My Neighbour Totoro and Whisper of the Heart

eks3afnmq3xk4wvpcrvkA few weeks back I put up a post about Howl’s Moving Castle – both the book by Diana Wynne Jones and the film by Hayao Miyazaki – using the notion of synchrony as an analytic tool. This post uses the same approach to consider two more films in which Miyazaki had a hand: My Neighbour Totoro and Whisper of the Heart. I shall therefore begin with a reminder of what I take synchrony to mean here, which you can skip if you remember it from the earlier post. If you choose to skip it, please begin at the asterisk!

Adults and children live in different time zones, their internal watches set to different rhythms, their days constructed around alternative timetables. The question of how to communicate across the temporal divide is confronted daily by parents and offspring, teachers and pupils, at school and in the home, and gets intensified in the strange encounter between child and adult that takes place in a work of art made for children. Such works are usually made by adults, whose principal challenge – how to imagine themselves into a frame of mind they inhabited years beforehand – is complicated by the problem of keeping track of the rapidly-shifting cultural reference points among young people. Living in a household with children may help the artist tune in to the latest developments in music, gadgetry and fashion, but it’s likely too to reinforce the unsettling conviction that adults can never really understand what makes youngsters tick. In the struggle to communicate despite this lack of understanding, artists may fall back on imaginative reconstructions of their own childhoods in the vain hope that the radical changes of the intervening decades haven’t rendered them totally redundant, or distorted beyond redemption by overlays of sentiment and cliché. Such reconstructions invariably emphasize the chronological gap even as they seek to bridge it. And they often take as their subject – as the driving motor of their narratives, so to speak – the complex interplay between time zones that constitutes the domestic environment in each successive generation.

One way of thinking about how the generations co-operate in a household is the concept of synchrony, which has been explored by psychologists and sociologists for several decades.[1] The idea that a mother and child can achieve physical synchrony with each other by spending time in close proximity – that the movements and even the heartbeats of mother and child fall into step with one another when they sleep together or engage in activities face to face – is widely accepted by psychologists.[2] So too is the notion that the synchronization of heartbeats, of rhythmic movements and even of emotions can be extended, in time, from the mother-child relationship to the wider community.[3] Researchers have investigated the effects of using rhythmic rituals of various kinds – marching, chanting and dancing, for instance – to achieve better co-operation between members of a group, such as an army unit, church, or children’s organization.[4] There have been sociological studies of the effects on families of spending time together, co-ordinating timetables and calendars to accommodate one another, and how this can improve both partnerships between adults and relationships between cohabiting generations.[5] Fictional explorations of how a family community can bond in spite of their chronological differences may be thought of as an effort to understand metaphorical and even literal synchrony – that is, how the movements of a household’s members may be combined to their mutual advantage.

But such a process of coordination is a highly complex one; largely, perhaps, because the differences between members of any given group may be considered to be as valuable as their capacity to fall into step with one another. How to work together, to fall in step to solve common problems, while valuing and nurturing the effects of the different experiences imparted to adults and children by virtue of the different times at which they happen to have been born – these are questions that fascinate specialists and householders alike. I’d like here to think about two art works that attempt to discover the means of preserving the chronologically-generated differences between cohabitants while enabling them to live in harmony, so to speak – that is, to get the most out of their cohabitation. Taken together with Howl’s Moving Castle – book and film – these films amount to an extraordinarily rich representation of the many time zones that have intersected in British and Japanese domestic space since the calamity of the Second World War.

1449441476-24118fe1309c4fadc185ab7b3b43bb1c*Miyazaki’s My Neighbour Totoro (1988) chooses to explore synchrony by retreating into the world of the artist’s childhood and youth. Set in 1950s Japan, the film recounts the adventures of two young girls and their father forced to relocate to an old house in the country, near a hospital where the children’s mother is being treated for a life-threatening illness.[6] The house turns out to be occupied by kami, spirits that can only be seen by children; yet it’s the father who explains the spirits’ identity, recalling his own encounters with the spirit world in his childhood – like Miyazaki’s avatar addressing the audience – despite the fact that he’s excluded from it now by the demands imposed on his time by his job as an academic.[7] Meanwhile the spirits provide a conduit between the children and the time-zone of the seasons, and of the beings that inhabit it: from the gigantic camphor tree where the titular troll-spirit, Totoro, hides himself in daytime, to the trees the children plant with Totoro at night in the house’s grounds, to the freshly-picked corncob they leave as a gift for their mother at the end of the movie, whose miraculous appearance on the hospital window-sill helps the sick woman understand she’s on the road to recovery. Social time, spirit time and the cyclical time of nature operate side by side throughout the narrative, sometimes at odds, sometimes coming together; and the necessity that drives the plot is to achieve synchrony between these different time zones – to find a way for them to combine productively, for the good of the human community and the ailing body of the girls’ mother.

