Japanese animation director Hayao Miyazaki is the foremost master of his art, the idol of the Disney animators. He is 64, but he still draws tens of thousands of frames himself. In Japan, where animation is taken very seriously, Miyazaki’s Spirited Away is the top grossing film — ever. They know something we don’t.
Miyazaki’s latest, Howl’s Moving Castle , is a fairy tale of aging bodies and youthful spirits. Or is it the other way around? Its hero is Sophie, voiced in the English dub by Jean Simmons. She mends hats in a tiny room of her mother’s house. Outside is a fantastic copper-roofed Parisian city, with steam-driven Victorian flying machines. But her window shows only the thick smoke of passing trains. She wears plain dresses with severe collars. She’s maybe seventeen, going on seventy.
Sophie has a run-in with the Witch of the Waste, who turns her into a 90 year-old woman. If that happened to you or me, we would scream from the pain. But Sophie’s upper lip is as stiff as her back.
Her search for a cure leads her to the eponymous castle. It’s a sight out of Jacek Yerka: a great grouper walking on four spindly legs, encrusted like barnacles with metal domes, smokestacks, and buttresses. There’s even a little cottage stuck to it.
Its captain is the wizard Howl, silkily voiced by Christian Bale. Long, golden hair surrounds effeminate features dangling with jewelry. He is unflappable, but also narcissistic, spoiled — a Peter Pan. When he accidentally dyes his hair red, he wails, "What’s the point in living if I can’t be beautiful?" He calls forth the spirits of darkness and begins dissolving into green goo. But Sophie, an old soul with a knack for seeing through illusion, knows a depressive snit when she sees one. "Such drama," she says.
Sometimes a director’s late movies are summary works. Here are Haku’s scales, Ashitaka’s enchanted arm, and the sky chase from Laputa . A scarecrow is a spinning Totoro, complete with umbrella. If you have seen Miyazaki’s earlier work, the images collocate and leave you dizzy. Is Howl’s Moving Castle a stand alone masterpiece like Spirited Away and My Neighbor Totoro ? "Masterpiece" is a creation of the taste makers, and has nothing to do with what an artist is trying to accomplish, unless he’s angling for immortality — and that’s a will-’o-the-wisp.
Movie theater attendance is at its lowest since 1983. We’re staying home because the movies stink. In fact, dozens of good movies are released every year, but only in big cities. The rest of us get hot dogs every night. If you live in Bloomington, you’ll have to drive 70 miles to see Howl’s Moving Castle on film. Is any Hajj more worth half a tank of gas?
Howl’s Moving Castle has been playing at Castleton Arts in Indianapolis, but you should check the listings to see if it’s still there. This and other theater and music reviews are available online at wfiu.indiana.edu. Reviewing movies for WFIU, this is Peter Noble-Kuchera.