HOW'LL NATIONAL REVIEW REVIEW HOWL?I was wondering whether or not National Review Online, still a kickass site for political information and opinion, would post any reviews of Hayao Miyazaki's Howl's Moving Castle, so I checked the site today, and they didn't have one review of it.
They had two reviews of it!
The first one was from Frederica Mathewes-Green, a columnist who writes mainly about religious issues and who occasionally is a commentater on National Public Radio's Morning Edition (ooh, the show for which Sarah Vowell, a.k.a. "Violet" from The Incredibles, is also a commentator). She's fairly enthusiastic about the film, and she actually had an interesting point about moral ambiguity in Ghibli films, how characters can be various shades of grey, yet there is still definite "right and wrong" separate from the characters' imperfect personalities:
"Volumes could be written about the challenges a Miyazaki film brings to an American audience, but one that interests me most is this resistance to our default assumptions about good guys and bad guys. Whether it's liberals hating "homophobes" or conservatives hating "pro-aborts" or everybody hating the KKK, we love to find somebody to hate. If we can locate a certifiable bad guy, we feel such relief; our own foibles seem excusable in contrast. There's nothing we love so much as the cowboy in a white hat shooting the cowboy in a black hat, and that template leaks over into our daily lives and interactions. The results are not pretty.
Miyazaki's world is not one of moral ambiguity — far from it — but one in which perfect goodness is clearly located somewhere outside of individual, fallible human beings. There's "absolute morality," all right, but nobody can claim to have it down pat, not in our crooked little hearts. Miyazaki's patience with imperfection teaches us patience as well, and that is a first step toward compassion."
Yeah, actually, that's one problem I've always had with so many reviews of Miyazaki's Princess Mononoke, particularly on anime review sites, but I haven't been able to articulate properly until now. People will bring up the moral amiguity of the characters as a strength of the film, but I'm always wondering why that should make me like the film more. We're all morally ambiguous to some degree, most people trying to live generally "good" lives according to one set of general principles or another but we frequently fall short, ready to compromise our principles for whatever reason depending on how important or bendable we think specific principles are. I don't think merely acknowledging moral ambiguity makes a film better, and I can think of serious anime with morally ambiguous characters I like way better than Mononoke, like Gundam 0080: A War in the Pocket, for example. Too much moral ambuguity can actually be rather nihilistic. But some acknowledgment that there is, sometimes, a "right" and "wrong" outside of ourselves provides the context to make morally ambiguous characters more uplifting, rather than depressing.
Ms. Mathewes-Green also seems generally amused by the way Howl is portrayed as a bishounen (pretty boy), making him really Hayao Miyazaki's first honest-to-goodness "bishie". "It's a weirdly androgynous effect, recalling the sexy-glam 80s (did you see David Bowie in Labyrinth?)."
The National Review contributor, author of Shows About Nothing: Nihilism in Popular Culture from The Exorcist to Seinfeld, and associate professor of philosophy at Boston College, Thomas S. Hibbs, gave the film a positive-but-not-overwhelmingly-so review.
He had some interesting thoughts on the characters' morality too, dealing more with temptation.
"This is one of the places in the film where the traditional Western notion of character formation through habit, through the repetitive choosing of certain kinds of acts, surfaces. Miyazaki tends to emphasize less this side of vice, the side that is to varying degrees under the power of an individual’s free will; instead, he highlights the sense of the experience of vice as something that overtakes an individual and possesses the soul, transforming the self into something over which the individual has very little control.
Even in the midst of such horrifying degradation of the human, Miyazaki stresses ordinary virtues, such as patient endurance, kindness, and equanimity. These are not so much versions of Stoic resistance as they are examples of light-heartedness, based on shared recognition that everyone is afflicted with some sort of curse."
He also finds a scene with Sophie riding a cable car to be "exquisite — not precious or effete but rich, inviting, and compelling." (Yes, effete... I honestly knew what that word meant without having to look it up... truly... not!)
Hibbs feels that this film's greatest shortcoming is that it often spends too much time on scenes with little relevance to the main plot... ouch, I guess the guy probably wouldn't be too much of a fan of the most lovely manga I have ever read, Hitoshi Ashinano's Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou, which is all "small scenes".
"Like his previous films, this film suggests multiple ways in which the magical world exists just beneath or alongside the everyday world. It also follows Miyazaki’s practice of blurring the lines of cause and effect, so that the significance of events, their role in altering the drama and transforming characters is nearly impossible to discern. In this film, however, Miyazaki unduly burdens viewers with long scenes whose connection to the main plot is obscure to the point of fostering indifference. This is a devastating defect for a film whose chief attraction is its ability to enchant.
If Moving Castle has a captivating visual style, intriguing characters, and thoughtful themes, it is, nonetheless, a disappointing film, a film whose pace is at times indulgent, too leisurely. Miyazaki’s great gift is for the lost art of childhood wonder, of disarming enchantment. Measured by these exalted standards, Miyazaki’s own standards, his latest effort comes up short."
Hmm... both of these reviews seem to be written from the perspective of people who preferred Princess Mononoke and/or Spirited Away, both of which I feel are overrated. As someone who genuinely prefers Kiki's Delivery Service and My Neighbor Totoro to Miyazaki's more recent films, I wonder what other "middle era Miyazaki" fans think of Howl's Moving Castle?
One thing I am pleased to see is that two different writers for a generally Bush-friendly political site didn't bring up the issue of the Iraq war in regards to this film. A lot of liberal, or at least non-conservative, reviewers seem to highlight the war subplot which Miyazaki added to the story as though it is some sort of allegorical reference to the Iraq war. I'm still fully in support of the Iraq War, where, despite the unfortunate troop losses brought about by mostly foreign 'splodeydopes and other assorted Islamofascist terrorist scum, there is plenty of good news. I don't know what Miyazaki thinks of the Iraq War, and, honestly, I don't care either. I just don't want to be beaten over the head with his opinion on it, but, since neither of these critics, writing on a conservative website, say anything of the sort, the allegedly blatant anti-Iraq War subtext could just be people predisposed to not caring for Bush's policies anyway reading way too much into things, or, possibly, reading something that is there, but reading it much louder than it was intended to be read.
While, as I explained in the previous post, I won't get a chance to make up my own mind about Howl's Moving Castle until next weekend at the absolute earliest, certainly Frederica Mathewes-Green and Thomas S. Hibbs have given me a lot to ponder, and what they've written could possibly swing my Miyazaki-jaded opinion a little more in the film's favour.