[Doki] Tonari no Totoro (1920x1038 Hi10P BD FLAC) [9BB2B505].mkv_002835.670_1The encounter between the three principal time zones in the movie is enriched by smaller chronological differences between the characters. The little girl Mei, for instance, experiences the passage of time quite differently from her big sister or her father. Her first encounter with the spirits takes place while her sister is at school and her father working at his desk. Mei plays outside as her father works, and her detachment from the regulated schedule of work and education is indicated by her wish to eat lunch in the middle of the morning. At this point in the movie, only Mei occupies the imaginative and geographical vantage point that enables her to see the pair of tubby spirits which comes trundling through the grass as she is playing, drifting between visibility and invisibility like daydreams. Her lack of a timetable gives her leisure to follow the spirits to their home, just as her lack of prejudice concerning the possible threat they pose enables her to embrace their companionship, to occupy their space as if it were her own. The problem in the rest of the film is for the other people who share Mei’s home – in particular her elder sister Satsuki, who is growing out of the sorts of fantasies that dominate early childhood – to learn how to synchronize themselves with her time zone for a while, unlearning the sense of urgency that has been instilled in them by work and education for long enough to share her vision.

totblu07Satsuki learns to do this as a result of a disruption to her regimented daily schedule. One evening she finds that her father forgot his umbrella when he went to work; it is raining, so she decides to go and meet him with it at the bus stop. She and Mei wait at the stop till dark, growing increasingly uneasy as the shadows lengthen and their father doesn’t arrive. Rain falls, night falls, and Mei falls asleep on Satsuki’s back. The uneven dripping of water replaces the ticking of human clocks, signalling the girls’ entry into an alternative time zone. Abruptly Satsuki notices Totoro standing beside her, sheltering from the rain under the inadequate protection of a leaf. She lends him her umbrella, which he accepts – though less for its intended function than for the pleasure of the sound of the rain drumming on the fabric, as on the skin of a drum. Soon afterwards a bus arrives; but it’s not the petrol-driven machine the girls expect. Instead it’s the celebrated cat-bus which furnishes one of the film’s most famous images: a tabby twelve-legged vehicle whose ribcage opens to admit passengers into its fur-lined interior, and whose journeys display a cat’s contempt for conventional roads and pathways, a preference for telegraph wires over carriageways, for fields and hedges over tarmac.[8] The cat-bus veers away into the night carrying Totoro; and soon an ordinary bus looms out of the darkness, with the father safely on board.

The fusion of cat and bus in this scene seems specifically calculated to conjure up the notion of what I have called synchrony: the fruitful combining of different time-zones – different ways of measuring or experiencing time – in the household or elsewhere, to enable successful dialogue or other forms of social interaction. Cats are domestic pets which notoriously ignore the rigid spatial and temporal structures of the human household. Buses knit the family home to the socially sanctioned destinations of work and school, operating to a structured timetable and unchanging routes; they are inextricably linked with the notion of accurate timekeeping, even when they’re late. Combining cats with buses gives you a form of public transport that ignores timetables, turning up when it’s least expected and cutting across the regulated rural geography to reach, not a place of work or education, but the object of its passengers’ desire. And there’s another fusion here too. Cats make a great show of being solitary, yet inhabit human communities, while buses serve those communities unambiguously. The cat-bus, with its slightly menacing Cheshire-cat smile, is clearly singular – nothing like it has existed or been drawn before; yet it also supplies a collective need, in this case both transporting Totoro to his unknown destination and heralding the restoration of the father to his children, a return to the safe routine of family life, a timetable that has been under threat since the beginning of the film because of the mother’s absence through illness. The individual and the collective, human, animal and spirit, all are embodied in this heterogeneous creature, whose impeccably timed appearances draw them all together in the face of fear.

