Tag Archives: Anime

Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)

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    -Watched English-Dubbed Version-

Witches, wizards, magic, and wondrous happenings. Hayao Miyazaki has done it again. It took me a couple of viewings to really grasp the wonderful themes of Howl’s Moving Castle, based on a book for children by Diana Wynne Jones. I fancied it ‘confusing’ and ‘convoluted,’ and was all set to write a skeptical review when I saw it again,  open-minded and unpreoccupied. It was like a whole different experience. So if you’ve seen this movie and found it slightly underwhelming or overhyped, I urge you to watch it again. It’s a bit more complex than Miyazaki’s other movies. But that’s not in of itself a bad thing.

The heart of Howl’s Moving Castle lies in the character of Sophie (voiced by Emily Mortimer,) a shy young woman who works at a hat shop. Sophie starts out as a timid, self-effacing Mary Sue,  but when the Witch of the Waste (Lauren Bacall) transforms her into an elderly woman Sophie (now voiced by Jean Simmons) must grow some cajones and learn to look after herself; with a little help from a brooding and magnificently eccentric wizard named Howl (Christian Bale.) The Witch of the Waste resents Howl because he spurned her affections as a fickle young sorcerer, and a witch who holds high position in political power (Blythe Danner) wants to recruit him to use his abilities in a long, bloody civil war.

But Howl’s real concern lies in self interest; namely, recovering his heart, which was stolen from him as a boy. Can Sophie help Howl, even trapped in her hunched, geriatric form? Along their adventures, Howl and Sophie meet many interesting characters, including an animate scarecrow with the head of a turnip, The Witch of the Waste’s malevolent, amorphous henchmen, and a deeply odd but adorable little dog who makes a sound vaguely akin to a asthmatic rodent. Not least of all, the viewer is introduced to Howl’s titular ‘moving castle,’ which, like The Overlook in The Shining, really stands as a  character in it’s own right.

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The castle, a massive Hodge-podge of gears and piles of scrap metal, is kept fully functional by Calcifer (Billy Crystal,) a wise-cracking fire demon, and between Calcifer, Sophie, Howl, and the boy apprentice of magic, Markl (Josh Hutcherson), they make sort of an odd little family. It’s going to take loyalty, friendship, magic, and faith in each others abilities to survive this crazy war and Howl’s equally crazy personal demons. Howl’s Moving Castle is set in a colorful steampunk world which resembles early 20th-Century Britain, but includes creatures and spells the likes of which no person of our world has ever encountered. If you know Miyazaki, you know that every film of his is an intensely visual experience, and besides Billy Crystal (who’s not as funny as he thinks he is,) all the English dub actors are fine in their respective roles.

Sophie, like Chihiro in Hayao Miyazaki’s earlier effort Spirited Away,  grows incredibly as a character throughout the film, but rather than developing from  entitlement to self-possession and maturity, she becomes much more assertive and builds her self-esteem exponentially. Sophie is a good role model for young girls, because although she starts out very Mary Sue-ish and ineffectual, she gradually becomes a more powerful character and is certainly not the average damsel in distress. While Sophie develops as a person throughout, Howl stays much the same, existing as both a powerful wizard and an incurable dandy, throwing a temper tantrum when Sophie mixed up his hair dyes and made him tint his hair the wrong color.

The characters in this are quite magical, so it would be a shame for anyone with a taste for the colorful and imaginative to miss it. Although I like Spirited Away marginally better, and admire My Neighbor Totoro for it’s boisterous innocence, Howl’s Moving Castle comes as a close third, and should be viewed even by people without the most rudimentary understanding or experience with anime.

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My Neighbor Totoro (1988)

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  -Watched English-Dubbed Version-

  My Neighbor Totoro was the first Miyazaki film I ever saw. The thing is, I really didn’t want to watch it at first. I grew up thinking anime was ‘stupid’ and there was some whining and complaining on my part when my Grandad and his girlfriend Franny rented it from a really cool movie place across town and suggested we watch it. To this day, although I’m still not a huge Japanese animation enthusiast, I’m grateful to my grandfather and Franny for introducing me to a Miyazaki movie and taking me out of my comfort zone. His films are, in a word, magical, and led me to checking out some other worthy choices in the genre like the mind-blowing Paprika and the relentlessly sad Grave of the Fireflies.

The plot of My Neighbor Totoro is simple, but there’s a lot of crossover appeal between young children (who will adore it) and older people (who are likely to be enraptured in the film’s gorgeous hand-drawn animation and joyful, innocent storytelling.) My Neighbor Totoro explores that time in childhood where the possibilities seem endless and seemingly insignificant experiences seemed like tiny wonders; a fleeting period in youth when yours truly taped feathers to her arms and tried to fly, and made a mad-dash attempt to use a plastic bag as a parachute and launch herself off the hill outside my house.

The story follows two little girls Satsuki (voiced by Dakota Fanning) and her little sister Mei (Elle Fanning,) as happy a two children as you’re ever likely to meet. But their life is not without troubles. The girls’ mother (Lea Salonga) has been in the hospital indefinitely with a vague but insistent illness, and their rather absent-minded father (Tim Daly) has moved them into a ramshackle house in the country and often outright forgets to look after them. Nevertheless, the sisters approach their new home with barely contained excitement and a genuine sense of wonder, and life gets a whole lot more exciting by the minute when they meet a friendly, cuddly forest spirit named Totoro.

