deprecating self-portrait of Miyazaki himself. Unlike Sophie, Howl has a weak sense of identity. When Sophie first meets him he appears as a dazzling saviour, drawn as an androgynous 'beautiful boy' - a standard type in Japanese cartoons - voiced by pop megastar Takuya Kimura. But as we learn, Howl is in fact an immature, hollow man desperate to be a dashing hero, his generosity mixed with vanity and neurotic fears. He sweeps Sophie up into the air in what seems a deliberate echo of Peter Pan and at times she is more like his mother than his wife, a blurring of roles which, Suzuki says, surprised Miyazaki himself.

Two suggestive images show rooms as womb-spaces, festooned with toys and talismans representing the dreams of childhood Miyazaki has often celebrated, with Howl lying weak and shrinking in their midst. His response to spiritual impotence is the standard in anime: he becomes a monster. The way his body is overgrown with tar-black feathers is characteristic of the medium's transformations, alluding to Miyazaki's Princess Mononoke (1997) where rage is manifested in a similar way. Howl, though, is more a sequel to Miyazaki's Porco Rosso (1993), which had a similarly hollow hero in the form of a pig-faced fighter pilot with commitment problems and a grudge against society.

Porco was set against the background of 1920s Europe, allowing its hero to make the declaration: "I'd rather be a pig than a fascist." But Howl's pure-hearted anti-war stance is presented as nihilism with no alternative as he fights forces from each side and becomes the worst terror of all. One can read the meaninglessness of the hazy Machiavellian power-game conflict as a war-on-terror metaphor, but the emphasis is on showing Miyazaki's hero-avatar at a macho dead-end. The bleak message is foreshadowed in the Nausicaä strip, where the gentle, war-hating heroine makes a decision to use a living weapon of mass destruction in an act of pre-emptive genocide (echoing Alan Moore's comic Watchmen). But in Howl the war is sidestepped by an outrageously arbitrary happy ending that had been widely criticised as a lazy cheat.

Catch a falling star

Just as Spirited Away found its core in an image of its empowered little-girl heroine on a magic train, so Howl's story coalesces around a flashback of Howl as a boy catching a burning star as it falls dying from the sky, looking at it in delight, then thoughtlessly swallowing it up. While Miyazaki was first attracted to Jones' book by the images of the castle and the aged heroine, his film (like Porco) becomes a reflection on the limits of masculinity, portrayed as both nobly idealist and incorrigibly childish, except when redeemed by love. The romance here is asserted rather than shown, with less romantic interaction than in a US animation such as Disney's Beauty and the Beast or Pixar's The Incredibles. Instead of psychology, the director relies on beautiful imagery (the gorgeous flower gardens, Howl's dream cave) to externalise his characters' emotions.

The approach has made the film another hit in Japan, while in the US the reaction is positive if muted. One could make the case that if the director's early, more straightforward films like Totoro and Kiki's Delivery Service built a Miyazaki brand to rival Disney, then his box-office megahits from Mononokeonwards should be thought of as 'post-Miyazaki'. Increasingly the newer films revisit themes and imagery from his simpler pictures, though the storytelling is more elliptical, relying on knowledge of these past films and on stretches of faith in things happening because they should. (Howl's climax, for instance, only makes sense as pure emotional allegory.) The shame is that viewers who know only Miyazaki's recent work may dismiss him as an undisciplined fantasist, incapable of telling a straight story. Maybe in future he might look to simpler fare - Swallows and Amazons, perhaps?

Last Updated: 10 Feb 2012