CatbusIt’s not surprising, then, that the cat-bus should show up again when the little family and its routine come under threat for a second time. On this occasion it’s the girls’ sick mother who fails to come home on a scheduled visit. She catches cold and is told to stay in hospital, an incident that conjures up the spectre of a permanent dissolution of the family unit by death. Fear for her mother makes Satsuki lose her temper with Mei, who then sets out on an unscheduled cross-country journey of her own to take the sick woman what she thinks of as a healing corncob. Mei’s disappearance sparks off a frantic search by the whole of the local community, and sends Satsuki to ask for Totoro’s help at his tree. The troll’s response is to summon the cat-bus, which first takes Satsuki to Mei, then transports both girls to the hospital, where they leave the corncob on their mother’s sill. More even than in the bus-stop incident, this journey binds together all the time-zones of the story: adult and child, human and spirit, urban and rural, much as a cat binds together the human and natural worlds in its comings and goings, or a bus binds place to place within a city, and city to country within a nation. The cat-bus itself is part public transport vehicle, part spirit, part maternal womb, and its successful marriage of these elements anticipates the eventual reunion of parents with children, and of Satsuki’s family with the rural community, both of which are celebrated in the evocative stills that accompany the film’s end credits, where they are watched over by Totoro and his benevolent fellow spirits.

f7da0360969a06d2fe5567d51bef6232Part of the power of My Neighbour Totoro springs from its recognition that the ability to occupy any particular time zone – above all, that of childhood, with its ready recognition of the interaction between seen and unseen, humans and spirits – will necessarily be a temporary one, and that this transitoriness need not be perceived as frightening or repugnant. At the end of the movie Satsuki’s parents still cannot see the spirits, even though they have received material confirmation of their presence in the form of the corncob, which appears where it could not possibly be, inscribed with a message from Mei. It’s clear, too, that Satsuki will soon move on to occupy her parents’ time-zone. Her awkward but friendly relationship with the boy next door predicts her approaching puberty, just as the boy’s grandmother, who seems to remember her childhood vividly, anticipates the girls’ old age. Even the stills of the final credits, which recall snapshots from a family album, remind an adult audience, at least, that they have been watching a historical reconstruction, a cartoon representation of the film-maker’s past, no longer accessible except through photographs, films and drawings. Owing to the pressures of twentieth-century life – above all its mobility, as exemplified in the luggage-laden car that opened the film – moments of synchrony are fleeting, though their impact on those who experience them may be lifelong, as the very existence of My Neighbour Totoro testifies.

Whisper-of-the-Heart-耳をすませば-BD_14A few years after Totoro, Miyazaki explored the concept of synchrony from a new angle in his script for Yoshifumi Kondo’s movie Whisper of the Heart (1995), based on the manga by Aoi Hiiragi. Here the young protagonist Shizuku is a few years older than Satsuki, and where Satsuki needed to achieve synchrony with her neighbours – her sister, the boy next door, the spirit Totoro – Shizuku’s problem is that of finding a neighbourhood at all, in a world where urban sprawl has broken up long-standing communities.

pompoko_porch_970The same theme was developed by Miyazaki’s colleague Isao Takahata in his immensely successful film of the previous year, Pom Poko (1994), which is set in the suburb of Tokyo where Shizuku lives, Tama New Town. In Pom Poko, raccoon dogs or tanuki fight against the incursions of suburban development on their territory; but their resistance is ineffectual, and the tanuki end the film by using their traditional powers of metamorphosis to merge themselves with the city’s population, walking among men and women in human form. For Takahata, then, Tama New Town consists of two time zones superimposed on one another: that of the old land and its cultures, for which the tanuki fought, and that of the new suburbs, where human beings dwell unknowingly side by side with the region’s original inhabitants. This is not synchrony but colonization, even at the poignant moment towards the end of the film when the tanuki use their powers to give the audience a fleeting glimpse of the rural landscape that underlies the urban. Reconciliation between the time zones of people and animals may be possible in the twentieth century, but the movie doesn’t offer a clear indication of how it might be achieved.

