I watched two very different animated films this weekend: the Wallace and Gromit movie, and Howl’s Moving Castle.
Hugely enjoyable as the former is, it’s the latter, a Japanese anime movie directed by Hayao Miyazaki of Spirited Away fame, that sticks in the mind. Spirited Away was perhaps the first anime film to really achieve mainstream success in the West, and the fact that it and Howl’s Moving Castle have been successful at all in the West is pretty remarkable.
It’s remarkable not because of any lack of quality in the film-making – Spirited Away especially is full of haunting, beautiful, strange images (like the one below) which live long in the memory – but because the Japanese seem to have a fundamentally different approach to storytelling.
Indeed, the Japanese films dispense with the two absolute basics of Western story conventions: the linear plotline, and the concept of ‘Goodies and Baddies’.
All western children’s films, even the really good ones like Wallace and Gromit, The Incredibles, Shrek etc – are essentially very predictable. The Baddies will threaten the Goodies’ way of life, the Goodies will suffer a reversal then triumph against the odds, the Baddies will have their deserved comeuppance and finally the Goodies have a happy ending.
But Howl’s Moving Castle has none of this. There really is no predicting what will happen next, which is very disorientating for the Western viewer, who is taken far out of his comfort zone.
And there is a completely fluid approach to characters. There are no absolute Goodies or Baddies: ambiguous characters perform alternately selfish and selfless deeds throughout. The apparently wicked witch, who turns our young heroine into an old lady, is adopted by the ‘Goodies’ about halfway through the movie for no apparent motive. And although there is a Happy Ending, this is not achieved through any destruction of the ‘Baddies’, but because individual characters break free of their self-imposed spells and the World War is for some reason just called off.
In other words, it’s a whole bunch of people doing one damn thing after another. If it weren’t for the mutating blob-men, demons in the fireplace, walking castles, hopping scarecrows etc, it would almost be just like real life.