Immediate apologies to Laura Kipnis, who I don’t think will mind.
Growing up, I was an ardent Anglophile. This stemmed directly from my love for the “young adult” (sounds like starter porn, don’t it?) novels by all the greats who now cower in Rowling’s shadow, such as the indomitable Joan Aiken (Nightbirds on Nantucket), Ruth M. Arthur (who seems inexplicably to be out of print, but look for the spooky A Candle in Her Room), and L. M. Boston (The Children of Green Knowe). America was all well and good, but what kid in their right mind would choose the Big Woods over Willoughby Chase? ("Let’s see … today, do I want to learn how to make candy out of sap and snow, or foil Hanoverian plots helmed by butch governesses out to unseat Jamie Three?") Aiken depicted the nobility as a pack of benign but overbred incompetents perpetually in need of rescue by enterprising commoners like myself. As a result, beyond being momentarily mesmerized by the 1982 wedding of Charles and Diana (and who knew what ill-fated idiocy lay on THAT horizon?), I didn’t have much use for royalty. Crowns were for birthdays; pictures of me playing around the house at age 3-4 indicate a preference for witch's hats. Wielding occult powers was obviously far more attractive to my pre-K self than hunting for princes (perhaps I should re-reck my own earlier rede, huh?). The only Disney movies I remember seeing were Peter Pan, Lady and the Tramp, and The Aristocats, all notably lacking in the princess department, other than the “redskin” Tiger Lily, who bears about as much resemblance to Walt's version of Pocahontas as … well … Pocahontas.
My daughters, Maggie (5) and Lucy (3), on the other hand, were born into a world saturated with stacked, singing, well-born, wasp-waisted, doe-eyed, boy-crazy freaks. The Wide World of Disney, once confined to an hour on Sunday nights, the occasional re-release of a film (but only on the big screen), and a couple of garish compounds in Orlando and Anaheim, has mutated into a Magic Kingdom Without Walls from which there is no escape. Pimp-in-chief Eisner hawks his animated harem, which at last count included Snow White, Sleeping Beauty (aka “Aurora” – try to say THAT five times fast, or even once, if you’re 3), Cinderella, Ariel, and Belle, with rare affirmative-action nods to Jasmin, Pocahontas, and Mulan, on everything from alarm clocks to ukeleles. Should a little girl actually emerge, blinking, into the sunlight and rediscover the wonders of the four-dimensional world, they even offer dainty pink butterfly nets. (Then again, if they made one big enough to catch Ariel, it would be worth the $34.95 to hang that piscine brat out to dry.) I’d describe the hypnotic effect The Little Mermaid exerted on Maggie at age 2, but Adam Gopnik's "Barney in Paris" describes that first encounter with the Imaginary Other better than Lacan or I ever could.
All of the above is merely an elaborate introduction to my unmitigated admiration and reverence for the aesthetic and ontological alternative offered my daughters by the work of Hiyao Miyazaki. I hereby command you to see “Howl’s Moving Castle” before some piece of Pixar shit steals its slot at your multiplex. (For a far more balanced weighing of Miyazaki’s oeuvre in relation to American animation, see A.O. Scott’s review of “Howl” in the Arts section of the July 12th NY Times.) Evan and I took the girls this past Saturday, and spent the first half of the film desperately trying to keep Lucy content so that neither of us would have to walk away from a magnificent, epic account of Life With Wizards During Wartime; however, she also established our Miyazaki cred by bellowing “A TOTORO!” when she saw the Ghibli logo.
Like Disney, Miyazaki favors female protagonists, usually little girls. Unlike Disney, he provides them with problems beyond What to Wear, Who to Marry, and Should I Stay a Fish? Miyazaki laments the apparently worldwide tendency to turn young heroines into rorikon gokko, roughly translated as “play toy for men with Lolita tendencies" (thank you, Nausicaa.net), and Howl’s Sophie resists the label by getting transformed into a ninety-year-old woman in the first minutes of the film. Old Sophie, while admittedly spry, is thus absolved from her feelings of aesthetic inadequacy (she has a plump, popular blond sister) and can focus on getting things done. Once she finds her way into the castle, she cleans house – literally and figuratively – and sucks up much of its power for herself, although she doesn’t know it. Her fate is in her own hands, which gives the story a blissful unpredictability antithetical to Disney’s fairytale format. For once, I stared at the screen with absolutely no idea of how it would all end. (The crone gets the turnip, if that helps.)
The castle is a story in and of itself. Howl’s main talent seems to lie in his success as a sort of magical real estate mogul, for depending on how you turn the dial, the Moving Castle offers ocean views, Monet-inspired meadows, or the convenience of downtown, all from one doorstep. For all his emphasis on nature, Miyazaki knows that relationships rely on architecture, and that what we build influences not only who we are, but who we’ll meet, and what will happen. (The Totoro may dwell outdoors, but he saves little May by bringing her to her mother’s window.) The Castle brings to mind Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves, albeit briefly, because in spite of its oscillations it avoids uncanniness by offering an (almost) impenetrable refuge from exterior chaos; still, its inhabitants find happiness only after it collapses. This ending is typical of Miyazaki’s worldview, which shuns all clear-cut boundaries and easy divisions between good and evil, male and female, human and … not human. The sad state of ambiguity in this country is evident in The Hollywood Reporter, which described Howl as “so multifaceted that it will confuse children, and it lacks the clear-cut heroes and villains typical of animation. Critics will find much to write about, but general audiences might be confused by the complexity.” 'Nuff said.