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Dad seems utterly caviler about what appears to be wild flights of fancy on the girls’ part (most American parents would be sending their kids to the psychiatrist when their ‘delusions’ about giant forest spirits perseverate,) making me wonder if he believes in the existence of the creatures or if he’s just playing along for his daughters’ sake. Regardless, he’s a pretty cool dad, although his slips into inattention can be slightly worrying. The first thing you’ll notice about My Neighbor Totoro if you’re unfamiliar with Japanese anime is the unusual animation and the characters’ huge mouths- literally. The kid sister could stuff watermelons into that thing. I can be jarring at first, but My Neighbor Totoro‘s sweet-natured plot soon gets the better of you.

There’s not a whole lot of conflict on display here- a mild catastrophe takes place and Totoro and the relentlessly imaginative ‘cat-bus’ (half cat, half bus, with unbelievably awesome results) are there to save the day. The majority of the film, however, focuses on the Satsuki and Mei exploring their natural environment and discovering a wealth of benign mystical creatures like Totoro, the Cat-Bus, and the fearful ‘Soot Sprites,’ who flee from a room whenever you turn the lights on. There’s not a huge sense of danger or of trying to convince the parents of the creatures’ existence, the parents ‘get it,’ or are at least willing to play along.

Hayao Miyazaki’s lovely film is above all, a perfect embodiment of childhood, in an idyllic world where the child protagonists are able to fully explore their environment and traverse their surroundings without fear of unsavory adults or everyday terrors. Only at the very end do you get a hint of darkness, and it makes you consider that the dad probably should have gotten up from his papers and paid more attention to his kids. But All’s well that ends well, as Shakespeare says, and a series of magical, and occasionally frustrating and tense events lead to a heartwarming ending.

Like the best animated films, My Neighbor Totoro isn’t just for kids; it’s for everyone who remembers being a kid as well. It’s not fantasy on such an epic scale as some of Miyazaki’s later efforts, including Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle, but it’s pure and innocent and true and charms the pants off of anyone who loves low-key, kind-natured movies that make you believe the best in humanity. Rent it for a son or daughter, a niece or nephew, or a film enthusiast grandkid (as my Grandad did)- just make sure you see it. It’s a wonderful and worthwhile experience.

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Spirited Away (2001)

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-Watched English-Dubbed Version-

If you’ve never seen anything by master animator and storyteller Hayao Miyazaki, you’re missing out. The esteemed filmmaker has several fantastic films to his credit, and 2001’s coming-of-age fantasy Spirited Away may be his most magical of all. The wealth of creativity on display in Spirited Away more than makes up for it’s occasional holes in plot and character development, and the heroine Chihiro’s wondrous (if sometimes scary) adventures should appeal to both the young and the old.

At the film’s start, Chihiro (voiced by Daveigh Chase) is a somewhat whiny and entitled nine-year-old girl with an even more entitled pair of parents (Michael Chiklis and Lauren Holly) who are moving their moody preteen daughter to a new house. In the spirit of adventure (or so he thinks,) dad takes a short cut and finds himself in what he thinks is an abandoned theme park. He gets out of the car to take a look around, finds an unattended banquet, and he and his wife throw caution to the wind and begin to arbitrarily chow down (sure, wouldn’t anyone?)

Chihiro refuses to partake and is spared the fate of being transformed into a pig, but her parents are not so lucky. Turns out the ‘theme park’ is a bathhouse for the spirits, and Chihiro must get over her orneriness and aversion to hard work in order to save her parents from becoming the next entree for the creatures inhabiting the magical realm. Along the way, she meets a brooding and mysterious boy (Jason Marsden) who moonlights as a dragon, and evades the evil clutches of Yubaba (Suzanne Pleshette,) a malevolent sorceress and overprotective mother of a infant monstrosity worthy of Eraserhead.

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There’s commentary abound concerning (American?) decadence, greed, and laziness, including a creature called ‘No-Face’ who  idly feeds off the materialism of others while becoming increasingly grotesque and corpulent, but Spirited Away never becomes pedantic in it’s nuanced delivery of it’s message. One issue I see with the script is that the supporting characters don’t always have a lot of motivation for what they do. For example, the six-armed Boiler Man spirit (David Allen Ogden Stiers) sticks up for Chihiro shortly after her arrival at the bath house, more or less because the script requires him to.

He’s not developed in a way that this is a particularly feasible decision for him, just as Yubaba’s twin sister is a wildly inconsistent creation. One moment she threatens to ‘tear Chihiro’s mouth out’ if she blabs her secret, the next she asking her to call her ‘granny.’ Whaat? The exceptions Yubaba, whose behavior is unkind, but consistent,  and Chihiro and the boy, Haku, who have a fluid and interesting character arc.

However, Spirited Away is boundlessly inventive and visually stunning; a menagerie of intense color and bizarre creatures that stands up to multiple watches and should enrapture the imaginations of kids and adults alike. It’s certainly not dumbed down to the intellect of a slow five-year-old like a lot of kiddie matinee, it takes it’s young audience seriously and doesn’t treat them like morons;  that’s what’s so great about Hayao Miyazaki as a filmmaker, isn’t it? He trusts that kids will get things and doesn’t talk down to them.

The difference between something like this and the average animated comedy by Dreamworks studios is like the difference between a mountain and a rockpile. Like Pixar’s best films, Spirited Away combines eye-popping animation with memorable storytelling and a genuine sense of wonder to create pure movie making magic. Regardless of whether you’re a huge anime enthusiast, Spirited Away (and by extension, most of Miyazaki’s films) is utterly worth your time. If you like feverishly imaginative fantasy that transports you for a few hours from the mundanity of daily life, you’ll find a lot to love in Miyazaki’s masterpiece.

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