My younger brother and sister are much smarter than I am. They’ve always been, to my mind at any rate, more comfortable being themselves and experiencing new things than I am (and I’m pretty comfortable). Some of the things they discovered far before I did were movies by Hayao Miyazaki – for my purposes, namely Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle.

Disney is responsible for the North American release of both these films, and so they’re available on one disc (each) with both Japanese + subtitles and dubbed.  Take my word for it – at least for your first viewing, watch with subtitles. Especially in Spirited Away, the English translation has robbed the movie of some of its poetry.  F’r’instance, as the young girl leaves her home with her family at the beginning of the story, in the Japanese she says she was given “farewell flowers”. The dubbed version sounds obnoxious and uses less beautiful language (Howl’s Moving Castle has remedied this, somewhat).

Spirited Away uses a fairy tale story to represent the rites of passage of this young girl…but it’s more than that. There’s a wonder in the movie’s depiction of things, including “real life” details: the family drives an Audi, trying to strike a balance between amusement and economy, and work. Unlike a fairy tale, work is her way out of the fairy tale, not the other way around. It’s about kindness, and selflessness, and, what I like best – about there being another world just beyond, there for whenever you need it. In that sense, it reminded me of a fine tradition of stories like Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz (although in that novel, the other world isn’t a dream at all), or a movie like Labyrinth.

Which is sort of convenient, because the first time we’re introduced to Howl, of Howl’s Moving Castle, all I could think of was how much he looks like David Bowie.  The story is more straightforward, perhaps, than that of Spirited Away: still about romance, kindness, personal responsibility. Sophie is one of the most beautiful, strong female characters I’ve seen in a long time, especially in movies.

But I think one of the best elements of both films is that, while there’s an amazing attention to detail in execution, the stories don’t feel the need to strain themselves with explication. Because they’re so well made, we’re expected to, at some point, begin taking them for their own sake, and not look for too much narrative consistency, or really for anything other than the joy and wonder of what’s onscreen.

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