Explore the wonder of Hayao Miyazaki's latest film Howl's Moving Castle and go inside the filmmaker's world as we interview novelist Helen McCarthy.
After the Oscar-winning box-office success of Spirited Away, many thought that Hayao Miyazaki would finally pass the torch on to a new generation of Studio Ghibli filmmakers. We were wrong.
Howl's Moving Castle, based on the 1986's children's fantasy novel by Diana Wynn Jones, marks Miyazaki's triumphant return to the big screen in a masterpiece that shows Miyazaki is still the master of his domain.
Sophie Hatter is the latest in Studio Ghibli's long line of strong heroines. Mousy and plain, Sophie is literally swept off her feet in the opening act by a bishie guy with Jedi-like powers of persuasion. This suave guy is none other than Master Howl, a powerful wizard "whose appetite, they say, is satisfied only by the souls of young girls."
Sophie's encounter with Howl doesn't come without a price, though. The Wicked Witch of the Waste's magical shadow creatures were hot on Howl's heels when he met Sophie and once the two part, Sophie is corned in her family hat shop by the witch herself. The obesily grotesque witch places a curse on Sophie transforming her from a healthy young woman into an elderly 90-year old!
With little else to lose, Sophie sets out into the vast Land of Ingary to find Howl's legendary moving castle in hopes of somehow breaking the spell. But as Sophie soon learns, curses have a way of bringing people closer together.
At Howl's core is a story that proves, quite literally, that love does indeed transcend age. Since Spirited Away centered on a young girl, it's almost fitting that Howl's shows the opposite end of the spectrum with its tongue-in-cheek portrayal of old age.
As presented through Sophie's experiences, Howl's shows that there are some unique pluses and minuses that go along with aging. Obviously the minuses are aching joints and the realization that she isn't as fast as she used to be. But for Sophie, she really seems to like how her clothes suit her better and all the perils of wisdom that have come with her quick transformation.
Sophie's acceptance of her outward appearance actually ends up having a positive effect on her overall attitude towards herself. This leads to some rather unique cinematic moments where, as a viewer, you suddenly realize that Sophie actually deages depending on her mood!
As with Miyazaki's past films, Howl's Moving Castle presents a number of the master's familiar motifs such as the magic of flight, character transformations and his love of really big women. All these help to give anyone with knowledge of past Studio Ghibli films something to think about as they watch the film.
With any great movie adaptation, film ultimately alters the way we view the original source material for better or worse. Disney's library of animated works take familiar fairy tales and stories and breath new life into them in such a way that they become a work all their own and Miyazaki's adaptation of Howl's is no exception.
The sharp tongue of Diana Wynn Jones' original novel has been traded in for Miyazaki's skill at creating aesthetic harmony, and as a result the tone of the story has been changed somewhat. There is no doubt, and his previous work are proof, that Miyazaki is capable of crafting some excellent characters and interaction, but in Howl's Miyazaki seems to grab on to the magical wonder of the situations and not so much on the people in them.
The heavy concentration on visuals is a Miyazaki hallmark that Howl's Moving Castle is perfectly fitted for. There are just so many things about the novel that you would expect from a Miyazaki film that it's hard to believe any adaptation was necessary. There's a strong heroine, transformations galore, a European costal setting and a budding love story all ready and waiting for Studio Ghibli to whisk it onto the silver screen.
And yet, as with the Harry Potter films, the need to fit the novel into a two-hour time-frame forces the director and staff to leave out some of the lesser character and plot development in favor of meaty visuals. Fans of the original novel may squabble over what was cut or outright omitted, but the end product is unmistakably the latest Studio Ghibli masterpiece.
Bringing the film to English audiences is a talented team of actors and actresses under the directorial leadership of Pixar's Pete Docter (Monsters, Inc.) and Disney's Rick Dempsey. The dual-aged Sophie is voiced by both Emily Mortimer and Jean Simmons with, Batman himself, Christian Bale handling the role of the handsome and mysterious Howl. Best of all, comedian Billy Crystal is voicing the hotheaded fire demon Calcifer. With a lovable cast, high-octane action scenes and all the classic Studio Ghibli stylings, Howl's Moving Castle is a film none should pass up!
