Hayao Miyazaki's animated films suffer as much when they're dubbed into English as do the films of any other serious foreign filmmaker. I happened to see Miyazaki's latest feature, Howl's Moving Castle, in its dubbed English version a few hours after I'd seen his immediately preceding one, Spirited Away, in the original Japanese version, with English subtitles (on DVD). I've never seen the dubbed version of Spirited AwayI saw it theatrically in the Japanese version when it was released in 2003and I've never had any wish to. The English-dubbed Howl confirmed me in my skepticism. The voices are not terrible (Christian Bale's excepted), but they sound layered on, as the original Japanese voices in Spirited Away do not.
In neither Japanese nor English, though, do the voices really seem to emerge from the characters in Miyazaki's films. Miyazaki is not much concerned with lip-sync, and there's no sense that movement and speech are organically related, as in the sort of animation that makes lip-sync irrelevant. For the most part, his characters' faces and bodies move in the mechanical, doll-like patterns familiar from so many Japanese animated films. In design, too, the principal characters have that Japanese cookie-cutter look. Howl's English speakers seem to be striving for a kind of expressiveness that such drawings will not support. The contrast may not be as jarring as in the dubbed version of Kiki's Delivery Service that I saw a few years ago, but it's strong enough.
Given the obstacles that Miyazaki always raises to sympathy for his charactersand given too his limited interest in narrative coherenceHowl's Moving Castle required a continuously high level of invention if it was to succeed. It's just such an unceasing flow of invention that makes Spirited Away a fascinating film, and Howl's Moving Castle falls well short of that standard, however arresting some of its scenes.
Like Kiki, Howl is set in a fantasy Edwardian Europe. Its witches and wizards (Howl himself is one) are just another professional group, one that can be directed to serve perverted ends as readily as physicians in Nazi Germany. It's an anything-goes sort of environment, visually, but like so many other artists, Miyazaki seems more hobbled than liberated the more free he is of restraints. The hand-drawn animation and CGI animation are often poorly integratedin contrast, again, to Spirited Awayand the mismatch distracts from what could have been visually arresting. Just as often, though, what's on the screen is simply hopeless. Howl's castle looks like an agitated junk heap; more to the point, it looks like nothing more than a junk heap.
No other maker of animated films has been so extravagantly praised in recent years as Miyazaki. So far, though, it's only in his most intensely Japanese films, like Spirited Awayfilms set in Japan, and drawing deeply on Japanese folklorethat Miyazaki has shown himself to be a truly universal artist, one whose work demands my admiration however strong my doubts about its staying power.
[Posted July 29, 2005]