In Whisper of the Heart Shizuku’s neighbours, too, turn out to be separated from her by time, much as the tanuki are forever separated from their human neighbours, culturally and emotionally speaking, despite cohabiting with them. Shizuku has to look for these neighbours in the spaces and times that open up in her official timetable. She is abetted in this – for much of the time without her being aware – by her eccentric family, whose tiny apartment, squeezed into a hillside block in the new suburb, resembles a book-crammed annexe of the library where her father works. Shizuku’s parents give her elbowroom to dream and write and read, while around her throughout the summer vacation her schoolmates, such as her best friend Yuko, are sent to the notorious Japanese cram schools to get the grades they need to attend the best high schools. Shizuku, meanwhile, explores her neighbourhood, hurrying up hidden alleyways and over locked gates marked ‘no entry’ in pursuit of stories and ideas. Her wanderings are accompanied by the ceaseless buzzing of the summer cicadas, playing music from a hidden insect world ignored by the city’s residents but full of emotional resonance for lovers of Miyazaki’s earlier movie, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984), whose protagonist communicates with the insects shunned by the rest of her community.

mimi_totoroIn Whisper of the Heart, the first clue to the existence of other neighbours besides the insects – neighbours of the heart, as the English title suggests[9] – occurs when Shizuku discovers, from library stamps, that someone in her school has been borrowing the same books as her, though at different times. The mysterious reader turns out to be a boy called Seiji, who is in another class and therefore separated from her geographically as well as chronologically, occupying a different section of the school building. She finds him with the help of a cat: another of those independent occupants of human space represented by the cat-bus in Totoro. In Whisper, too, the cat is linked with public transport; indeed, it’s in a sense a public cat, ownerless and known by different names to different people, so that it plays a role in a range of different stories throughout the city, connecting disconnected lives, as it were, with its amiable presence. Shizuku first meets the cat on a commuter train, following it at a whim when it alights at her station. It leads her to an old shop full of bric-a-brac from different periods and places, mostly European, though the shop is called the ‘World Emporium’: a cheerful jumble of clocks and statues and furniture assembled at random, which makes it the architectural embodiment of synchrony. Here she runs into two figures who might equally be said to embody synchrony: an old man called Nishi, who she later learns is Seiji’s grandfather; and a small statue of a cat with coat-tails and a walking stick, which Nishi calls the Baron. And it’s in this shop, not surprisingly, that Shizuku learns about the importance of synchrony in the late twentieth century.

whisper-of-the-heart-baron-2The story behind the cat figurine is the story of the arbitrary fracturing of relationships by history in the century’s turbulent middle years. There was once a female counterpart for the Baron, a statue known as Louisa; and Shizuku learns that the woman Nishi loved, also called Louisa, bought the Louisa statue in Vienna at the same time as he bought the Baron. The lovers were then separated by the outbreak of the Second World War – an event as calamitous for Louisa’s people, the Europeans, as for Nishi’s, the Japanese. The lovers Nishi and Louisa swore to reunite the statues – and each other – after the war; but the opportunity never arose, and the couple never met again. From then on the statue has stood for a moment of serendipity that brought two people of different cultures together, a moment that may never be repeated.

Screen Shot 2013-11-07 at 11.05.52 AMAnother object in the shop that catches Shizuku’s eye is a clock Nishi has been working on, with the figure of an armoured prince on it gazing soulfully up at a window. The person he longs to see at the window is his lover, a fairy princess; but the clock is so constructed that the lovers only glimpse each other twice a day, when the clock strikes twelve. In fact, when Shizuku sees the clock they haven’t seen each other for several years. The clock’s mechanism was broken, and Nishi has mended it so that the two figures can again become a symbol for the complex workings of life and love, showing that lovers, like neighbours in a modern suburb, only coincide at certain moments, when the pressures of work and history permit (the prince in the clock is a working man, the prince of the miner-dwarves who inhabit its belly). Nishi’s labour on the clock confirms something else: that such intersections can themselves be achieved through hard work, and that waiting for synchrony to occur without labouring to fulfil one’s desires may well be futile.

