Fellini, Lupin and Howl

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.


serhei said...

Actually, what turns me off from voting for "Howl's Moving Castle" is the last 3 minutes or so. It is fairly saccharine, which might be okay if it wasn't being used to wrap up Miyazaki Does Juliet of the Spirits. Juxtaposed next to the rest of the movie it seems almost insulting and certainly unfair to the story so far. I don't know who was doing the thinking for the ending or what they were thinking, but whenever I ponder the question too hard I get a caricature in my head of Miyazaki declaring the movie done and leaving the building, then everyone else realizes that they need to wrap up a dozen loose ends in about 3 minutes of animation. This mental image is way off base, but had it happened that way the ending would have looked much the same.

See, I don't think a truly good movie can have an ending that's that pat. "They all lived happily ever after" ensures that the characters are essentially dead to us from then on. They may as well *be* dead, except that that isn't an agreeable or fashionable way to end love stories. If "happily ever after" satisfies us, it's a good sign that there wasn't enough character development in the first place to make us care about the characters on any meaningful level (or we're too dazed by the preceding chase scenes to think about whether we're being shown 'happily ever after' or something more meaningful). "Howl" ditched nearly all of the book's plot-driven elements and focused *entirely* on character development. Ending on 'happily ever after' (and it is a very strongly put happily ever after) is probably the most jarring thing you could have done to this movie.

All this just might be a peculiarity of what I expect from movies, but for me good endings leave unanswered questions. I'm selfish and I expect to on some level be able to write the continuing story of the characters in my head once the credits have finished rolling, or at least to have something to worry about in terms of their future. Cagliostro, the other film that's being overlooked, is in fact founded on working as an ending to the TV series (yes I know, it isn't *the* ending, but it works as one) and leaving open a huge unanswered question about the resolution to Lupin's internal struggle. So, interestingly, it ends up taking a sort of opposite approach from "Howl" to deciding what completes a movie.

Incidentally, 'what completes a movie' was touched on in that Oshii/Suzuki discussion you linked to recently. Oshii was complaining, more or less, that "Ponyo" isn't a 'complete' movie, that it leaves far too much unsaid about the characters. It'll be interesting in light of Oshii's complaints to see what kind of ending Ponyo will have, what it will imply in terms of the further lives of the characters. I'm hoping it will be more in the tradition of "Spirited Away", leaving more room for the characters to keep existing. You can reuse a good ending as much as you need to, without it ever getting as jarring as a bad ending, or an ending badly matched to the movie.

See, the thing is, endings aren't really the place to be original in a movie - it's not the destination it's the journey etc. etc.; to give an example Shakespeare was a great storyteller and he only used two kinds of endings - 'happily ever after', and 'everyone dies'. Neither of these satisfy the desire to leave the viewer to have something to think about, but that is okay, because figuring out, e.g., what Hamlet's motivations were *during* the play is food for thought sufficient for ten plays. That everyone dies at the end is therefore superfluous and essentially a necessary formality of Shakespeare's personal medium - to my mind a constraint that was worked around. Miyazaki's personal medium, as established by his previous work, certainly doesn't include 'happily ever after' as a necessary formality.

Really, ultimately I can't agree to Juliet of the Spirits + 3 minutes of intense Hollywood ending. Since this is my favourite movie we're talking about I can certainly allow myself to be picky.

Daniel Thomas MacInnes said...

Ah, great read! That's a lot to digest.

It's a good thing that you brought up the final scene in Howl, because I've been wanting to address that very subject. I have a screenshot from the end of Chaplin's The Gold Rush just for the occasion, but the opportunity hasn't ever come up.

I won't go into depth here, but I do think you're right in that Miyazaki often declares a movie "finished" before the final scenes. I think you will find the climax to the picture will be several scenes before.

In Howl, the true ending is the scene where Sophie travels into Howl's childhood.

In Porco Rosso, the climax is Marco's story of his lost friend and the sea of airplanes.

In Spirited Away, the climax is the scene of Sen/Chihiro on the bus.

