In Which I Defeat My Own Ignorance By Watching Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle

Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle are two versions of the same story. I like the story, though, so that doesn’t bother me.

Each movie is about a young female protagonist who gets trapped in a magical realm and immediately takes a crappy job as cleaning lady for convoluted reasons. The protagonist then falls in love with a handsome, older male who is sometimes nice and sometimes mean and can turn into some kind of animal. She is menaced by an old woman who is also sometimes nice and sometimes mean. She then collects a group of random, creepy friends, and, upon reaching the climax of the story, has an insight that solves a major problem for the handsome older male. At some point along the way, someone says something beautiful and poetic about rivers and/or stars, and then all of the problems introduced in the first half of the story are solved.

This is a more detailed summary:

Spirited Away:

Who’s the young female protagonist? Chihiro, a child moving to a new house with her parents.
How does she get trapped in a magic realm? Her parents pig out on spirit food, which traps them in the spirit realm, and then she has to rescue them.
Where does she get a crappy job as a cleaning lady? A bathhouse for spirits. I don’t know why they need to take a bath.
Who is the handsome older male? Haku, henchman to the bathhouse owner.
What does he turn into? A dragon.
Who is the menacing old woman who suddenly starts acting nice? Yubaba, owner of the bathhouse.
Who are Chihiro’s random, creepy friends? A giant baby that’s been turned into a very small hippo, an evil bird that’s been turned into … a smaller bird? or an insect?, and a monster called No-Face who eats greedy people.

WTF is this movie about? It’s about humility and greed. Most of the characters get into trouble because they’re greedy, and Chihiro ultimately prospers because she’s humble and doesn’t ask for more than she needs.

What’s the format like? Obviously, I don’t know the context for any of this in Japanese culture, but Spirited Away involves a lot of fairy tale elements and fairy tale logic. Yubaba, for some reason, has to give a job to anyone who asks three times; Chihiro has to pass a series of formal and informal tests in order to prove she has good character; there are heavy moralistic messages like “Don’t be greedy” along the way.

What is the best part? The best part is a sub-plot where we learn that Yubaba enslaves people by stealing their names and that, once you forget who you are, you’ll be under her control forever. Haku saves Chihiro’s name for her so that she can escape, and she spends most of the movie trying to remember where she knows him from, so that she can save his name, too. It’s not really spoiling anything to say that she eventually remembers, but the revelation is very moving.

What is the most disturbing part?  I really want to say No-Face, but the giant baby is the most disturbing part. There’s a scene where he coldly tells Chihiro that if she doesn’t do what he says, he’ll scream and Yubaba will come and kill her. It’s chilling because you can tell from the way he says it that it’s true. Also, he’s a giant baby and that’s kind of disturbing on its own.

Howl’s Moving Castle:

Who’s the young female protagonist? Sophie, a hat-maker who doesn’t take chances in life.
How does she get trapped in a magic realm? The Witch of the Waste curses Sophie and turns her into an old woman, sending her on a journey to break the spell.
Where does she get a crappy job as a cleaning lady? Howl’s moving castle. It’s a big, weird house that walks around.
Who is the handsome older male? Howl.
What does he turn into? A bird monster.
Who is the menacing old woman who suddenly starts acting nice? The Witch of the Waste.
Who are Sophie’s random, creepy friends? A silent scarecrow, a boy wizard (okay), and a sentient flame that wants to eat her eyes.

WTF is this movie about? It’s about attitudes toward aging – we sometimes fear getting older, but that’s also how we grow. Howl is (literally) unable to mature beyond his teenage years emotionally; Sophie ends up old before her time. Aging is presented as a natural part of life, that should come (and be allowed to come; and be welcomed) in its own time.

What’s the format like? Howl’s Moving Castle is loosely based on a British novel, and the story seems like it’s clearly set in Europe, despite the fantastical elements. Just like in Spirited Away, the main character seems weirdly down with being a cleaning lady, forsaking all other missions she had underway, but this movie is much less episodic, and stays more tightly focussed on the romance between Sophie and Howl.

What is the best part? The best part is the big, climactic action sequence near the end of the movie, where Sophie suddenly has an insight and figures out what’s wrong with Howl, and the castle falls apart, and everyone’s freaking out, and Howl’s busy being a bird monster or something. It’s a big pay off to a lot of plot threads all at once, and it’s exciting.

What is the most disturbing part? When the fire says he wants to eat her eyes. When the fire says he wants to eat her eyes.

People are more than one way:

What I like best about both of these movies is that they present a very fluid picture of identity. I say that Sophie gets changed into an old woman in Howl’s Moving Castle, but the truth is that she’s old and young at the same time. For most of the film, she seamlessly drifts between being older, when she’s facing practical problems that she’s more than equipped to deal with, and younger, when she’s falling in love with Howl – something she’s had no experience with before. Her physical transformations are a concrete way of showing us something that’s already true about her – that she’s both old and young, experienced and inexperienced, capable and fumbling, at the same time.

In Spirited Away, Yubaba has a “twin sister” who has a different personality than she does, and it’s strongly suggested that they’re really the same person (at the very least, we’re invited to conflate the two characters and to treat the boundary between them as suspect). Either way, it’s suggested that one person can be both angry and loving, and capable of both selfishness and kindness.

Chihiro isn’t all one way, either. Even though I keep calling her Chihiro, she really has two names for most of the film, and two roles. She’s both a child on a frightening quest to save her parents, and an employee at the bath house who’s just trying to do a good job. Her priorities seem a little messed-up sometimes, until you remember that she’s not just fulfilling one role.

Let’s not even touch the thing where Haku and Howl are animagi or whatever.

The point is that, when you’re watching these movies, there’s a real sense that the self is not a single, unified thing – that there are multiple aspects to each of us, which may come to the fore at different times. We may not be able to reconcile them with each other in a coherent way – it may be that we exist simultaneously as several different people. It may be that that’s just what it’s like to be alive.

I dig this identity stuff more than I dig a giant, murderous baby.

In conclusion:

A few weeks ago, someone on Pop Culture Happy Hour said something about how the value of watching movies like this is that they come from another culture, and don’t operate according to the same assumptions and conventions as American films. I think that’s true. I don’t think that means these are better than American movies – I also watched The Lego Movie this week, and it’s the polar opposite of these, and I still really liked it – but I do think that the defamiliarizing aspect of foreign films can help you to feel open-minded and to see things from a different angle, even if it’s not the angle that was expressly intended.

FUN FACT: When I was a child, one of my favourite books was Bob-About the Awkward Wizard about a wizard, named Bob-About, who has a big walking house, kind of like Howl’s. Nobody in the village likes him and he doesn’t fit in, so they trick him into trapping himself in bottle, because they’re assholes. The story ends with his house wandering the countryside forever trying to find out WTF happened to him. I’m not making this up.

Image: Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle; Disney, Buena Vista | December 12, 2014