Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Far East Alchemy
  by Jenny Rae Rappaport
August 2006

Howl's Moving Castle

Diana Wynne Jones is one of the grande dames of children's literature. Now in her seventies, she has published over forty books, with almost all of them featuring fantasy or science fiction elements. With her enticing stories and vivid characters, she has long held a place of honor in my personal literary pantheon. So imagine my joy when I heard, several years ago, that Hayao Miyazaki was turning one of her novels, Howl's Moving Castle, into a feature-length film.

Like his American counterpart, Walt Disney, Hayao Miyazaki is an animator turned living legend. He is a national figure in Japan, and the driving force behind his animation studio, Studio Ghibli. Since his first foray into animation in 1963, Miyazaki has directed nine feature films, worked on several prominent anime series' in the 1970s and 1980s, and created a variety of anime shorts. In the United States, he is perhaps best known for two recent films which saw theatrical releases through the Walt Disney Company: "Princess Mononoke" and the 2002 Academy Award winner for Animated Feature Film, "Spirited Away".

Most likely due to the relative popularity which these two prior films enjoyed, the Walt Disney Company theatrically released "Howl's Moving Castle" in the United States in 2004. Since both of us are huge anime fans and the movie was only playing in New York City at the time, my boyfriend and I trekked into the city from the wilds of suburban New Jersey. We paid for the overpriced movie tickets in one of the Times Square movie theaters, settled into our seats, and proceeded to watch the English dubbed version of the film-despite the fact that I normally despise English dubs.

Yet as I watched the movie, I discovered that I was both simultaneously enraptured and disappointed by it. It was a strange discovery to make, since for once, the English dub of the movie didn't really bother me at all. The voice acting was excellent, with most of the voices reasonably conveying the personalities of the characters. Instead, what bothered me so intensely was the fact that the movie deviated so wildly from the book on which it was based.

Let's take a look at the opening lines of the novel:

In the land of Ingary, where such things as seven-league-boots and cloaks of invisibility really exist, it is quite a misfortune to be born the eldest of three. Everyone knows you are the one who will fail first, and worst, if the three of you set out to seek your fortunes.

Sophie Hatter was the eldest of three sisters. She was not even the child of a poor woodcutter, which might have given her some chance of success. Her parents were well to do and kept a ladies' hat shop in the prosperous town of Market Chipping. []

From these two paragraphs, we instantly know what the novel is about. We have an established setting in a magical land, we know that the main characters are going to have to go out to seek their fortunes, and finally, we are introduced to poor Sophie Hatter as the heroine. Obviously, she's going to have troubles ahead of her, due to her unfortunate birth order. In a leisurely manner, the novel goes on to explain how after Mr. Hatter's death, Sophie and her two sisters are indeed forced to seek their fortunes, with Sophie remaining behind as an apprentice in the hat shop. She has a horrible inferiority complex as the eldest sister, and is convinced that she is born to fail in life.

After an unfortunate run-in with the Witch of the Waste, Sophie is transformed into an old woman, and runs away from home. Through a series of delightfully convoluted events, she ends up living in the Wizard Howl's moving castle, a black turreted building which floats in the hills behind Market Chipping. From that point onwards, Sophie's life as an old woman turns upside down, as she strikes a bargain with the fire demon, Calcifer, who powers the castle, and at the same time becomes involved in all the shenanigans inherent in living in an egotistical wizard's household. There is some significant wackiness involving Wales, and also the threat of a vaguely impending war, but the overall plot arc in the novel remains resolutely focused on how Sophie can free Calcifer.

The movie decides to dispense with most of this, and instead takes pieces of the primary novel plot and ties them together with a mishmash of other plot elements. Many things are the same: Sophie is still transformed into an old woman, she still goes to live in Howl's moving castle, and she still strikes a bargain with Calcifer. But whereas the war was a minor background element in the novel, it is brought to the forefront in the film.

