On Miyazaki: The Films That Make Themselves

Written as a Film Note for Brattle Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Howl's Moving Castle“I’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. The protagonist is oblivious, the protagonist faces difficulty and the protagonist overcomes difficulty. While the world that is built around these stories may be extremely detailed and enchanting- such as the talking furniture of Beauty and the Beast or the fun forest friends of Bambi– 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 was engaging but not as much as the many potential tangents that Oz provided. In fact, one almost wanted to leave Dorothy and Toto alone and explore the land alone, an opportunity that was provided in a series of L. Frank Baum books that followed and, one hundred years later, Wicked on stage.

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. Most of director Hayao Miyazaki’s later films are about the world the characters inhabit. The main characters have motivations that serve as excuses to show us an entrancing world of walking castles, cursed river gods and strong young women who- like Alice and Dorothy- follow their hearts through often dark lands.

Howl’s Moving Castle was originally a children’s book by Diana Wynne Jones, written 20 years ago and resembling the film only in its basic premise and parts of the world it inhabits. The rest is Miyazaki.

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. This style of creating his animated films explains many of the flights of fancy that his films engage in. The normal audience, trained to expect a single conflict and a single resolution from family films, is dazzled repeatedly by multiple conflicts that are never resolved and multiple resolutions that suggest conflicts from an ancient past. All of this has the effect of having his films serve as a keyhole in to a much larger world. A world that cannot possibly be explored in a two hour film, or a series of books or a life time.

Much of the texture of a Miyazaki film relies on mythology. To a western audience, it may be easy to dismiss the mythology as a Japanese artifact that was lost in the cultural translation. This is a mistake- the mythology is not Japanese, it is Miyazakis. It comes from his own childhood fantasies and adulthood daydreaming. The river god of Spirited Away is not a Japanese god, but one that Miyazaki created in his mind when he saw a filthy river being emptied as a child. The curses that fall like rain in the average Miyazaki film are not steeped in ancient Japanese tradition but 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 promos 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 the plot. It is only the event that sets her out 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 idel childhood daydreams. This movie will make a child of you, if you are not one. If you are a child, this is the 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 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.”

*References*
* “Miyazaki: Midnight Eye Interview”:http://www.midnighteye.com/interviews/hayao_miyazaki.shtml
* “On Miyazaki Heroines at Sense of Cinema”:http://www.sensesofcinema.com/contents/06/40/miyazaki-heroines.html
* “Howl’s Moving Castle at the Wikipedia”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Howl%27s_Moving_Castle_%28film%29
* “The Wizard of Oz at IMDb”:http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0032138/
* “WideScreenGlory review of Howl’s Moving Castle”:http://www.devanshanu.com/things/2005/06/18/howls-moving-castle-2005/
* “L. Frank Baum at the Wikipedia”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/L._Frank_Baum
* “Howl’s Moving Castle at the Wikipedia”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Howl%27s_Moving_Castle_%28film%29
* “Howl’s Moving Castle book at the Wikipedia”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Howl%27s_Moving_Castle
* “Hayao Miyazaki Web”:http://www.nausicaa.net/miyazaki/
* “On Miyazaki at Anime.com”:http://www.anime.com/Hayao_Miyazaki/
* “Hayao Miyazaki at IMDb”:http://us.imdb.com/name/nm0594503/

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