Technology with attitude




The reason that Hayao Miyazaki is the most beloved animator of the past thirty years is a deceptively simple one: in a genre defined by bombast and pomp (children’s animation), Miyazaki foregrounds the human connection.  That’s not to say his movies don’t have moments of high comedy and action – the opening air attack in Castle in the Sky ranks alongside the aerial battles in the Star Wars series, for example, while the glutinous transformation of Chihiro’s parents in Spirited Away has the absurdist wit of a “Monty Python” sketch.  Yet the difference between movies like these and, say, Ice Age 74: Yeah, We’ve Given Up is that the big moments work because they are grounded in character.  Castle‘s air-pirate siege provides the impetus for Sheeta’s journey of self-discovery; Chihiro loses her parents in her first real step towards becoming an adult.

So it goes with My Neighbor Totoro and Howl’s Moving Castle.  We’ll start with Totoro, which remains one of Miyazaki’s most iconic pictures.  On the surface, it’s a gentle, delicate yarn; like his late-period masterwork Ponyo, Totoro eschews narrative complications for an easy-going, whimsical look at the intersection between humans and magic.  The story focuses on Satsuki and Mei, two sisters who befriend the forest spirits surrounding their new home, including the towering, rotund title character.

Miyazaki conjures such a potent atmosphere of mystery and wonder.  He sets the film in 1950s Japan, giving everything a melancholic, nostalgic air, and he wisely refrains from explaining away Totoro’s magic.  Totoro just exists, and his rituals have the primal qualities of the best fables.  When Satsuki and Mei interact with Totoro and his fellow spirit-dwellers – exploring the countryside and taking part in ceremonial dances – they seem to have tapped into the purest kind of fairy-tale logic.  Had Miyazaki simply wanted to record their time together, he still would have made a masterpiece.

However, Totoro‘s wonder stems from real concerns.  The girls’ father has uprooted them from their old home so that they can be closer to their ailing mother, whose influence permeates the picture.  It’s no accident that the girls seek solace from supernatural creatures as their mother’s condition worsens; they are at the age when magic and whimsy provide a far more comprehensible and logical alternative to the messy realities of death.

And of life, come to think of it. Totoro is a comfort in ways that the girls’ distraught father is not, and when Mei’s anguish leads her to make a foolhardy decision, he becomes a savior to her father and Satsuki.  In these regards, the story takes on a flavor of magical realism – genuine suffering and pain drive all the fantastic events.

Though less immediately sedate than Totoro, Howl’s Moving Castle follows a similar trajectory.  Our teenaged heroine, Sophie, unwittingly angers the Witch of the Waste and suffers a curse that ages her into a ninety-year-old woman.  During her search to find a cure, she encounters a host of strange and fascinating characters, including the irascible fire demon Calucifer, a menacing magic advisor, and Howl, an impetuous wizard who holds the key to…something.

I’ve seen Howl’s Moving Castle about a half a dozen times, and I’m still not quite certain of the particulars.  This setup isn’t one of Miyazaki’s strongest, and the film’s detractors (correctly) ding it for drawing together its main story elements haphazardly, with no small element of incoherence.  Sophie isn’t one of Miyazaki’s best protagonists – she suffers when compared to Chihiro or Sheeta or Satsuki & Mei – and it seems like she only becomes old so she can venture into the Waste, meet Howl, and begin her journey.  All of Miyazaki’s visual curlicues – his use of CGI to augment the titular castle is frequently breathtaking – can’t quite disguise the narrative stumbles.  At times, you could be forgiven for thinking that the movie offers whimsy for whimsy’s sake.

That said, Howl’s Moving Castle might be my personal favorite of Miyazaki’s features.  For all its confusions of story and character, the film has a darkness that resonates stronger than the menaces in Miyazaki’s similarly brooding Princess Mononoke and Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind.  The enemy here is war itself, a destructive, unstoppable entity that Miyazaki dramatizes through near-anonymous bombers, and that visceral abstraction is very much of a piece with our global psyche; we no longer fear international supervillains but rather killing machines capable of ending life in an instant.  The last fourth of Howl’s Moving Castle finds Sophie and Howl wandering about the remnants of a destroyed countryside, and Miyazaki gives these sequences some of the quiet devastation that Isao Takahata’s great Grave of the Fireflies had.

Furthermore, Howl himself is very interesting character.  We expect our screen wizards to think and bumble, but Howl is unstable, more unpredictable.  Despite (or maybe because of) his powers, he’s more afraid of responsibility than anything else, and Miyazaki tightens the screws on him until he’s forced to apply his gifts for positive change.  It is Howl who provides Howl’s Moving Castle with its central thesis, and its disquieting dramatic impact.

Disney’s My Neighbor Totoro and Howl’s Moving Castle Blu-rays look better than ever.  The picture on Totoro is a hair softer, but that’s to be expected, given its age (twenty-five years!).  The newer Howl’s Moving Castle has a near-flawless image, and both discs get two DTS-HD Master Audio tracks – one in the original Japanese and one showcasing an English dub.

Each package also gets a good supplements roster.  Besides a storyboards gallery and the original trailer, the Totoro disc has the “Behind the Microphone” featurette and the six-part “Behind the Studio” documentary, which gives as full a look at Studio Ghibli as one could want.  Howl’s Moving Castle also gets storyboards and trailers as well as another “Behind the Microphone” featurette, an interview with Up director Pete Docter, and the “Hello Mr. Lasseter: Hayao Miyazaki Visits Pixar Animation Studios” feature.

The My Neighbor Totoro and Howl’s Moving Castle Blu-rays street on May 21st.  Click HERE and HERE for Amazon’s listings.

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