Well, now that Bluth got us started, it’s time for Miyazaki to show us what he’s made of one more time, here in the twilight days of his career.

 

Going through Bluth’s final two movies made via a move to Fox Animation Studios (a sort of last stand as it were), he had some of his better results (http/www.manic-expression.com/apps/blog/show/29389333-when-directors-clash-hayao-miyazaki-vs-don-bluth-final-round-part-1-), but not only does Miyazaki have plenty of leeway here, he’s saved some of his most interesting entries for last. One final time, we put these two against each other and separate the great from the all-time great.

Anastasia and Titan A.E.

Vs.

Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle

 

Spirited Away: Here it is, the single greatest success of Hayao Miyazaki’s career. Spirited Away, the story of a ten year old girl’s journey into a world of spirits and forced survival by her own wits, broke records as the most successful film in Japan, as well as one of the most popular anime films in the United States. But it has occurred to me what an insignificant rehash it would be to go on about its acclaim as one of the greatest pieces of animation of all time, or how it’s a new take on an Alice in Wonderland-type concept, or how close it came to becoming my favorite of all Miyazaki’s movies. No, I should be talking about something a bit more distinct. How about that many of the fellow Miyazaki fans I’ve talked to actually consider it one of their least favorite movies of his?

 

 

The reason, they tell me, is the main character, ten year old Chihiro. She begins the story as a spoiled and whiny girl, moving with her family to a new place, and what she learns through her adventure is not, explicitly, to change this attitude. Instead, after she enters an empty amusement park with her parents – against her will – the rug is swept out from under her altogether, and she finds herself alone, scared, and scrambling to save herself on the outskirts of a strange bathhouse. In a sea of bizarre creatures that consider her the only outcast, and one lone mysterious ally who comes and goes, is there no time to learn a lesson?

 

 

Actually, it’s worth saying that there’s a reason the story hasn’t drawn so many direct comparisons to Alice in Wonderland as it has to its sequel, Through the Looking Glass. (The latter is almost better known as a phrase than a storybook title. Most don’t seem to know, for example, that it’s actually the story in which Humpty Dumpty, Tweedledee and Tweedledum made their first appearances.) Even the titles are a tip off as to why; “Alice in Wonderland” practically summarizes the story, where a girl stumbles into a land of oddities mostly just to watch and witness for a while. But who knows what someone would do, or find, if they were able to go “through the looking glass,” into a world extending from a distorted image of our own?

 

 

That, not the construction of “Wonderland,” is the essence of Spirited Away, and it’s put towards the same type of story as Through the Looking Glass: a coming of age adventure. Chihiro, forced to get a job at the bathhouse to save herself, is suddenly made to sink or swim on her own resilience and cunning. Her name is – literally – stolen away from her by the malicious overseer, replaced with the name “Sen,” and recalling it is essential to rejoining her old world. In the meantime, she is made to bathe stink spirits and entertain everything from gigantic babies to the mysterious creature “No-Face.” But with no leeway to complain, she shows impressive pluck, and a little kindness starts to win her some friends around the place. In fact, some of them begin turning to her for help, even the mysterious Haku, who saves her several times because he remembers her name from somewhere far back. This must be significant, considering he can’t even remember his own.

 

 

Miyazaki was inspired to make this movie after witnessing the indifference of the ten year old daughter of his friend towards her parents, noting that she seemed to live in her own sort of world. What the movie draws from its inspiration, including Chihiro, is clear, and personally, I think her character is essential to the movie’s success. The story couldn’t be driven the same way by just “a nice girl.” This is not the story of Alice deciding what she thinks of Wonderland. It requires someone who could never come back the same as they started, if they come back at all, and it requires they have a little more defiance than your average shrinking violet; Chihiro might be prone to whining, but she’s not weak, and she doesn’t need to be moralized. She’s just a little out of her element, at the awkward age of 10, and sometimes it’s the strangest trips that finally make us comfortable in our own shoes.

 

 

Final Score: 9.5/10

 

 

Howl’s Moving Castle: What we have here could be Miyazaki’s strangest feature. Howl’s Moving Castle, adapted from a sleeper hit novel, takes several would-be simple plots, turns them out in directions most conventional filmmaker would not have gone, and then pulls them together in a tangled web none-the-less firmly bound together, still leaving some pieces obscured below the surface. Of his ten theatrical releases as director, the critical reception for this one, an important measure of his ability to carry on at this stage, was probably the worst. It was overwhelmingly positive.

 

 

Sophie is an introverted hat maker, who works each day to carry on her father’s business, resolved to a solemn, lonelier life than her attractive younger sister leads. In the novel, this is explained to be one of the accepted tropes of the fairy tale world they live in; not only are witches, wizards and curses prominent and feared, but the oldest sibling is never the one who gets a happy ending. In the movie, however, Sophie is simply a hard worker with no faith in her own worth. She stays after hours, puts her family members – deceased and living – ahead of herself, and walks the streets with her head bowed under a large hat. In a tender moment, she steps up to a mirror, strikes a smiling pose to herself, and then scowls and pulls her hat over her eyes.

