‘Howl’s’ a natural draw for an anime master

Special to The Times

Japanese animation has been influencing American pop culture for years now, appearing in everything from “Teen Titans” to Tarantino to Nike ads. How fitting, then, that Japan’s top animator, Academy Award winner Hayao Miyazaki, still looks to Old Europe and English literature for inspiration.

Miyazaki’s latest project, “Howl’s Moving Castle,” is no exception. In fact, while many of his films feature castles, witches and Alsatian vistas, this is the first time he’s directed a film adapted from Western source material. (He previously contributed as an animator to adaptations of “Heidi” and “Anne of Green Gables.”)

On Friday, Walt Disney Studios will release an English-language dub of “Howl’s,” in collaboration with Pixar Animation Studios and featuring the voices of an all-star cast led by Christian Bale, Jean Simmons and Billy Crystal.

It’s easy to see what attracted Miyazaki to “Howl’s Moving Castle,” the 1986 novel by prolific Brit scribe Diana Wynne Jones. With its warring wizards, quirky and cute characters and magical transformations, the book practically howls to be animated.

“Howl’s” tells the story of Sophie Hatter, a modest and thoroughly normal girl who is transformed into an old woman by the Witch of the Waste. When she sets off in search of a way to reverse the curse, Sophie crosses paths with the wizard Howl, a lovable cad who, when he’s not off stealing young women’s hearts (some say literally), lives in an ambulatory castle with his fire demon, Calcifer, and a young apprentice.


For Miyazaki, making a straightforward adaptation was out of the question. “In a Miyazaki film, he is the storyteller,” explained Pete Docter, who directed “Monsters Inc.” and, along with Rick Dempsey, co-directed the English-language dub of “Howl’s.” “In America, making an animated feature is such a collaborative process, but he just locks himself in a room and starts writing and drawing.”

While the film starts off remarkably close to the book, it isn’t long before Miyazaki’s sensibilities take center stage.

Visually, Miyazaki’s version of the fantasy realm of Ingary is far more sumptuous than Jones’ descriptions.

“There’s so much color, there’s so much detail,” Dempsey said. “You really need to take a step back to appreciate everything.”

Ever since his landmark children’s film “My Neighbor Totoro,” Miyazaki has been famous for his ability to make nonhuman and even nonspeaking characters rich and complex. In “Howl’s Moving Castle,” the demon Calcifer and the dog Heen almost steal the show. Even spiders and scarecrows have a soul in Miyazaki’s hands.

“Rarely do you find a film where you can watch and see something you’ve never seen before,” said the film’s executive producer, John Lasseter, a longtime friend of Miyazaki. “This guy is one of the greatest that’s ever lived.”

Evil takes a break

Miyazaki isn’t just a great visual storyteller -- he’s a man of conscience. And here, he has molded “Howl’s” to fit his own worldview.

For one thing, in his version, there are no evil characters. Even the Witch of the Waste, who seems like a traditional villain in the opening scenes, is rendered sympathetic by Miyazaki and is accepted with open arms by the very girl she cursed. Instead of a villain, Miyazaki adds an entirely new subplot -- a brutal war between two kingdoms. And Howl becomes an antiwar martyr who destroys warships regardless of for whom and why they fight.

Man’s destructiveness is offset by quiet moments of reflection on nature’s beauty, even as the film is charging toward its climax.

Studio Ghibli, which produced “Howl’s Moving Castle” and was co-founded by Miyazaki, is seldom subtle in its environmental and pacifist themes (the Ghibli-produced “Grave of the Fireflies” has been called one of the best antiwar films ever made).

“Telling stories about the past can help us in how we think about the future,” said Toshio Suzuki, Miyazaki’s longtime friend and producer on “Howl’s.” “We make films believing that it’s something worthwhile.”

Miyazaki’s film’s don’t so much follow logic as they do the director’s instincts.

“What he says in the morning can make a 180-degree shift by evening,” Suzuki said. “The staff is bewildered by this, but once you learn to look at it differently, it all makes sense.”

Miyazaki, who rarely grants interviews, once said: “It’s not me who makes the film. The film makes itself, and I have no choice but to follow.”

Apparently, Miyazaki’s instincts were once again spot-on. “Howl’s” opened in Japan in November to record-breaking success. Already it has earned $210 million in international box office and ranks as Japan’s third-highest-grossing film of all time (Miyazaki’s last film, “Spirited Away,” remains No. 1).

When it came time to prepare the film for U.S. release, Studio Ghibli requested the aide of Pixar’s Lasseter and Docter. Docter joined with veteran Disney voice director Dempsey to co-direct the Disney release. Overseeing the script adaptation were Cindy and Donald Hewitt, who wrote the English-language script for the Oscar-winning “Spirited Away.”

First came casting. “The characters are so strong in ‘Howl’s,’ especially Old Sophie,” after the girl is transformed by the witch’s curse, Dempsey said. “We knew we had to get her right. We couldn’t fake the age.” Docter and Dempsey found their Old Sophie in a screen legend -- Simmons (“Spartacus,” “Great Expectations”). “She really got into the character” during the dubbing sessions, Dempsey said. “She hunched over, making her posture like Sophie’s to ensure that she would sound like that character.”

For Howl, the directors wanted a strong, commanding voice. They found their man by laying voice clips of Bale as Batman over images of Howl. (Adam West, take note -- Dempsey previously cast Michael Keaton to do the dubbing for the DVD release of Miyazaki’s “Porco Rosso” by pairing Keaton’s version of Batman with the character).

They enlisted Crystal as the voice of Calcifer, the fire demon. “Calcifer is such a great comedic character,” said Dempsey. “We thought maybe we could bring a bit of [Crystal’s] character to the role.”

At ease, anime purists. Although Crystal improvised some takes in the recording process, what appears in the film is a very literal translation of the Japanese.

The greatest cultural barrier that the directors faced was the ambiguity in the script.

“Japanese audiences don’t mind as much when a film leaves things a little mysterious,” Dempsey explained. “For American audiences ... we don’t like to leave the theater scratching our head and asking, ‘Now what was that about?’ ”

The reasons for Miyazaki’s war, for example, were unclear. The Hewitts suggested three spots where the story could be clarified to explain the reasons behind the war. Ghibli approved only one.

Another subtext that could have easily been lost in translation was taken straight from Jones’ original book. “All of these characters are in love with Howl,” Docter said. “It’s very subtle in the Japanese, but we tried very hard to make sure it came out in the English.”

As it comes full circle with the English-language dub, “Howl’s” is either the most English of anime or the most Japanese of English fantasies ever made. Either way, it’s unlikely audiences have ever seen anything like it -- a mongrel of the highest pedigree.