A Man's Home
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Miyazaki's animated films suffer as much when they're dubbed into
English as do the films of any other serious foreign filmmaker.
I happened to see Miyazaki's latest feature, Howl's
Moving Castle, in its dubbed English version a few hours
after I'd seen his immediately preceding one, Spirited Away,
in the original Japanese version, with English subtitles (on DVD).
I've never seen the dubbed version of Spirited AwayI
saw it theatrically in the Japanese version when it was released
in 2003and I've never had any wish to. The English-dubbed Howl confirmed me in my skepticism. The voices (Christian
Bale's excepted) are not terrible, but they sound layered on, as
the original Japanese voices in Spirited Away do not.
In neither Japanese nor English, though, do the voices really seem
to emerge from the characters in Miyazaki's films. Miyazaki is not
much concerned with lip-sync, and there's no sense that movement
and speech are organically related, as in the sort of animation
that makes lip-sync irrelevant. For the most part, his characters'
faces and bodies move in the mechanical, doll-like patterns familiar
from so many Japanese animated films. In design, too, the principal
characters have that Japanese cookie-cutter look. Howl's
English speakers seem to be striving for a kind of expressiveness
that such drawings will not support. The contrast may not be as
jarring as in the dubbed version of Kiki's Delivery Service
that I saw a few years ago, but it's strong enough.
Given the obstacles that Miyazaki always raises to sympathy for
his charactersand given too his limited interest in narrative
coherenceHowl's Moving Castle required a continuously
high level of invention if it was to succeed. It's just such an
unceasing flow of invention that makes Spirited Away a fascinating
film, and Howl's Moving Castle falls well short of that standard,
however arresting some of its scenes.
Like Kiki, Howl is set in a fantasy Edwardian Europe.
Its witches and wizards (Howl himself is one) are just another professional
group, one that can be directed to serve perverted ends as readily
as physicians in Nazi Germany. It's an anything-goes sort of environment,
visually, but like so many other artists, Miyazaki seems more hobbled
than liberated the more free he is of restraints. The hand-drawn
animation and CGI animation are often poorly integratedin
contrast, again, to Spirited Awayand the mismatch distracts
from what could have been visually arresting. Just as often, though,
what's on the screen is simply hopeless. Howl's castle looks like
an agitated junk heap; more to the point, it looks like nothing
more than a junk heap.
No other maker of animated films has been so extravagantly praised
in recent years as Miyazaki. So far, though, it's only in his most
intensely Japanese films, like Spirited Awayfilms set
in Japan, and drawing deeply on Japanese folklorethat Miyazaki
has shown himself to be a truly universal artist, one whose work
demands my admiration however strong my doubts about its staying
[Posted July 29, 2005]