 

 

This gives the story an even stronger resemblance to the self-insert female fantasies becoming more common in the present day. Not only is Sophie a seemingly-flawless, humble, and underappreciated gem, but soon she catches the eye of a good-looking and powerful but emotional wizard who needs her to be all he can be. There’s even a brief appearance later by a sort of “Jacob,” who also finds Sophie to be the girl of his dreams. There’s just one detail that keeps me from labeling it as such: After Sophie meets and is saved by the romantic lead, who later turns out to be the infamous recluse Howl, his jealous ex-lover, the Witch of the Waste, casts a curse that turns Sophie into a shriveled old lady. I can’t imagine many women fantasizing about that one.

 

 

Prevented by the curse from even telling anyone what happened, Sophie flees town and, with nowhere else to turn, takes refuge in Howl’s moving castle, more tired than afraid in her old age. But when Howl turns out to be the man who saved her, instead of the infamous predator that rumors suggest, Sophie finds that she fits in rather well with him and his crew; even without a cursed old woman, Howl was captain of an odd ship, with a fire spirit whose very life is tied to Howl’s heart (and by extension, his moving castle) and his young apprentice Markl – whose best trick is to transform into an old secretary and answer Howl’s clients – as his closest allies. In fact, being old woman seems to give Sophie some much-needed fortitude. As a smug and formidable grandmother, instead of a black sheep sister, she becomes the center of her new makeshift family.

 

 

I can’t be sure if calling the plot complicated would be about right or an understatement. Through the last hour of the movie, we cover Sophie’s curse – which seems to fade each time she opens up her love for Howl – Howl’s past becoming a wizard, attempts by his mentor to draft him into the war, his evolution from a fun-loving but melodramatic coward to a self-sacrificing lover, his bond with the fire demon, his relationship with the Witch of the Waste (whose importance quickly dies away), and Sophie and crew’s rather complex last effort to save him. It probably doesn’t reach the level of investment of Miyazaki’s best movies, but it doesn’t lose us, because for all the strange and sudden turns, the focus always seems to revolve around Sophie and Howl. Their development, for all the chaos flying around them, is what drives the story, and, as is, they certainly have a lot to play off of.

 

 

I will take a point away here for letting certain themes seem tangent to the rest of the story, despite the story itself carrying its weight just fine. But I cannot criticize the movie as a self-insert fantasy, because Sophie is not made to be replaced by the viewer. Her meek shyness is presented as an obstacle, not an absence of flaws, and she is made to overcome it as the tale progresses. And if Howl can’t help seeming like a textbook pretty boy, at least he’s also a fun guy with a full range of personality, which is on display from his darkest moments to his lightest, and from his most humiliating to his proudest. Howl’s Moving Castle takes the self-insert fantasy, rips out pretense and vanity, and replaces them with a genuine heart and an active mind.

 

 

Final score: 8/10

 

 

Winner: Well, Bluth’s scores of 8 and 7.5 out of 10 should be a clear indicator. Whether it comes to the most ambitious or most unwieldy stories, it seems Miyazaki is able to push the envelope further and more coherently. Bluth’s last stand is admirable, but at the core of these entries, we have Bluth trying to live up to himself vs. Miyazaki trying to surpass himself. The difference speaks for itself.

 

 

And with that, this long blow for blow match has finally come to end. The results have been all across the board, but now, let’s see the final scorecard in this ten round match:

 

 

Bluth:

Recommended: 7

Unapproved: 3

 

 

Miyazaki:

Recommended: 10

Unapproved: 0

 

 

Highest average: Miyazaki

Bluth: 7/10

Miyazaki: 8.5/10

 

 

Single highest score: Bluth

Bluth: 9.5/10

Miyazaki: 9.5/10

 

 

Single lowest score: Bluth

Bluth: 4.5/10

Miyazaki: 7/10

 

 

Most rounds won: Miyazaki

Miyazaki: 8

Bluth: 1

Ties: 1

 

 

In the end, Bluth’s ambition was his greatest weapon, but it lacked the supporting foundation that Miyazaki always seems to have. At least once, Bluth managed to reach such heights that he at least prevented an irrefutable sweep, but it only amounted to a single hard-won bright spot against a long list of victories won by a clear master of the genre. Hayao Miyazaki is a man with both wonderful imagination and powerful, clear visions, and there may never be another director like him. Even great names in the genre are dwarfed by his; Bluth is perhaps one of a handful who could have even held up this well.

 

 

Winner: Hayao Miyazaki

 

 

And now that the sentimentality is setting in, I’d like to thank everyone who took the time to read this series and give me their feedback. Here at the end, I’m definitely hoping that we get more movies from both Don Bluth and Hayao Miyazaki before the time comes from them to set down their pens, because men with their drive and talent don’t come around very often. But since it’s probably the last time I review his stuff for a long while, I also have to send a thank you out to Don Bluth. It was his most distinct films, and the incredible stories behind them, that helped spark my enthusiasm for movies. It’s become my favorite hobby, which just goes to show you how a little enthusiasm can spread.

 

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