Despite the fact that there are absolutely no flying machines in the novel whatsoever, Miyazaki gives them a pivotal role in the film. The war between what is presumably Ingary and an unnamed nation seems to be fought primarily by air. Towns and cities across Ingary are continually being bombed by machinery and magic combined, and Howl actually transforms into an interesting bird-monster to fight them. The more often that Howl transforms, the less of a grasp he manages to retain on his humanity. The fact that Howl takes such an active role in the battles is a strange contrast to the Howl in the novel, whom Sophie elegantly describes as a "slitherer-outer".

Some of the other more prominent changes from the novel include the fact that Miyazaki has imagined the castle itself as a mechanical contraption, which walks across the land on giant metal chicken legs. It is no longer sleek and black, but instead resembles something that might be put together in a junkyard. There is something oddly appealing about it, which almost makes it a character in its own right. Even though I like the hodgepodge nature of the movie's moving castle, part of me still wishes that it at least floated; if a castle is going to move, it should at least be allowed to fly, shouldn't it?

The movie also completely eliminates a subplot involving Sophie's two younger sisters, Lettie and Martha, as well as the king of Ingary's brother and the king's personal magician. Howl's fifteen-year-old apprentice from the novel, Michael, also undergoes a strange transformation into a small boy named Markl. That's not a misspelling on my part, but is actually how the name is both spelled and pronounced in both the English and Japanese versions of the film.

By making Michael/Markl a less prominent character in the film, Miyazaki is presumably able to give more screen time to the Witch of the Waste, who serves as the principal villain in the novel version. In the film version, she is less evil than one would expect, and towards the end, even manages to "team-up" with Sophie, Howl, and the castle's other inhabitants. This metamorphosis gives her a sympathetic edge, which considerably changes how she is viewed in the different versions; I'm not sure if I like it, but as I had no influence on the movie, it's there whether I approve of it or not.

Although I've spent a considerable part of this column nitpicking the differences between the novel and the movie, there is one element that I think the film does better than the book. It emphasizes the romance that eventually develops between Sophie and Howl, which I have always thought is one of the sweetest parts of the story. You can call me a sucker, but the fact that a young, virile magician like Howl falls in love with elderly Sophie is something that should be applauded. There are reasons for the romance, of course, but I'll leave that for you to discover as you hopefully enjoy both the novel and the movie.

There are also many other things that "Howl's Moving Castle" does well. The animation is high-quality, which is characteristic of Miyazaki's films, and the film score, composed by Joe Hisashi is top-notch. The elegant and playful nature of the music greatly complements what occurs on the screen, and it dovetails neatly with both the English and Japanese voice-acting.

In order to write this column, I watched the movie again, this time in Japanese, and I have to say that I actually enjoy the English version better. This I've decided is due primarily to two reasons. The first is that the English subtitles for the Japanese version are not very good; they're readable, but they don't always flow, and there are actual differences in the script between what they say on the screen and what the English dub says. As far as I can understand from the interviews included as extras on the DVD, this is because the subtitled version was actually produced by Studio Ghibli, and didn't have the advantages of the excellent English script-writing skills of Cindy Davis Hewitt and Donald H. Hewitt.

The second advantage that the dubbed version has is that it has an absolutely excellent cast of voice actors. Emily Mortimer plays the young version of Sophie, and the venerable Jean Simmons plays her in her older incarnation. Christian Bale makes a credible Howl, with Lauren Bacall as the Witch of the Waste, and child-actor Josh Hutcherson as Markl. Finally, Billy Crystal voices Calcifer, and is genuinely amusing in his own comic way; I must say, however, that in this case I actually preferred the Japanese voice acting of Tatsuya Gashuin for the role. One distinction that the Japanese voice acting makes is that the same actress, Chieko Baisho, plays both the young and old versions of Sophie, and I simply didn't think she was that convincing while voicing the younger incarnation.

What I think you should do, is to read the book first, which is excellent in its own right, and then you should go out and get the DVD of "Howl's Moving Castle". As a pure interpretation of the book, the movie is not entirely satisfying, but as a beautiful animated film, it has much to recommend it.

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