Yes, I know I've posted both of these screenshots in earlier posts, but they look spectacular and are worth another glance. These are hi-resolution photos, so click on each to see the full view. You'll be glad you did.
These two photos illustrate the episodic style of Howl. This is the only Miyazaki film that captures that sprawling journey of the Nausicaa manga - the film director's true masterpiece. It's a story structure that is decidedly non-Western, it roams and wanders across its landscapes, concerned only with the inner growth of its main characters. It is a very Eastern philosophy, one that emphasizes the journey over the destination, the inner world over the outer world.
Western art is wrapped around the idea of "conflict resolution." This is a very goal-oriented philosophy, where characters are introduced to conflict, which then builds to the dramatic climax. The climax results, the conflict explodes and is resolved, and then the denouemont....whewwwww. Did the earth shake for you too? Ahem. Yes, this is what the art of Western Civilization has been obsessed about since the fall of Rome.
Hollywood movies are stuck to this formula. You have a hero, you have a conflict, the conflict is won, and everyone goes home happy. It's a straight path with its eyes firmly on the goal.
Hayao Miyazaki is not especially interested in walking that straight line. Howl's Moving Castle, doubly so. This is a true epic that explores several movies at once; one eye towards the mutating complexity of Nausicaa, the other eye towards the world-weariness of Heidi Marco Anne. I love Howl precisely because of this. This is a movie that demands multiple viewings, and demands you to know the film director's career inside and out.
Which brings us to these two screenshots. The scene at the lake ends a particular episode where old Sophie discovers a sense of purpose in her life, a liberation that comes with old age. As a young woman, she held back. Here, she lets go of everything, and emerges as a person who feels older, wiser, and yet younger, more passionate, more fierce. She sits at the lake, reflects, contemplates, lives in the moment. It's a wonderful scene, a quiet contemplative movement before the next violent crescendo.
The second screenshot, as I've written before, reminds me very much of Takahata's Grave of the Fireflies, and it's clear that Miyazaki's childhood traumas of World War II are on display. The mood is dark, almost despairing; the pacing is rapid, tense. By Hollywood rules, these two scenes couldn't be more different, and they couldn't possibly fit along the same dramatic plane. But Miyazaki's episodic novel expands, grows. If this is "following a straight line," it's doing so under Family Circus rules. This is Billy's walk across the screen.
Notice, also, the difference in art styles between these two photographs. The lake scene is calm, serene, its composition inviting a roaming eye to roam quietly. You have all the time in the world to breathe in your surroundings. The war scene is frenetic, fractured. Lines of movement, in the characters, in the houses, in the flames - these dart, shoot, collide into one another. This is an illustration of modern chaos. The remarkable depth of field - note the small figures in the background - portray the immense scale of this violence. The war has swallowed us whole. Escape is impossible.
We are presented not with a single conflict, a single goal, but many episodes, many stories. Four viewings will reveal four different stories, intertwined as a grand tapestry. This ia the hallmark of great art. Hayao Miyazaki is wise to scale back his ambitions and return to simpler form with Ponyo on a Cliff by the Sea. Howl's Moving Castle is the masterpiece of his grand operatic period, and there ain't no way he could push any further.