Castle in the Sky

I watched this the same week that I saw The Return of the King. Enduring Jackson’s bastardized Tolkien was a grim duty. Watching Castle in the Sky was a pleasure. One of Miyazaki’s earlier films, it’s set in a world in which aircraft developed differently than in ours and in which exists the flying island of Laputa (aside from the island and its name, there are no other obvious Swiftian elements; Miyazaki is a storyteller, not a satirist).
Sheeta, a young woman trying to escape both air pirates and a creepy government official, falls from an airship. Instead of plummeting to her death, a jewel she wears magically slows her descent so that she floats to the ground, where the young man Pazu catches her. Lots of stuff happens: Sheeta and Pazu flee pirates, travel through a mine, are separated, get captured, join forces with the pirates, and so on, and so on, until they finally defeat the power-crazed Muska on the flying island.
Castle in the Sky is probably Miyazaki’s least representative movie and his weakest. It has an unequivocally evil villain, unlike any of his other studio Ghibli releases (I haven’t seen Howl’s Moving Castle yet). The plot is excessively complicated, and there is more fighting and destruction than necessary. Sheeta and Pazu never become as real as, say, Nausicaa or Marco. Nevertheless, Miyazaki’s worst is still better than most other auteurs’ best. Although the principal characters are not as well-developed as they should be, they are still attractive, and the secondary characters are colorful. There’s plenty to please the eyes, from the mining town where Pazu lives to the flying pastoral paradise.
Incidentally, if you wonder what Luke Skywalker would have been like had he gone over to the dark side, you can find out by listening to the quite tolerable dub. Mark Hamill has a grand old time as the smarmy, menacing Muska.
Update: I finally saw Howl’s Moving Castle, and I can state that Castle in the Sky is now Miyazaki’s second-weakest film.

Porco Rosso

Porco Rosso may be the most personal of Miyazaki’s movies, but it may also be the most enjoyable. It’s is a pleasure to watch, from the opening sequence in which aviator Marco, the “Crimson Pig,” rescues a gaggle of giddy schoolgirls from air pirates (and pirates from schoolgirls) to the final showdown with a hotshot American pilot. Marco really is a pig, though it’s his airplane that’s red. The story is straightforward: air pirates operating in the Adriatic before WWII, frustrated by Porco Rosso, hire an American ace to shoot him down. Engine troubles bring Marco down in their first dogfight. He has his plane rebuilt in Milan, returns to his island hideout with the engineer daughter of the airplane builder and faces the American pilot again in a high-stakes duel. Although it’s a simple story, it’s not a dull one. The characters are all engaging, and the tone varies smoothly from humorous to dramatic to elegaic to farcical.
And there’s lots and lots of flying. I can’t think of any other contemporary artist who is as obsessed with flight as Miyazaki, except maybe for photographer Paul Bowen. Although there’s nothing really objectionable about Porco Rosso, it’s probably better suited for older audiences. It’s the Miyazaki movie my father is most likely to enjoy.

Howl’s Moving Castle

The unthinkable has happened. Hayao Miyazaki made a lousy movie.
If you like the book Howl’s Moving Castle, skip the movie. It will disappoint you or make you angry. If you’ve never read the book, skip the movie. It’s the worst possible introduction to either Miyazaki or Diana Wynne Jones. Transferring a complicated novel to the screen involves simplifications and omissions (and is usually not worth the effort, but that’s a rant for another day); however, there is a difference between making necessary adjustments and trashing the story.
The good news: visually, the movie is splendid, the castle in particular. It looks like a steampunk version of Baba Yaga’s hut. And, um, that’s about it.
The bad news:
The plot doesn’t make much sense.
The characters aren’t interesting, and their motivation is often unclear.
John Donne’s Song is gone.
So is Wales.
Howl is less a disreputable sorcerer than a bishounen.
In the book, Sophie and Howl express themselves largely through insults and sarcasm. This satiric persiflage, one of the pleasures of the book, is entirely missing from the movie.
However, there is a war in the movie, which in the book was a merely distant threat. Miyazaki intended it as political comment, demonstrating once again that propaganda is the enemy of art.
… I could go on, but that’s enough for now.
One fundamental problem is that Miyazaki has a different understanding of evil than Diana Wynne Jones. It’s been often noted that there are seldom villains in a Miyazaki movie. I can only think of two: the count in The Castle of Cagliostro and Muska in Castle in the Sky (Mark Hamill’s greatest role). Sometimes the absence of an unambiguous villain is a strength. In Princess Mononoke, for instance, however misguided Lady Eboshi may be, she’s not evil. The conflicts arise not from a simple good guy/bad guy clash, but from the intractable problems inherent in the meeting of technology and nature. Sometimes, though, it is necessary to consider those who do choose to do evil. In Jones’ book, the Witch of the Waste is not only a constant threat to Howl and Sophie, but she also illustrates the danger in Howl and Calcifer’s contract. When Miyazaki turns Witch into a dear old infant, the plot no longer makes sense.
The book Howl’s Moving Castle is a favorite of mine, and I recommend it to anyone who is old enough for Harry Potter. Miyazaki has made some excellent movies. Porco Rosso, Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away are first rate, and all of his others — until now — are at least very good. If you do see Howl, please bear in mind that it’s not representative of either Miyazaki or Diana Wynne Jones.
By the way, I saw the movie with a highly intelligent friend who hadn’t read the book, and who has enjoyed Miyazaki in the past. She also found the plot incomprehensible and the motivation murky. It’s not just me and my dislike of movie adaptations.