Criticizing the latest Hayao Miyazaki movie feels evil, like passing up cupcakes made by children to sup on puppies. Miyazaki is, after all, the grand master of animation, gifted with an unparalleled and deeply humanistic imagination, the creator of rapturous worlds and complex heroines that Walt Disney could only dream of.
So why the grumbles? Perhaps because Miyazaki's idiosyncratic genius has become a bit too untethered from this world. Howl's Moving Castle, his latest, has the trademark Miyazaki strengths -- the fascinating young-girl protagonist, a weirdly wonderful visual sensibility, and a few scenes of such beauty that a viewer feels choked with unshed tears. But the film also displays Miyazaki's tendency -- more pronounced in his more recent films -- to meander, to dawdle, to flutter about like an infuriating, quixotic butterfly. Wha? I found myself thinking while watching this latest offering. Who is that? Why is this happening?
Maybe I'm just getting too old.
Adapted from Dianne Wynne Jones' novel of the same name, Howl's Moving Castle begins in a way my old-fogy mind can follow, perhaps because it's set a long, long time ago, in the pastoral, Tutored European setting of one of Miyazaki's earlier films, Kiki's Delivery Service. His plucky heroine is Sofie, a young hatter, bowed by her filial obligations and a sense of her own homeliness. She meets a young man -- dashing in her eyes, alarmingly Jacko-faced in mine -- who turns out to be the wizard Howl. But Sofie will pay for this bit of attention. A witch, looking like Jabba the Hutt squeezed into a black dress, rather fancies the young man. She curses Sophie, transforming the girl into a 90-year-old woman who can tell no one of her true appearance.
Miyazaki has often featured courageous young women and wise old ladies in the same movies; this time he experiments with both in the same character. Sophie is an intriguingly complex creation: Settled into the creaky, stooped body of a granny, she finds an odd liberation in her age, familiar to any young person who has been shoved into a pile of cabbages by a purse-wielding old lady (as I have). She bosses her way into Howl's fantastically dirty castle and sets up as his housekeeper. Freed from concerns about propriety, her looks, and all the fleeting charms and perils of youth, Sophie finds a resolute strength, softened by a budding love for Howl.
Howl is more problematic. Miyazaki's heroes are almost always girls, and he seems at a loss as to how to portray young men in as complex a fashion. In the original (Disney has released dubbed and subtitled versions), Howl is voiced by Kimura Takuya, a bland boy-band member who has expanded hugely upon his already inexplicable fame through the years. Howl has all the petulance of a baby rock star, himself; he draws his pretty-boy bishonen face into a sulk, hides from the real world. “What's the point of living if you aren't beautiful,” he moans at one juncture, distraught over his hair dye.
The witch who cursed Sofie, meanwhile, is voiced by Akihiko Miwa, a drag queen, chanteuse, writer, and actor of significant renown in Japan. Watching the Witch of the Waste chase after the fey Howl provides amusing subtext, like watching an old queen, dragged out in Dorothy Zbornak duds, trying to sway a wavering prospect over to the alluring dark side.
Howl's also running away from his duties to fight in an ongoing war. Miyazaki's fiercely anti-war sentiments are no surprise, and the artist's landscapes seethe with life. Everything, indeed, is animated, and needs to be protected from brutal forces that crush the peculiar beauty of his landscapes, of his characters' fragile memories and dreams. We're not told why the war is on; we see only its aftermath, which, for Miyazaki, is damning enough.
“You reek of burnt flesh and steel,” says Howl's cranky companion, the fire demon Calcifer, after the wizard returns home from scouting out the scene of a battle. Calcifer admits that he detests the fire that lives in gunpowder. “They [the fires] have no manners,” he says, an indictment all the more effective for its gentleness.
Much of the joy of watching Howl comes from simply watching it. Straining to piece together the context of the war, Howl's inexplicable internal struggles, and the parade of oddball characters and their puzzling motivations is ultimately distracting. Miyazaki has largely abandoned a narrative line to indulge his flights of fancy, which are, luckily enough, surpassingly strange and beautiful. Howl's castle -- an oddly shifting, gigantic structure of bulbous protrusions, miniature houses, pleats and flaps, it's perched on the skinny shanks of the Baba Yar fable -- is a sort of reflection of Miyazaki's own sensibility of late: unimaginable, indescribable through mere words, organic, metallic, a vision too large to encompass, but one that moves on the unexpected whimsy of chicken legs. The front door opens out to different worlds, each minutely imagined, but appearing without context or explanation that would actually make the images more emotionally resonant.
While I wish Miyazaki had made a film that balanced a semblance of adult storytelling with his sense of childlike wonder, I'm also glad he hasn't pitched into the arch insiderish-ness of our G movies, with a sycophantic elbow to the ribs of the adults in the audience, all panting and pleading for our love. That was a Ricky Martin, get it? Aren't we hip, just like you? I'm grateful as well that Miyazaki's vision of powerful female characters doesn't depend on the simpleminded ass-kickery that passes for girl liberation in Hollywood.
In light of this kind of competition, it seems ungracious to look askance at a film that doesn't flatter us as adults but tries to draw us into a sense of discovery familiar to children. But when viewed in light of Miyazaki's own past films, Howl seems more of a ramshackle affair than it should. It's been a bit of a disappointment that Western awareness of Miyazaki's films is on the rise just when the artist is beginning to lose a bit of the discipline that marked the storytelling of Kiki's Delivery Service, My Neighbor Totoro, and the haunting, Hemingway-esque Scarlet Pig.
Miyazaki's still got it, of course; his scenes of Sofie sitting by a lake are achingly beautiful, on par with other unforgettable moments from his films: Sen's melancholy train ride over the water in Spirited Away, the staggering tree-raising in My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki's desperate efforts to relearn how to fly, the tragic war scenes in Scarlet Pig. So go see Howl for some transporting moments, for a vision of a world that is loving, attentive, and sane, despite its oddball lack of logic. But then head to the video store for Miyazaki's earlier films to be truly spirited away.
Noy Thrupkaew is a Prospect senior correspondent.