Masterpiece Monday: Howl’s Moving Castle

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Today I’m bending the rules, because it’s the birthday of one of my best friends, Lily. Years ago, I recommended Diana Wynne Jones’ fantasy novel Howl’s Moving Castle to her, and now it’s one of her favorite stories. Although she currently lives in Tokyo and spends her free time reading in Japanese, I thought I would celebrate the book we shared together. I wouldn’t say it qualifies as a “masterpiece,” but it’s certainly an outstanding read.

Jones published her novel in 1986, and it tells the tale of Sophie Hatter, a young hat-maker who is cursed by the Witch of the Waste. After becoming displeased with Sophie’s hats, the witch turns her into an old woman.

Determined to break the curse, Sophie becomes the maid for the wizard Howl, a 28-year-old, self-centered, narcissistic man rumored to eat pretty girls’ hearts. Howl lives in his moving castle with his 15-year-old apprentice Michael and the fire demon Calcifer, who powers the place.

What makes Howl’s castle able to “move” is its magical entry, with a doorknob which has four dabs of paint to represent   its different locations. Howl’s mysterious past and many psuedonyms allow him to travel through this fantastical world relatively unnoticed, that is until he must face his own cowardice and help Sophie destroy the Witch of the Waste.

This is a unique love story as well, given that although Howl is aware of Sophie’s curse, she lives with him as an old woman. Howl even initially courts Sophie’s sister Lettie. Not to mention, it takes a while for Sophie to look past Howl’s vanity and messiness and find the good within. But while I won’t give away the whole plot, don’t worry, there’s a happily ever after!

L-R: Sophie, Howl, and Calcifer

Once you’ve read Howl’s Moving Castle, you should watch Hayao Miyazaki’s 2004 anime feature film of the same name. I’ve mentioned the movie before when I discussed my favorite literary vacation destinations, and it is really worth the watch.

There are vast differences between the book and film, the biggest being Miyazaki’s inclusion of supernatural creatures. The film also added the element of war, with Howl refusing to fight for pacifist reasons. And although Sophie is cursed in the movie, the witch devolves into a humorous, harmless character rather than the powerful sorceress she is in the book.

According to interviews, Miyazaki did not consult Jones, but allowed her a private viewing, after which she called the film “fantastic.” However, do not mistake Jones’ sequel to Howl’s Moving Castle, called Castle in the Air, for another Miyazaki movie called “Castle in the Sky.” The two are entirely unrelated.

So if you’re interested in experiencing a fun, magical tale of love and friendship, I highly recommend Howl’s Moving Castle. It’s a story that brings close friends even closer–so happy birthday, Lily!!!

Movie Review: The Secret World of Arrietty

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Last night I celebrated the progress I made on my paper by watching the latest Studio Ghibli film “The Secret World of Arrietty.” Based on Mary Norton’s 1952 novel The Borrowers, it originally debuted in Japan in July 2010. My review will be on the English version, but will make references to the Japanese version.

The story stars Arrietty (voiced by Bridgit Mendler), a spunky, teenage Borrower who lives with her mother and father (voiced by the hilarious comedy duo Amy Poehler and Will Arnett). Borrowers are tiny people who reside in human homes and secretly take things that won’t be missed, such as sugar cubes and tissues.

Arrietty is excited for her first Borrowing expedition with her dad, but fails miserably when human boy Shawn (voiced by David Henrie) spots her. Shawn recently moved into the house to live with his great aunt Jessica and her maid Hara, because he suffers from a heart condition and his own parents are too busy with work to take care of him before his upcoming operation.

Shawn just wants to befriend Arrietty, but due to the danger of human sightings, she has to find a new home with her family. Danger indeed befalls them when Hara captures Arriety’s mother, and Shawn and Arrietty team up to save her. But will the Borrowers still have to move? Are there other Borrowers out there? And what will happen to Shawn’s declining health?

All these questions are answered in this visual wonderland. Studio Ghibi never disappoints, and the setting of the backyard is even more beautiful from the Borrowers’ perspective. The details are so crisp you can practically feel the leaves and taste the drops of dew. I also enjoy the relaxed pace of these movies; notice that Studio Ghibli never has to pander to attention-deficit kids with a bunch of high-speed chases and fart jokes.

I believe that any Studio Ghibli creation absolutely blows American animated films out of the water–which is why Disney wishes to profit from the company, often at the expense of cultural accuracy. I won’t go into my loathing for Disney’s treatment of Studio Ghibli, especially with Academy Award-winning “Spirited Away,” but feel free to look up their conniving tactics.

That being said, I appreciate Disney for allowing English speakers the opportunity to witness Studio Ghibli’s beauty time and time again. However, once the DVD is released, I’ll be watching with subtitles because oftentimes the English voice actors’ dialogue doesn’t quite translate. At one point, Hara (voiced by Carol Burnett) noticing that Arrietty’s mother has escaped her clutches, yells, “Where is my LADY?!!” much to awkward laughs of the audience. But who knows? Maybe she screams that exact sentence in Japanese too, but I hope not.

