I was writing about this week's Ghibli Blog poll, in which you choose your favorite Hayao Miyazaki film. While the race is pretty tight across most movies, the big surprises for me are Lupin III and Howl's Moving Castle. They are barely registering any votes at all. I wonder why that is? Is it because of the strong competition from the other movies? Is Cagliostro too "old"? Is Howl too complicated? I think both movies are magnificent, and there are elements to each that are unique in the Miyazaki canon.
I think it's very notable that both movies are less accessable to newcomers. They both require you to be familiar with Miyazaki's earlier work. Cagliostro is very much an extension of the the original 1971 Lupin III series (which Hayao Miyazaki and Yasuo Otsuka worked on). And Howl is wrapped in the icons and symbols across Miyazaki's career, from its themes of war and violence, to the identidy of his iconic Heroine in Blue.
Of course, we can also say the same thing about My Neighbor Totoro, which is influenced greatly by Panda Kopanda. Totoro is almost a revisiting of that earlier movie, one far more personal and meloncholy. But it's brilliance lies in being able to approach it on multiple levels. You can see it from the eyes of a child and be enchanted at the mystery of the natural world, the tadpoles, the giant trees, the Catbus. Older viewers will more wisely understand the seriousness of the mother's illness, the older daughter's grappling with death, the traumas of Miyazaki's childhood. Here, Totoro and Catbus are an escape for him as well as us.
It's a testament to the movie's greatness that one doesn't feel left out for now noticing those elements. I sincerely doubt most Americans are aware those darker elements even exist. They're swept away by the innocence and the nostalgia, and that's fine enough. The deeper layers only wait paitently to be discovered.
Anyway, we can see that this synergy doesn't quite gel as effectively with Lupin and Howl; their greatness lies largely in the deeper layers, which one must peel back slowly over time. You really must be familiar with Miyazaki's career. It's a contract with the audience that works best in Japan, where Miyazaki has been active for 40 years. In the Western world, and especially the United States, this is far more difficult. Most Americans are still discovering the man and his work, and today's audiences are far too corrupted by movies that play as video games and amusement park rides.
To my mind, Lupin III and Howl's Moving Castle are the most Felliniesque of Miyazaki's career. Castle of Cagliostro carries the weary sadness of La Dolce Vita on its shoulders, as it portrays a veteran who has grown tired of his life and is searching for an escape (again, you wouldn't notice this if you had never seen the original Lupin III tv series). That's the core of that movie, the ground layer that informs everything that follows, the slapstick comedy, the thrilling adventure, the classical romance. This movie is only disguised as escapism; its strongest cards are held closest to its chest.
I've written about Calgiostro and La Dolce Vita before, and it's a conviction that has only grown over time. This mood is always present, most notably in the quiet moments. Those are the scenes that stay with me the longest. The scene of Lupin sitting by a pond, alone. The scenes of careful preparation (these are skilled veterans at work). The shot of Lupin in the car at the end of the movie, seemingly lost in himself. And the title sequence and its shots of driving, waiting, endless waiting. Lupin claims to be searching for a lost treasure, but which "lost" treasure, exactly? The final scene of La Dolce Vita haunts this movie.
If Lupin III: Castle of Cagliostro is La Dolce Vita, the neorealist Fellini, then Howl's Moving Castle is the circus-like, Fellini, the surreal Fellini, the personal Fellini. Howl is Juliet of the Spirits and 8 1/2, built around the complex, sprawling structure of Miyazaki's Nausicaa books. This is a true circus in its deepest sense. At its surface, wild colors, grand spectacle, clowns, goofy characters, stunts. Below that surface, deeper and in the shadows, lies dread, fear, the grotesque, the denizens of the unconscious.
And at the deepest layer lies the most important element of all, a deeply personal portrayal and tribute to a marriage. Akemi Ota Miyazaki is the heroine of this movie; in a greater sense, she has always been the Heroine. That's the big secret at the heart of Howl's Moving Castle: the identity of Hayao Miyazaki's archetypal Heroine in Blue. And you can go back and see this relationship play itself out throughout his career.
There's a fantastic parallel to the "White Cliffs of Dover" episode of Sherlock Hound, which directly addresses the marriage, and Akemi Ota's sacrifice that enabled Hayao Miyazaki to pursue his career. This, of course, in time leads us to the complicated relationship with son Goro, who has never forgiven his father for putting career ahead of family, and that conflict was the very heart and soul of Tales From Earthsea. This, in turn, leads us to father Miyazaki attempting a reconciliation of sorts with his next movie, Ponyo on a Cliff by the Sea, which presents a young boy, a stay-at-home mother, and a distant father whose work consumes him.
But I can't believe that any casual viewer - and at this point, that's what most Americans are - could be aware of these things. They simply don't know that history. They haven't seen the films. It's a consequence of being the last ones to arrive at the party. Half the people in the house are already passed out, and we're just starting on the electric kool-aid and the nacho chips. It's going to take some time to come to depth with these films.