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Wednesday, Nov. 24, 2004

The majesty of 2-D

Howl no Ugoku Shiro

Rating: * * * * 1/2(out of 5)
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Running time: 119 minutes
Language: Japanese
Currently showing
[See Japan Times movie listings]

Hollywood has buried 2-D feature animation, with the incredible success of Pixar's "The Incredibles" -- $70 million in its opening weekend -- putting a seal on the tomb, so to speak.

News photo
A scene from Hayao Miyazaki's "Howl no Ugoku Shiro"

In Japan, however, Hayao Miyazaki and his Studio Ghibli animators are still loyal to the 2-D cause. Why not, given the equally incredible numbers for Miyazaki's 2-D "Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi (Spirited Away)," which grossed 30.8 billion yen in Japan alone in 2001 -- a box-office record for any film here, Hollywood or Japanese. Miyazaki and Ghibli had other reasons for celebration, including an Academy Award for best feature animation -- the first ever awarded.

They may well get a second for "Howl no Ugoku Shiro (Howl's Moving Castle)," Miyazaki's first shojo manga-esque love story, complete with a faux European setting, mousy-but-spunky teenage heroine and androgynously handsome hero, voiced by superstar Takuya Kimura.

Based on a novel of the same title by the British children's author Diana Wynne Jones, "Howl" is less Miyazaki's attempt to wow shojo manga fans (though wowed they will be) than further proof of why his status as the world's greatest living animator is still secure.

It is also a powerful counterargument to the "2-D is dead" crowd. After all, did the computer and its electronic air brushes kill off the art of Van Gogh, Picasso and all those other oldies who mucked about with brushes and paints? Well, no -- just as no 3-D wizard has surpassed Miyazaki's technical mastery of the animator's art, from the lush, vibrant beauty of his landscapes to the way he makes the smallest movement and gesture come alive. In Miyazaki's world, even the way the heroine sews artificial berries onto a hand band expresses character and mood.

Also, none of his contemporaries can equal the richness, depth and strangeness of his imagination. Whereas the imaginative flights of Hollywood animators are nearly all in the service of character and plot, Miyazaki allows his mind and pencil to wander where they will, into the realm of pure flight or the bizarre world of dreams, where logic takes a holiday and meaning speaks from every stone.

"Howl" starts with that fairy-story staple -- a young heroine who is poor, plucky and in need of romance in her life. Sophie (voiced by Chieko Baisho) slaves away all day making hats in the family shop, while her fashion-plate mother swans about town and her pretty blonde sister, Lettie, fends off admirers at the nearby cafe where she works. (Their hatter father died before the story begins.) Meanwhile, outside Sophie's workroom, the country is preparing for war and the other shop girls are buzzing on about a reclusive wizard named Howl and his Moving Castle -- an odd assemblage of metal that looks like a cross between a killer whale, a boiler factory and a 19th-century battleship, mounted on skinny, steam-driven legs.

Later, while on an errand, Sophie bumps into Howl himself, who looks like a fairy-tale prince, complete with long blonde tresses, but whose uncanny manner implies secrets he is not about to tell. Howl is being pursued by scary blob men (wearing straw skimmers) who are minions of his arch-enemy, the Witch of the Waste (voiced by Akihiro Miwa). He easily evades them by flying off with Sophie in tow -- and takes her on a thrilling walk across the rooftops.

After he leaves her -- dazzled and smitten -- she is confronted by the Witch herself. A grand dame with a plummy voice, multiple chins and a sinister air, the Witch changes Sophie into a 90-year-old crone -- a punishment as seemingly arbitrary as the ones the Queen of Hearts meted out in "Alice in Wonderland."

Unable to show herself in the shop, Sophie ventures out into the witch- and wizard-haunted mountains, to find help in breaking the spell. There she encounters a top-hatted scarecrow, who leads her to the Moving Castle. Inside she meets a sharp-tongued little boy who is Howl's assistant and a testy talking flame, called Calcifer, who keeps the Castle running (and steaming). Sophie decides to join this odd squad as a much-needed cleaning lady. Her ultimate aim, though, is to return to her original form and get closer to the temperamental but charismatic Howl.

"Howl" reprises themes from Miyazaki's previous films, including the quest for identity and truth in a dangerous world, the beauty and ferocity of nature -- and the human urge to tame it. Its tone, however, is not as dark as that of "Mononoke Hime (Princess Mononoke)," its story not as primal as that of "Sen to Chihiro." But rather than descend into heroine-meets-handsome-prince cliches, Miyazaki presents Sophie's journey as a spiritual quest, including a nightmarish climb up an endless flight of steps that recalls Dante's ascent to Purgatory and an idyll in a land of flowers that is a glimpse of Paradise. In the course of this quest, she learns that the heart can triumph over even wrinkles and rheumatism -- and that the spell is one she put on herself.

In most fairy tales, the heroine finds her happily-ever-after destiny in her prince. "Howl" takes a different route to its ending credits, but one that should satisfy romantics in the audience. Its politics, though, feel too much like wish fulfillment, too little like today's grim reality. Will we ever see the reign of our own evil witches pass over?

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