Also, Disney, answer me this: Why must you change all the Japanese names? Do you think the U.S. is too stupid to understand cultural differences? Naming Sho as Shawn, Haru as Hara, and Sadako as Jessica may seem harmless, but for true fans it’s just unnecessary and insulting to the Japanese filmmakers.

It’s no surprise that Rotten Tomatoes gave this film a 93% rating. It’s an excellent tale of friendship and courage told in magnificent animated detail. If it’s playing at a theater near you, do yourself a favor and go see it. I haven’t read the novel it adapted, but let’s face it: If a picture’s worth a thousand words, then this Studio Ghibli piece of art speaks volumes.

When East Beats West

So today I wanted to discuss a non-conventional form of literature: Japanese manga (aka graphic novels). Ever since I was young, I was interested in Japanese anime, such as Digimon, Pokemon, and Cardcaptors. Then in high school I started reading manga and quickly fell in love with it. And now that my best friend has majored in Japanese and spent over a year in the country, I always try to keep up with the culture.

When it comes to pop music and graphic novels, I believe that Japan and Korea kick our butts. Unfortunately, manga suffers from many American misconceptions. Many people in the U.S. are only familiar with the Saturday cartoons, so they think manga is just for kids. Some also believe that they’re all pornographic, but only a small percentage are considered hentai, a term meaning “pervert.” Lastly, some have racist notions that manga is not superior to American comics, simply because they have been influenced by Western art or the characters are not stereotypically “Asian.”

All of these misconceptions are ridiculous. There’s manga out there for everybody, of all ages. There are some with mature themes, whether they’re in the romance, horror, and hentai genres, but that also applies to all graphic novels. And of course, manga are a valid art form all its own, and even Hollywood is catching on to its appeal, given that many movies based on manga are currently in the works.

So whether you’re familiar with manga or not, I’d like to share my 5 favorites:

Cardcaptor Sakura (1996-2000): This was the series that inspired my obsession. Considered one of the greatest “magical girl” manga, this 12 volume saga follows the adventures of Sakura, a 4th-grade girl on a mission to collect all the mysterious Clow Cards, with the help of her best friend/stylist Tomoyo and her crush Syaoran. Created by female mangaka (aka manga artist) powerhouse CLAMP, it was also adapted into a Japanese anime, which was then diluted into the American version Cardcaptors. Originally a shojo (girl) manga, the U.S. marketed it to boys instead, and took out many themes–including two major relationships, one homosexual, the other teacher-student. Ditch the American editing, and read the manga if you’re interested in a lighthearted fantasy tale.

Fushigi Yugi (1992-1996): You can’t be a lover of shojo manga without reading anything by mangaka Yuu Watase. Known in English as “The Mysterious Play,” this 18 volume series narrates the story of Miaka, a high school student who is transported with her best friend Yui into the ancient world of a book called The Universe of the Four Gods. Miaka learns that she is a priestess of this world and is assigned seven Celestial Warriors to protect her. She falls in love with warrior Tamahome, and the manga delves into their relationship, as well as their struggle to save both of their worlds from evil. A must-read for hopeless romantics.

Fruits Basket (1999-2006): If you can’t tell by now, I love shojo manga the most. The girlier, the better. But this 23 volume series is more than just a girl caught in a love triangle. Protagonist Tohru meets the Sohma family, whose members are each cursed by an animal of the Chinese zodiac. If they’re stressed or embraced by a member of the opposite sex, they change into that animal. It sounds crazy and superficial at first, but the Sohmas each have a tragic background. From abused Yuki the Rat to isolated Kyo the Cat, these characters will make you both laugh and cry. An emotional rollercoaster with many profound insights about love, loss, and friendship.

Ouran High School Host Club (2002-2010): This is another “reverse harem” manga (girl in a big group of guys), but there’s nothing magical or fantasy about it. Just the story of Haruhi, a girl attending prestigious Ouran High on a scholarship. She walks into the meeting room of the Host Club, a group of male students who make it their duty to please girls with social events and flattery. Haruhi accidentally breaks a vase worth 8 million yen, so the Host Club makes her work off her debt by joining them. And because she already dresses like a guy, the female students are easily fooled. A truly hilarious manga with adorable characters. The anime version is complete, but the manga is still being released in the U.S.–and since I buy manga instead of reading it online, don’t spoil the ending for me!

Death Note (2003-2006): I wouldn’t make this list without throwing a bone to the guys! My favorite shonen (boy) manga is this 12 volume series about Light, a teen genius who discovers a Death Note, a notebook in which if you write someone’s name in it, that person dies. Quickly obsessed with ridding the world of criminals, Light goes on a killing spree, learning the rules of the Death Note with the help of a death god named Ryuk. Of course, these deaths don’t go unnoticed, and soon Light is being hunted by the police, FBI, and a equally smart teen only known as “L.” The battle between Light and L will keep you glued to the pages up until the climactic end. Be sure to check out the anime, the live-action Japanese movies, and the upcoming American film.

So do you read manga, and if so, what are your favorites? Any ones that are overrated? Does East truly beat West in the world of comics?