whisper-of-the-heart-shizuku-and-seijiAs the film goes on, Shizuku and Seiji – the girl and boy who read the same books from the library – are transformed into the working prince and princess, as it were, of Tama New Town, victims of the common twentieth-century condition of being out of sync, despite their mutual attraction. Seiji’s ambition is to work as a violin maker, for which he must serve a long apprenticeship in far-away Italy. Shizuku’s dream is to work as a writer. The young pair’s aspirations are incompatible both with the budding relationship between them and with the rigorous demands of the Japanese school system. Seiji cannot become an apprentice if he stays at school; Shizuku cannot write her stories if she works hard enough to get good grades. The solution, it would seem, is for them to pursue their careers simultaneously, apart from school and apart from each other, labouring to achieve their artistic dreams in different locations. When they meet in Nishi’s shop, Seiji is about to leave for a three-month trial period of violin-making in Italy, which if successful will be followed by a much longer apprenticeship. On hearing his plans, Shizuku is inspired to write her first novel while he is away, regardless of her studies and grades, aiming to complete the novel by the day of Seiji’s return. By this means the period of Seiji’s absence is transformed into a clockwork mechanism, a fragile chronometric device that counts out the hours till the moment when the young people can get together to compare their experiences. Separated in time and space, the boy and girl will be united imaginatively through their work – in Shizuku’s case, strenuous and exhausting – and through their consciousness of the approaching moment when the cogs of the world’s inner workings will reunite them.

whisperThis moment, when it comes, is marked both by further hard work and careful timing. Shizuku wakes before dawn one morning to find Seiji waiting below her bedroom window – the most perfect example of synchrony in the film. He invites her to mount his bike behind him, then cycles up a hill to a nearby viewpoint, from which their neighbourhood can be seen spread out below. The pair arrive at the moment just as dawn is breaking, transforming Tama New Town into a magic world a little like the surreal landscape Shizuku created in her novel. Here, then, perfect timing brings beauty, just as it did in the earlier sequence when Shizuku sang a song to Seiji’s accompaniment, and they were joined unexpectedly by Nishi and two elderly friends, who provided additional accompaniment on the antique instruments they happened to have with them. The transformation of Tama New Town by dawn recalls the transformation of John Denver’s song, ‘Country Roads Take Me Home’, both by Shizuku and Seiji’s performance and by the two sets of new lyrics Shizuku gives it. One of these lyrics, ‘Concrete Roads’, describes the transformation of countryside into suburb, as recorded in Pom Poko. Country roads get overlaid by tarmac, but with the ghost of the countryside peering through it, so to speak, much as the new words for John Denver’s song both obscure and recall the original.

In this way, both the song and the journey to the viewpoint testify to the possibility of finding time and space to discover creativity in the pressurized context of suburban Japan – or of the world, given the presence of Italy, Austria, and the World Emporium in the equation. The possibility of being creative depends on a synchronic co-operation between generations, as exemplified in the instrumental support given by Nishi and his friends to Shizuku’s singing, and by Nishi’s and her parents’ moral support for Shizuku while she is working on her novel. The synchrony between generations also brings together the stories of the Baron and the figurine Louisa – who become characters in Shizuku’s novel – and of Nishi’s love affair with the European girl who was lost to him in the War. At the point when Shizuku finishes her novel, just before Seiji’s return, she takes it to Nishi’s shop for him to read. The old man is dozing in a chair beside the fire, dreaming of Louisa; and as he wakes, Louisa’s face merges with Shizuku’s. In the process, his support for the girl’s artistic efforts effectively completes the unfinished narrative of Nishi and his first love, bringing past and present together in a satisfying resolution, like the precisely-timed resolution of harmonies in a piece of music. And the transformation of Tama New Town at the viewpoint – its fusion with the fantastic landscape Shizuku invented for her novel, a novel she could only write with the support of Nishi, Seiji, and her parents – extends the possibility of creativity throughout the community she’s part of. The notion of synchrony between generations, and between the imagined and the real, has never been more richly imagined on the screen than in this brief closing sequence.


[1] One psychologist’s definition of the term is as ‘The carefully coordinated interaction between the parent and the child or adolescent in which, often unknowingly, they are attuned to each other’s behavior’, John W. Santrock, Adolescence, twelfth edition (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2009), Key Terms: Synchrony. Some psychologists prefer the term ‘alignment’ to synchrony, since it implies the establishment of links between interlocutors in several domains simultaneously: timing in dialogue (e.g., speech rate), word choice, planning, memory, even posture. See e.g. Simon Garrod and Martin J. Pickering, ‘Joint Action, Interactive Alignment, and Dialog’, Topics in Cognitive Science 1 (2009), pp. 292-304. I am grateful to Dr Kerry W. Kilborn, School of Psychology, University of Glasgow, for a discussion of this topic.

