Tag Archives: Howl’s Moving Castle

Diana Wynne Jones

Diana Wynne Jones, a children’s author better known in the U.K. than on this side of the pond, died last night at 76. She had been fighting a long battle with lung cancer, and had herself taken off chemotherapy this past June.

Over here she is best known, if at all, as the author of the book that inspired Hayao Miyazaki’s animated film Howl’s Moving Castle. The movie is quite different from the novel, but Jones praised it to the skies anyway.

She was old enough to have attended lectures by J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis at Oxford, and in her nonfiction work she was amusingly tough on the cliches of fantasy fiction. Her  “Chrestomanci” series, about a group of enchanters tasked with regulating the use of magic throughout the parallel universes, was frequently compared with the Harry Potter novels, and the popularity of J.K. Rowling helped bring some of her work back into print.

On her Web site you will find a page of advice on writing that is both helpful and entertaining. Here, for example, is how she advises novices to flesh out their characters:

People are even more important. They are the ones that make the story happen. You have to SEE them even more clearly than places. You have to know the shape of them and if their breath smells and how their hair grows. In fact, you have to know twice as much as you put in the story. Sit and think and SEE them before you start. And HEAR them too. Everyone has their own special way of talking. Make them talk like they should – and do remember that people don’t talk proper sentences and that they shout or they mumble, and try to get them doing this. If you have trouble, put a real person in your story. If you have an Aunty May or an Uncle Joe whom you don’t much like, use them as the vampires and they will come out wonderfully real. You won’t need to describe them, just do the way they talk and move. (You don’t need to tell your aunty or your uncle either).

Writers could do a lot worse than to follow that strategy. And readers could do a whole lot worse than get acquainted with the worlds of Diana Wynne Jones.

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The even littler mermaid

Ponyo fishies

After two masterpieces (Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away) and one misfire (Howl’s Moving Castle) — and a quintet of features before them that range from brilliant to merely excellent — Hayao Miyazaki’s latest film, Ponyo, feels like a bit of creative  retrenchment. The childlike simplicity of the story makes it the first Miyazaki film since My Neighbor Totoro clearly aimed at viewers in the single-digit age bracket. Even the animation has the quality of a child’s storybook. When we watch the hero, young Sosuke, climbing a steep hill to reach his house, the subtle brushstrokes coloring the luxuriant grass are faintly visible — a striking change from the almost photorealistic look of Miyazaki’s previous features.

Equally striking is the absence of anything remotely threatening in the storyline, which follows Ponyo, a half-human half-fish girl, as she sneaks away from Fujimoto, a half-scientist half-wizard who appears to be working to cleanse the damage mankind has done to the world’s oceans. Emerging from a rosy cloud of fish who resemble children in long nightshirts, Ponyo gets caught in a trawler net and decides she wants to become the human playmate of her rescuer, Sosuke. Yet even when Ponyo’s magical transformation throws the world out of balance and raises the sea level, the situation isn’t very scary. In fact, the people in the story perform heroically while finding the situation kind of cool. And when everything is put right, the world is rejuvenated and ready for a fresh start.

The outlines of the plot make this Miyazaki’s take on Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid,” but the film suggests something Stephen Jay Gould might have dreamed after reading Andersen’s story. The inundated landscape is full of Cambrian sea life: brachiopods and armored fish move dreamily over flooded roadways and canyons, jellyfish float in formation, and the Goddess of Mercy makes sure everybody is okay by putting bubble domes over the flooded houses. As I said, the storyline is childlike.

Childlike but far from childish. Miyazaki once again demonstrates his eye for detail, and openhearted appreciation of the way children behave when they are unselfconsciously themselves. It comes in moments as small as the way Sosuke ineffectually hitches up his shorts before wading into the ocean, or as big as Ponyo’s joyful laughter as she skips across water to help out a family with a sick baby. Virtually alone among animated filmmakers, Miyazaki depicts children as children rather than diminished adults.

Waiting in the theater for Ponyo to start, I had to laugh at the contrast between all the laboriously flashy computer-generated imagery of the trailers, capped by the canned razzle-dazzle of the Disney logo, and the simple line drawing of a totoro that opens each Studio Ghibli film. Too many animated films are like beautifully wrapped gift boxes with nothing inside. The simplicity of the Studio Ghibli logo heralds a plainly wrapped giftbox with an inexhaustible store of wonders.

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