Anime Adaptations: Part Two – Howl’s Moving Castle

Posted: March 17, 2014 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , , , , , ,

Here is part two of the blog series where I take a look at creative adaptation through showcasing some anime adaptations of western books. In the first post of the series I explained a little of my love for anime and then analysed Gankutsuou: The Count of Monte Cristo.

This time I’m looking at one of the most well known anime adaptation of a western book, Howl’s Moving Castle [2004] directed by Hayao Miyazaki based on the book of the same title by Dianne Wynne Jones [written in 1986]. I’m tackling this next because a) this is the adaptation that got me thinking about this little series and b) I have just finished reading the book, kindly lent to me by the person who also sparked the idea for examining anime adaptations.

English version of the trailer

Howl’s Moving Castle follows the story of Sophie Hatter, aged 18 until she falls foul of The Witch of the Waste who places a curse on her, aging Sophie to around 90. Unable to stay at home, Sophie sets out to find a way to break the curse and finds herself  pretending to be a cleaning lady in the Moving Castle owned by Wizard Howl, a selfish character who eats woman’s hearts, apparently. Soon Sophie is involved in breaking more curses than just her own.

Poster for Howl's Moving Castle

Poster for Howl’s Moving Castle

Doesn’t that image fill you with a sense of charmed whimsy? Of course it does. Miyazaki’s visuals for this film capture the spirit of Jones’ novel perfectly as does the swirling score by usual Miyazaki collaborator Joe Hisashi. [My favourite tracks on the OST have to be Flower Garden and The Boy Who Drank Stars.] The attention to detail that Miyazaki demonstrates in all of his films, the idyllic country imagery and panache for animating magical worlds really brings the flavour of Wynne Jones’ writing to life.

Howl's Moving Castle Poster

Howl’s Moving Castle Poster

And that is the secret of a successful adaptation in my mind, not to mention the thing you will be told over and over by teachers of screenwriting. Capturing the essence of the book is the trick. It is nigh on impossible to get the visuals to match the varied pictures the readers will create in their heads, but if you can convey the feeling the book creates for the reader than a good sixty percent of the battle is won in the adaptation. Of course there will be people who disagree with this, after all, the creative medium is a subjective one. No right or wrong answers here, only opinions and debate – and box office sales figures if you are cynical.

Unlike the last example of book to anime adaptation, Howl’s Moving Castle is a feature film which means it has a much shorter time to tell the story than the 24 episodes of Gankutsuou. It’s only natural then that characters and subplots are cut and moments modified to tell a coherent story. Gankutsuou’s strength came from having the breathing space to explore all the convoluted elements of The Count of Monte Cristo, Howl’s Moving Castle on the other hand like most filmic adaptations had to pick and chose what stayed and what went, which drawing out new themes that were relevant to the audience watching in 2004.

Brief warning that from here on be spoilers

Thematically, Miyazaki has drawn out one of the less mentioned, but still present, ideas of impending war in the book to become a major motif. It is a motivator for Howl’s actions and a way for Miyazaki to explore his own anti-war feelings around the period where American, British and European troops were involved in the contentious period of the war on terrorism, in Afghanistan and Iraq. It was not until very recently that I found out there were also Japanese troops in those regions so it is little wonder that Miyazaki who has such a strong anti-war feeling in many of his movies [starting as early as Nausicaa and The Valley of the Wind] should pull this element out.

Bombing raid

Bombing raid

War makes monsters of us all, despite good or bad intentions the film seems to say by literally transforming the court wizards into horrific flying creatures loaded in bomb bays of mega airships. [Airships, another Miyazaki visual motif and fascination that places his stamp not Wynne Jones’ on the adaptation.]

Howl loses control in action

Howl loses control in action

From a plot point of view this changes some of the motivations of the characters. Howl is running away from war and his old tutor Wizard Suliman, who is a character hybrid from the book, as she wants him to fight. The presence of warships at Porthaven replaces the fantastic magical battle between Howl and the Witch of Waste, which loses something.

But the Witch of the Waste [pictured below] gets the usual Miyazaki villain treatment; she is no longer purely evil. She is another woman who fell in love with Howl and was scorned seeking revenge, so far, so like the novel, but then she is reduced to her own old age and inducted into the gang who live in the moving castle. She becomes a lonely old lady searching for comfort and companionship and is thus redeemed through the film.

Witch of the Waste - image from http://animecharactersreviews.blogspot.co.uk/

Witch of the Waste – image from http://animecharactersreviews.blogspot.co.uk/

Other characters are changed and merged to deal with the tighter scale of a film. Sophie remains true to the novel’s protagonist, but she loses a sister, Martha, and a little of her complex about failing because she is the Eldest. However, her charm, resilience and determination still captures the heart of all around her, including many inanimate objects like the bewitched prince scarecrow. [One of the more abrupt reveals at the end of the movie which loses from the missing prince not being overtly introduced earlier in the film.]

Calcifer too remains very true to the sarcastic fire demon in the book, despite his visualisation being quite different.

Calcifer - image taken from http://howlscastle.wikia.com/wiki/Calcifer

Calcifer – image taken from http://howlscastle.wikia.com/wiki/Calcifer

“A thin blue face… very long with and thin, with a thin blue nose… curly green flames on top are  definitely your hair… purple flames near the bottom make your mouth… curiously enough the only orange flames were under the green eyebrow flames.” [Wynne Jones p.47]

Wizard Suliman has one of the greatest transformations.

Madame Suliman - a character merger of Wizard Suliman and Mrs. Pentstemmon

Madame Suliman – a character merger of Wizard Suliman and Mrs. Pentstemmon

No longer is he another visitor from our ordinary world Wales, turned magician, and come to think of it he’s no longer even male, Madame Suliman is a merger of Howl’s tutor the formidable Mrs. Pentstemmon and Ben Sullivan/Wizard Suliman the royal wizard. As the Wales-as-Howl’s-native-birthplace subplot is gone—replaced with a lonely childhood of study to make his and Sophie’s lonely upbringings relatable and provide a beautiful set piece of the flower garden on the edge of the wastes/marshes where star demons fall—it seems a natural and sensible merger of character. It does not detract from the plot for those who do not know the novel, and it is understandable for those who do know the original.

In losing the youngest sister, who was Michael’s love interest, Michael now Markl, can also become a younger character; someone Sophie can look after and who can add youthful energy to the story, and still seem ridiculous as he attempts some sense of authority. The character of the dog remains but is no longer part of the Suliman/Prince Justin hybrid the Witch of the Waste was building as her ideal man.

Sophie cleaning

Sophie cleaning

Finally I just want to draw attention to the fact that Miyazaki manages to bring in flavours of Japan to the adaptation. Sophie, when cleaning, ties her dress to keep it out of the way which is a blur of Japanese and Western styles, reminiscent of the way the characters in Spirited Away tie their uniforms out of the way to clean.

I guess this blurring of East and West sums up the magical animated worlds of most of Miyazaki’s creations. There is so much more to write but this post is already very long so, to end, here is the Japanese trailer for the movie which has a bit of a different tone to the English one.

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