Oftentimes, the endings to Miyazaki's movies are abrubt, sudden, like John Lennon's "I Want You (She's So Heavy) at the end of Abbey Road side 1. Kiki and Mimi are good examples. And Nausicaa deviously ends on a bait-and-switch; the audience is made to believe in a happy ending, but none of the film's major conflicts are truly resolved.

In the end, I remember the words of Pauline Kael: great movies are rarely perfect movies. There will be flaws and weaknesses in even the best classics (Citizen Kane and Casablanca are built upon McGuffins). And there will be great moments in even the worst movies. That's part of the fun.

The last minutes of Howl's Moving Castle? Just laugh it off. Goodness knows the movie does. But I'll go into depth on that later.

Adrienne said...

Yes, I must agree with serhei that the end of Howl is unsatisfying. I felt that the film dissolved into a confusing succession of "apocolyptic" scenes toward the finale, and then gives us a trite ending. You could say the ending to "Castle in the Sky" was corny as well, but the plight of those innocent children is more moving. I just wasn't as emotionally invested in Howl as other Miyazaki films.

Howl trades his heart for the ability to do whatever he likes without getting emotionally involved. I sure didn't get that when I saw it for the first time in the theatre!! I was especially dissapointed in that aspect, as it's a criticism I have of most anime feature-films I've seen---dissolving into a lot of confusion towards the end (with gratuitous destruction), and then leaving me ice cold to boot!

Daniel Thomas MacInnes said...

Howl gives his heart to his first love, which is the freedom to create his art. He is not cold to his friends and family, and he loves Sophie, but she must come second.

In other words, it's a portrait of the artist. And it's a remarkable admission from a famous workaholic to the wife he loves.

As for Castle in the Sky, I love the scene where Conan and Lana, err, cough, Pazu and Sheeta detonate the self-destruct switch, believing they will sacrifice their lives. It's a beautiful moment.

The final scene, of course, may seem pat, and concerned with wrapping up loose ends, but it's unimportant. Miyazaki's final scenes are often this way; it's just his way.

Aja said...

I think also the ending is a salute to the actual novel that Howl is based on (which people forget about in the scheme of things sometimes). If you've read the novel, then you know the climax and "wrapping up" is even SHORTER than Miyazaki gave us. In fact, the scene with the flying castle sets up for the novel's sequel-- where Howl's castle really DOES fly.

I've always seen the movie and the book as companions to each other. Reading the book, you get some insight into the movie-- but the movie brings a different spin on Sophie and Howl's relationship.

Becky said...

I actually quite enjoy Lupin III, probably because by the time I saw it, I had read most of the original manga, and some of the later stuff. I recognized the weariness in Lupin, as well as the other points you touch on. And besides, it does stay true to the zaniness of the source material, while excising the parts that would be too vulgar for kids.

My beef with Howl's Moving Castle is the same beef I have with Tales of Earthsea - these stories are not really the same (at all) to the source material. I read Howl's Moving Castle as a kid (as I did The Farthest Shore, the main source for Tales of Earthsea, as well as A Wixard of Earthsea and Tombs of Atuan) and I am frankly quite attached to them.

The heart of the book Howl's Moving Castle is about letting expectations (especially other people's expectations) get in the way of one's potential, something that applies as much to Howl, Sophie's sisters and her step-mother as it does to Sophie. Its about choosing to do what's right despite being afraid or hating the situation, not because its expected of you, but because its the right thing to do. Self confidence is also a major theme.

Miyazaki's film touches on some of the themes in the book, but I found his message about war to overwhelm these themes (not that I disagree, that's just not what the original story's really about). Also, I will never forgive turning Mrs. Penstemmon, one of the Big Goods of the book into a villain. (Okay, so techniquely, Madame Suliman is a composite character of Mrs. Penstemmon, the King of Ingary, and the Wizard Suliman... But still.)

I don't know. I just can't help being disappointed about Howl's Moving Castle, despite Calcifer and the hair slime tantrum scene. Its just not the same without John Donne's Song, I guess.

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