With the English release of Howl's Moving Castle coming to select theaters on June 10th, Animefringe was fortunate enough to catch up with Helen McCarthy, author of such works as Hayao Miyazaki: Master of Japanese Animation and The Anime Encyclopedia, to discuss a wide array of topics relating to Studio Ghibli, her own work and the industry as a whole.
Animefringe: Let's start with Hayao Miyazaki: Master of Japanese Animation, how much work was it to create such an in-depth book? Did you ever have to twist anyone's arm for information or research?
Helen McCarthy: It took around eighteen months to research and write, though you have to remember I'd been doing research on Miyazaki since I first saw Tonari no Totoro in 1989. Everyone who heard about the project seemed keep to help. Studio Ghibli and Tokuma were very gracious and kind, and the nausicaa.net community chipped in with encouragement and assistance.
AF: Last year during one of your panels at Anime Weekend Atlanta, it was revealed that the biggest problem that you and a number of other writers have faces has been getting official artwork out of companies. Is a lack of artwork a big reason there are only a handful of truly insightful books covering the various aspects associated with fandom?
HM: I don't think so. The core of any book that delivers insights is in the writing. If a writer engages the brain and heart, the reader doesn't really need pictures. Having said that, anime and manga are visual media first and foremost - they tell their stories through pictures. It's more fun to have images alongside the words.
You've hit on one of my big bugbears about the Anglophone anime and manga community- there are still so few books out there. When I first came into fandom in 1981, there was nothing at all about anime in the libraries except a few scrappy mentions in books on cinema and the occasional patronising reference in film and TV magazines. My first book on anime came out in 1993. Since then there have been only a handful more, and several of those have been reprint collections of interviews or journalism. The only serious study of an individual director apart from my Miyazaki book is Brian Ruh's work on Mamoru Oshii, and there hasn't been the flowering of genre analysis and broader-based critical writing that I'd hoped for. Every field of study needs a range of critical and analytical viewpoints if it's to develop mature, insightful viewpoints. But hopefully things will improve and there'll be more books from more authors over the next four or five years.
AF: Ghibli is considered a cornerstone of animation in Japan, not only among those in the know but the average fan too, but is it the same way in America, and do you see any difference in the mindset of fans from both countries?
HM: I really can't presume to step into the minds of American or Japanese fans. I can only speak from my own experience. I imagine that Ghibli would appear to be a cornerstone of the Japanese industry to anyone studying anime, both because of its pre-eminent artistic reputation and because of its unique employment practices and production system.
AF: Yoshifumi Kondo passed away in 1998 leaving people to wonder who was going to be passed the Ghibli torch. With Hayao Miyazaki at 64 and Takahata at the ripe old age of 70, do you know if there any plans for who might be next in line as the head of Ghibli, or will the studio not continue after it's head's retire?
HM: I don't know of any plans for another 'head' of the studio, but it has built up a formidable pool of technical skill and talent and I hope that investment will continue to bear fruit for the industry. Miyazaki is still fit and seems keen to work; Kurosawa died in his 80s and was still working, so it's possible we could see quite a few more years of work from Miyazaki.
It's always fun to speculate, though. If I were asked who should succeed Miyazaki and Takahata at the helm of Studio Ghibli, I would suggest Shoji Kawamori and Quentin Tarantino. That would be an interesting combination.
AF: Speaking of Miyazaki, why do people seem to recognize his name so quickly, although few people realize that Takahata also had a big hand in Studio Ghibli's titles?
HM: Miyazkai's name is attached to more movies in the roles we recognise in the West as pre-eminent - director and writer. It seems as if English speakers have trouble holding more than a few foreign names in their brains, so only the most prominent get remembered!
AF: A large majority of the Studio Ghibli films have an underlying theme running through them of protecting nature. To you knowledge, have these themes ever directly effected the way people approach their surroundings in a positive way, like with a Ghibli conservatory or some such thing?
HM: Well, there is a forest reserve in Japan which is called Totoro's Forest. It was set up to preserve some of the landscape that was so common round Tokyo in the 50s, much of which has been lost since then. Miyazaki gave it his support and made donations, letting them use his work for fundraising purposes.