[2] See e.g. Ruth Feldman, ‘Parent-Infant Synchrony and the Construction of Shared Timing; Physiological precursors, Developmental Outcomes, and Risk Conditions’, The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, vol. 48 nos. 3-4 (March/April 2007), pp. 329-354.

[3] See e.g. Daniel B. Klein and Michael J. Clark, ‘The Music of Social Intercourse: Synchrony in Adam Smith’, The Independent Review, vol. 15 no. 3 (Winter 2011), pp. 413–420, where the notion of ‘sympathy as coordinated sentiment’ is applied, among other things, to a complex commercial society.

[4] See e.g. Scott S. Wildermuth and Chip Heath, ‘Synchrony and Co-operation’, Psychological Science, vol. 20, no. 1 (January 2009), pp. 1-5. In an economic context

[5] See e.g. Michelle Thomas and Nicholas Bailey, ‘Out of Time: Work, Temporal Synchrony and Families’, Sociology, vol. 43 (2009), p. 613ff.

[6] For Totoro as a representation of Miyazaki’s childhood, see Colin Odell and Michelle le Blanc, Studio Ghibli: The Films of Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata (Harpenden: Kamera Books, 2009), p. 79; and more expansively, Phillip E. Wegner, ‘“An Unfinished Project that was Also a Missed Opportunity”: Utopia and Alternate History in Hayao Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro, ImageText, Vol. 5, no. 4, http//, consulted 24.9.12.

[7] For an explanation of the complex term ‘kami’, see Michael Ashkenazi, Handbook of Japanese Mythology (Oxford etc.: Oxford University Press, 2003), pp. 29-36. Miyazaki’s term for Totoro and the soot-spirits is translated as ‘goblins’ in Beth Cary and Frederik L. Schodt’s translation of Hayao Miyazaki, Starting Point 1979-1996 (San Francisco: Viz, 2009), pp. 255-6.

[8] Miyazaki calls it a ‘mountain-lion bus’, which makes it less domestic than ‘cat-bus’, but the vehicle’s resemblance to a tabby is unmistakable. See Starting Point, p. 257.

[9] The Japanese title is If You Listen Closely. This is also the title of Aoi Hiiragi’s manga, on which the film is based (Mimi wo Sumaseba, Shuueisha, Ribon Mascot Comics, 1992).

Synchrony in Howl’s Moving Castle

howl-moving-castle-1Adults and children live in different time zones, their internal watches set to different rhythms, their days constructed around alternative timetables. The question of how to communicate across the temporal divide is confronted daily by parents and offspring, teachers and pupils, at school and in the home, and gets intensified in the strange encounter between child and adult that takes place in a work of art made for children. Such works are usually made by adults, whose principal challenge – how to imagine themselves into a frame of mind they inhabited years beforehand – is complicated by the problem of keeping track of the rapidly-shifting cultural reference points among young people. Living in a household with children may help the would-be creator tune in to the latest developments in music, gadgetry and fashion, but it’s likely too to reinforce the conviction that adults can never really understand what makes their offspring tick. In the struggle to communicate despite this lack of understanding, artists fall back on imaginative reconstructions of their own childhoods in the vain hope that the radical changes of the intervening decades haven’t rendered them wholly redundant, or distorted beyond redemption by overlays of sentiment and cliché. Such reconstructions invariably emphasize the chronological gap even as they seek to bridge it. And they often take as their subject – as the driving motor of their narratives, so to speak – the complex interplay between time zones that constitutes the domestic environment in each successive generation.

One way of thinking about how the generations co-operate in a household is the concept of synchrony, which has been explored by psychologists and sociologists for several decades. The idea that a mother and child can achieve physical synchrony with each other by spending time in close proximity – that the movements and even the heartbeats of mother and child fall into step with one another when they sleep together or engage in activities face to face – is widely accepted by psychologists. So too is the notion that the synchronization of heartbeats, of rhythmic movements and of emotions can be extended, in time, from the mother-child relationship to the wider parent-child community. Sociologists have also investigated the effects of using rhythmic rituals of various kinds – marching, chanting and dancing, for instance – to achieve better co-operation (that is, psychological and social synchrony) between members of a group, an army, church or organization. Less threateningly, perhaps, there have been studies of the effects on families of spending time together, co-ordinating timetables and calendars to accommodate one another, and how this can improve both partnerships between adults and relationships between the generations. Fictional explorations of how a family community can bond in spite of their chronological differences may be thought of as an effort to understand metaphorical and even literal synchrony – how the movements of a household’s members may be combined to their mutual advantage.

