Sunday, 6 January 2013

Howl and Alice

Just a brief note on Howl no ugoku shiro (Howl's Moving Castle), which I saw for the first time yesterday as we happened to turn on the TV. There's power in many of the images - the staggering steam-punk castle, the briskly walking palanquin bearers of the Witch of the Waste with their pink costumes...

I may be unfair here, but the story was not as powerful as the images. For a story to work, the images must combine into a credible "world". By credible I don't mean realistic, but something that - as Coleredge put it - invites the willing suspension of disbelief. A credible "world" is one you can dream about after having seen the movie. But I felt this never happened in this film, perhaps because of the many sudden magical transformations.

But transformations in themselves cannot really be the reason. Alice in Wonderland, for examples, is a story full of the weirdest transformations, yet which I still think is enormously successful in creating a "world" which it is possible to dream about, expand in your imagination and use as the setting of your own imagined adventures.
What then is the reason for my dissatisfaction with Howl? Perhaps looking closer at the transformations will provide a clue. The deepest impression is created by the film's play with the theme of age - as seen in Sophie's unstable shifts between youth and old age, in the Witch's regression to a harmless old woman, or in Howl to whose childhood world Sophie suddenly gains access through a mysterious door. A double message is delivered up by this play, which seems to say that youth is both important and unimportant. One the one hand, people's age is not important - an old woman can be as charming and lovable as a child or a young girl. But on the other hand, the pure and untainted heart of childhood is the most valuable thing we have, the truly essential thing, a treasure we never ought abandon and which will one day save us.

I can imagine that many viewers of this film associate to Alice in Wonderland. The similarity almost becomes glaring in a scene when the protagonist in her blue dress falls slowly through the air. But the magical transformations the protagonist undergoes in the latter are in body size, not in age, and there is no thematics of salvation in Alice. Howl attempts to build suspension through a thematics of salvation - not in a Christian sense, but in the sense of saving people and the the world from war and magical curses. This salvation comes about through purity of heart. All this is alien to Alice.

Why does the latter work so well as a story despite the many chaotic transformations? Because in Alice chaos is integral to what its main storyline is about. Its main theme is the contest between reason and chaos. Alice's bodily transformations underline the impotence of reason, since she is unable to control even her own body. Reason finds itself constantly frustrated, but the contest is rather friendly. Chaos, reason's "other", is not really terrifying and even reveals itself to be rather delightful. In any case, the transformations are integral to the story's main source of attraction and are not felt to distract from them. The are part of the "world" Alice enters.

In Howl, by contrast, the confrontation is between purity and the curse. There can be no tolerance of the latter, which implies a fearful loss of self. Only purity - the ability to keep one's childhood heart despite all transformations - can conquer the curse. Hence the contest is much more mercyless. The "self" simply must win.

Why do I feel that Alice is so much more free from ideology than Howl?

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