AF: Similarly, Miyazaki has long denied putting messages in his films, but Studio Ghibli titles are still known for their strong morals. Is Miyazaki being completely honest when he asserts that the films are strictly for entertainment or is it a testament to the film's quality that we, as viewers, seem to think that his features are saying something important?
HM: I think Miyazaki is a person with a strong sense of moral values, so naturally this comes through in his work. He doesn't necessarily put in any messages, they just emerge naturally from the way he thinks and behaves. By their fruits shall ye know them, the Bible says!
AF: Has Studio Ghibli's work had any obvious effect on other studios or groups? If so, in what way?
HM: Apart from making them jealous, you mean? Other studios would have a problem emulating Ghibli because you can't reproduce the sort of work they do if you're working on a piecework or contract basis from project to project.
AF: Recently Grant Morrison physically based the main villain of his Vertigo comic WE3 on Hayao Miyazaki, what is the most obscure Ghibli reference you've ever stumbled across?
HM: I didn't know about Morrison's comic but I've never been a collector of obscure Ghibli references, except in the sense that I notice influences from their movies in various other works. For example, I thought the way water was animated in Lilo and Stitch -- a stunning movie with a true heart, one of Disney's best ever - was directly influenced by the way Ghibli does water.
AF: What do you personally think of Glibli's last few films and the direction the group is taking?
HM: It depends what you mean by 'last few films' and 'direction...' I think there was a sense in which Miyazaki closed one of his own creative circles in Princess Mononoke and all his work since then has had a different tone; but Takahata's work has always been different from Miyazaki's and the other directors who've worked with Ghibli have done different work too.
AF: How exactly did the Ghiblies shorts come about?
HM: I heard that some of the staff wanted to experiment with the new computer equipment and programmes they were using and made the Ghiblies shorts as a fun way of trying things out; but that's just gossip, I don't know if it's true.
AF: Outside of the Studio Ghibli titles, what anime films do you feel have reached the same level of enjoyment and wonder as those of Studio Ghibli?
HM: That's a subjective judgement. If something moves you personally, it will have reached that level for you, whether it's technically as 'good' as a Ghibli film or not. For me, there have been a few things in the last few years that have really made my heart leap and filled me with that same magical wonderment. Escaflowne springs to mind, as does Voices of a Distant Star.
AF: How has CG affected the industry as a whole? Do you feel that CG helps the industry open new channels for storytelling or has it?
HM: CG is still pretty expensive at the Disney or Ghibli level, but at a simpler level it makes entry into the industry simpler for a wider range of people. But the basic talent still has to be there. The best trace and paint programs in the world can't make a good storyteller. I don't think CG gives the industry anything new, it just makes certain tasks easier. You still come back to the writer, the director and the designer -- they're the most important elements.
AF: As one of fandom's pillars, where do you see the anime industry in ten yearstime?
HM: I hope it'll be so widely accepted and integrated into world entertainment that nobody will talk about 'the anime industry' - it will have escaped its little ghetto and be out there with all the other forms of film-making. I hope it'll still be made in Japan, because otherwise it will change fundamentally. When it stops being Japanese it wills top being anime.
AF: What's your all-time favorite Ghibli movie?
HM: Tonari no Totoro. I think it's the greatest film ever made.
AF: So, what's your most prized piece of anime memorabilia?
HM: It's not a Miyazaki item, funnily enough. It's a sketch of Goemon Ishikawa that Monkey Punch did especially for me. Original art always wins it for me, hands down. I have some great Ghibli merchandise, though -- the artbooks are stunning, and if you use the bathroom in my house you'll find Totoro towels hanging on the rail.
AF: Anything else you'd like to share?
HM: Just keep enjoying anime and manga, and celebrate the diverse and beautiful cultures of the world. Our differences make us stronger, and we should cherish the different cultures that give us such a variety of music, art, writing, film and crafts.
AF: Ms. McCarthy, thanks again for your time.
HM: My pleasure!
For a full review of Helen McCarthy's Hayao Miyazaki: Master of Japanese Animation, please turn to page 19.
Those interested in getting a taste of the original novel that spawned the film can read the first chapter of Howl's Moving Castle at the following address: http://suberic.net/dwj/chapters/howl.html