Perhaps because we can't quite grasp it, Miyazaki's comfort with ambiguity makes his depiction of war extremely disturbing. There is no good cause or right side, just pointless violence and widespread death, and we both hate and mourn everyone involved. For Miyazaki, war isn’t just wrong. It’s antiquated, anachronistic, and deadly, like the lumbering warships that glide menacingly through his frames, strewing generic propaganda and strafing nameless nineteenth-century towns. We never know who is fighting whom, or why, although the brief appearance of what can only be described as mushroom clouds may give us a distant hint at the target of his anti-militaristic message. The battle scenes aren't connected to the real story, but merely threaten to explode the far more meaningful small scale at which most of us live our lives. Still, in yet another challenge to any and all absolutes, one of the most amazingly beautiful moments in the film occurs when sunlight reflects off a warship’s windows as it drifts over Howl’s meadow.
Howl himself is elusivity embodied. Like many movie princes, he has long, flowing hair, but he also wears a pair of dangling earrings, and he lacks the broad shoulders that represent masculinity in the Magic Kingdom; instead, he’s built like the bird he occasionally becomes. Disney’s gender games have resulted in triumphs like Ursula, the animated aquatic transvestite who saves The Little Mermaid (the film, not the fish) from Extreme Banal status (don’t even get me started on all those masts and tridents; suffice it to say that King Triton loses his … um … potency AGAIN in the sequel, perhaps indicating a need for some sort of giant nautical jockstrap). But they are also responsible for the underhanded, literally predatory, effeminately-accented Scar in The Lion King. Most reviewers simply ignore Howl's complex sexuality, with the unfortunate exception of Salon's Stephanie Zacharek, who went so far as to compare Howl to Michael Jackson. (The entire review adhered to a fairly Standard Snark Template, so pay it no mind.) While many children's films reinforce traditional male/female roles, or seem to think that "confident princess" equals "feminist," gender, like all of Miyazaki's structures, is fluid, and resists containment within any one form. Personally, I could care less who wears the wings in that weird little family. The true test of a good romance for me is whether I’m convinced that the characters – animated or otherwise – plan to get it on as soon as the credits roll (Exhibit A: Elizabeth Bennett and Darcy, who I firmly believe had the best sex, literary or otherwise, of the entire 18th century – sorry, Fanny). Apologies to all those who find this sick, but I feel confident that Howl and Sophie will make sweet crazy wizard love as soon as he builds a new castle and finds someone to babysit the kid, the crone, and the fire.
Even an anime naïf like me can see how Miyazaki’s art is informed by that style and its manga roots. His characters have those deep, wet eyes, and tend to sprout feathers and fly at a moment’s notice. They are also gentle, fairytale renderings of more generic superheroes; Howl and Sophie’s first date, a walk in the sky, even winks at Superman and Lois. In spite of my profound disinterest in science fiction, I was compelled to research the connection between contemporary anime and a cartoon series I watched (when nothing else was on, I’ll admit) way back when: G-Force, which it turns out was indeed the offspring of a Japanese comic called Gatchaman. Members of a mainstream genre though they may be, every single character in Howl’s Moving Castle makes the Disney Chicks look fake and painted, a completely unfair fight akin to pitting The Howdy Doody show against the Cirque du Soleil. Several times during the film, I found myself looking past the action to marvel at the sunsets, oceans, and rippling grasses, a sentiment Sophie herself expresses best: “When you get this old, you just want to look at the scenery.” Of course, since Sophie isn't really old, I console myself that I'm not, either, but that's neither here nor there.
Unfortunately, there's a major catch to hailing "Howl" and damning Disney: Disney is distributing "Howl." My students will now witness a really bad example of counter-argument, and it is as follows ... I don't give a shit. Maggie may play with princesses, but she also kept me on the phone for a good thirty minutes to explain in detail the plot of "Nausicaa," which no (other) Disney feature has ever led her to do (and she still has "Princess Mononoke" to look forward to). She may actually be getting the message that protagonists should be more than pretty, and I feel confident that Lucy, who sees no conflict of interest whatsoever in making Barbie ride a monster truck, will embrace this as well. However, I feel far less safe in my new knowledge that Disney now owns the Muppets lock, stock and barrel (something everyone else has apparently known for years. What's the statute of limitations for using one's dissertation as an excuse for complete ignorance?) Their powers know no bounds ... will Piggy continue as her belligerent self, or will she get stuck playing support pork to those simpering cartoon tarts?
In blessed conclusion: Here's hoping that the McDLT marketing principle prevails: that the good stays good, and the bad stays bad, and never the merchandise shall meet. In other words, thank you, Mr. Miyazaki, and keep your mitts off my Muppets, Disney, you suit-wearing, mermaid-making, money-grubbing fucks.