Howl’s Moving Castle

Last night, I attended the Los Angeles debut of the subtitled Howl’s Moving Castle, which is screening along with the dubbed version exclusively at Disney’s movie palace, the El Capitan, in Hollywood. The theater was built in the ’20s with an East Indian design and sits across the street from the Grauman’s Chinese Theater but has much less the quantity and quality of seating; general admission, I discovered, is relegated to the far edges of the theater.

Not that it mattered, Hayao Miyazaki’s film would probably prove to be a delight seen from any angle. Its combination of elaborate environments, soaring flying sequences, lyrical beauty, and heartfelt humanism once again enlivens the filmmaker’s craft, yet this time around the film seems quieter, more charming and eccentric than awing.

At the theater, the audience was told that our subtitled screening was the first showing that was sold out, a pleasurable fact given the auditorium’s plentiful children, both Japanese American and many other ethnicities, including white adolescents. (Reminding me that my brother has been known to enthrall his young kids with subtitled Bollywood videos.) At the same time, I’m glad Disney is offering a dubbed version for the reading-impaired, and its debut last Thursday involved a Q&A with some of the production personnel. (Reportedly , Disney worried that Lauren Bacall would be offended at being asked to play a sagging, aged, and sweating Witch of the Waste, warning her that the character was “a bit despicable.” Bacall: “Darling, I was born to play despicable!”)

In any case, I’d like to some day compare the subtitled and dubbed versions, as I suspect they’d offer telling cultural nuances. According to the Los Angeles Times, “[t]he greatest cultural barrier that the [Disney] directors faced was the ambiguity in the script,” claiming “Japanese audiences don’t mind as much when a film leaves things a little mysterious,” but that “American audiences Ö we don’t like to leave the theater scratching our head and asking, ‘Now what was that about?'”

Personally, I find the mystery in Miyazaki’s films to be one of their greatest pleasures, expanding their worlds with each viewer’s imagination. When I was a kid, I loved to scratch my head. Not that Miyazaki crafts puzzling films; his cinema is highly accessible and entertaining at any age, yet he’s a filmmaker who also appreciates how a few unanswered questions in the right places can enrich a fantasy story.

The details he provides are enchanting: a literal interpretation of a walking castle, idyllic landscapes, a bustling European town, and an assortment of characters that include a flame and a bouncing scarecrow. In many ways, however, the film feels more intimate than many Miyazaki films. This isn’t a planetary battle over its ecological future a la Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1986) or Princess Mononoke (1999), but a tale of a young woman cursed to take the form of an elderly lady, who discovers a unique fortress with its own combination of beauty, power, and pathos.

In many ways, the pleasures of the film hearken back to those found in Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast (1947), with its magical castle delivering one inventive and charming surprise after another. It’s a beguiling story, full of whimsical embellishment and wit, rather than a vast tale of conquest and defense.

The characters in the film are unusually well-developed for Miyazaki, a filmmaker who never traditionally skimps on character in the way of Disney or Lucas, anyway. Miyazaki finds genuine beauty and humor (not to mention humanity) in the way his aged characters walk and think and derive their pleasures. His “handsome prince” is a narcissistic and confused young man, a hero-in-waiting. The somewhat complex nature of the characters–and their constant physical metamorphoses and emotional tensions–invest the film with a surprisingly tranquil mood that is ultimately quite touching. What at first seems like interpersonal conflict slowly reveals itself as inner personal, and Miyazaki’s formidable imagination renders the drama’s visual textures with exceptional ingenuity.

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