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'Howl's' a natural draw for an anime master

Hayao Miyazaki made a tale by a British writer uniquely his, and now his hit film has an English-language version.

June 05, 2005|Jake Forbes | Special to The Times

Japanese animation has been influencing American pop culture for years now, appearing in everything from "Teen Titans" to Tarantino to Nike ads. How fitting, then, that Japan's top animator, Academy Award winner Hayao Miyazaki, still looks to Old Europe and English literature for inspiration.

Miyazaki's latest project, "Howl's Moving Castle," is no exception. In fact, while many of his films feature castles, witches and Alsatian vistas, this is the first time he's directed a film adapted from Western source material. (He previously contributed as an animator to adaptations of "Heidi" and "Anne of Green Gables.")

On Friday, Walt Disney Studios will release an English-language dub of "Howl's," in collaboration with Pixar Animation Studios and featuring the voices of an all-star cast led by Christian Bale, Jean Simmons and Billy Crystal.

It's easy to see what attracted Miyazaki to "Howl's Moving Castle," the 1986 novel by prolific Brit scribe Diana Wynne Jones. With its warring wizards, quirky and cute characters and magical transformations, the book practically howls to be animated.

"Howl's" tells the story of Sophie Hatter, a modest and thoroughly normal girl who is transformed into an old woman by the Witch of the Waste. When she sets off in search of a way to reverse the curse, Sophie crosses paths with the wizard Howl, a lovable cad who, when he's not off stealing young women's hearts (some say literally), lives in an ambulatory castle with his fire demon, Calcifer, and a young apprentice.

For Miyazaki, making a straightforward adaptation was out of the question. "In a Miyazaki film, he is the storyteller," explained Pete Docter, who directed "Monsters Inc." and, along with Rick Dempsey, co-directed the English-language dub of "Howl's." "In America, making an animated feature is such a collaborative process, but he just locks himself in a room and starts writing and drawing."

While the film starts off remarkably close to the book, it isn't long before Miyazaki's sensibilities take center stage.

Visually, Miyazaki's version of the fantasy realm of Ingary is far more sumptuous than Jones' descriptions.

"There's so much color, there's so much detail," Dempsey said. "You really need to take a step back to appreciate everything."

Ever since his landmark children's film "My Neighbor Totoro," Miyazaki has been famous for his ability to make nonhuman and even nonspeaking characters rich and complex. In "Howl's Moving Castle," the demon Calcifer and the dog Heen almost steal the show. Even spiders and scarecrows have a soul in Miyazaki's hands.

"Rarely do you find a film where you can watch and see something you've never seen before," said the film's executive producer, John Lasseter, a longtime friend of Miyazaki. "This guy is one of the greatest that's ever lived."

Evil takes a break

Miyazaki isn't just a great visual storyteller -- he's a man of conscience. And here, he has molded "Howl's" to fit his own worldview.

For one thing, in his version, there are no evil characters. Even the Witch of the Waste, who seems like a traditional villain in the opening scenes, is rendered sympathetic by Miyazaki and is accepted with open arms by the very girl she cursed. Instead of a villain, Miyazaki adds an entirely new subplot -- a brutal war between two kingdoms. And Howl becomes an antiwar martyr who destroys warships regardless of for whom and why they fight.

Man's destructiveness is offset by quiet moments of reflection on nature's beauty, even as the film is charging toward its climax.

Studio Ghibli, which produced "Howl's Moving Castle" and was co-founded by Miyazaki, is seldom subtle in its environmental and pacifist themes (the Ghibli-produced "Grave of the Fireflies" has been called one of the best antiwar films ever made).

"Telling stories about the past can help us in how we think about the future," said Toshio Suzuki, Miyazaki's longtime friend and producer on "Howl's." "We make films believing that it's something worthwhile."

Miyazaki's film's don't so much follow logic as they do the director's instincts.

"What he says in the morning can make a 180-degree shift by evening," Suzuki said. "The staff is bewildered by this, but once you learn to look at it differently, it all makes sense."

Miyazaki, who rarely grants interviews, once said: "It's not me who makes the film. The film makes itself, and I have no choice but to follow."

Apparently, Miyazaki's instincts were once again spot-on. "Howl's" opened in Japan in November to record-breaking success. Already it has earned $210 million in international box office and ranks as Japan's third-highest-grossing film of all time (Miyazaki's last film, "Spirited Away," remains No. 1).

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