But such a process of coordination is a highly complex one; largely, perhaps, because the differences between members of the family or household may be considered to be as valuable as their capacity to fall into step with one another. How to work together, to fall in step to solve common problems, while valuing and nurturing the effects of the different experiences imparted to a household’s different inhabitants by virtue of the different times at which they happen to have been born – these are questions that fascinate specialists and householders alike. I’d like to think about two texts that attempt to discover the means of preserving the chronologically-generated differences between members of a household community while enabling them to work together. These are a celebrated children’s novel by Diana Wynne Jones, Howl’s Moving Castle (1985) and the equally celebrated film adaptation of that novel by Hayao Miyazaki (2004). And it seems to me that these two works of art approach the problem of synchrony in rather different ways, as I’ll try to explain.

howls-moving-castleThe concern of Diana Wynne Jones with the complex chronology of domestic and other communities, where the time zones of the young, the middle aged and the old converge and clash, is evident throughout her work: from Seven Days of Luke (1975) and Dogsbody (1975), in which the lives of immortal beings (gods and stars) intersect with those of children, to The Homeward Bounders (1981), whose young protagonist finds himself ageing at a slower rate than his contemporaries, and Fire and Hemlock (1985), about the friendship between a young girl and a grown man, which changes as the girl gets older.[1] Wynne Jones’s novel Howl’s Moving Castle represents synchrony not merely as a prerequisite for the successful cohabitation of different generations within the same building or society, but as a psychological condition achieved with difficulty by individual men and women, aspects of whose personalities develop or mature at different rates, thus effectively establishing different time zones within a single mind and body. It’s this perception, among other things, that seems to have drawn Miyazaki to the novel, as permitting a new departure in his own lifelong exploration of temporal interfaces in domestic and social space.

Grandma-sophieThe protagonist of Wynne-Jones’s novel is a teenage girl, Sophie Hatter, who lets herself be seduced by the rules of fairy tale into believing that her destiny is predetermined by her position as the eldest daughter in a family. This conviction comes easily to her because she lives in the land of Ingary, ‘where such things as seven-league boots and cloaks of invisibility really exist’ – a land of fairy tale in action, where witches are as common as bakers.[2] Since she’s the eldest child, so the tales affirm, nothing interesting can ever happen to her: it’s always the youngest child who sets off on adventures and who gets the prize. In addition, her sole surviving parent is a stepmother, who Sophie assumes must therefore be tyrannous, if not wicked. As a result, Sophie’s lifelong entrapment in the family hat-making business (which she doesn’t enjoy) is for her as certain as if she’d already lived through it, and she behaves and dresses as if she were already the elderly spinster she expects to be. So when she’s transformed into a real old woman by a jealous witch, who has mistaken her for one of her attractive younger sisters, Sophie embraces her new condition with some enthusiasm. Before the transformation she was in effect an old woman trapped in a young girl’s body; after it she’s a young girl trapped in an old woman’s body; and since her life and story are now effectively over, she leaves the hat-making business and wanders out into the world to seek her fortune.

Sophie, in other words, is the victim of a particularly oppressive social form of synchrony – of ensuring that individuals know and retain their place within the community – which works hand in hand with ideology; synchrony as imposed on female children by the gender roles assigned to them by fairy tales and other narratives. Fortunately, however, the world – and the old women who play a vital part in it – proves to be very much more mobile than Sophie’s enslavement to fairy-tale convention leads her to expect. The delightful metaphor for this mobility is the Moving Castle of the title, and its erratic movements across Ingary can also be seen as standing for a more complex form of synchrony than the one that governs traditional fairy tales and hackneyed fantasies.

When she stumbles across the Moving Castle by accident, Sophie discovers in it a peculiar all-male household quite unlike the ‘conventional’ nuclear family (if such a thing exists, which Wynne Jones would have us doubt). It’s composed of the teenager Michael, an apprentice wizard; Calcifer, a stubborn but friendly fire-demon, whose magic keeps the Castle moving; and the wizard Howl himself, a dashing charmer whose one aim in life is to dodge the responsibility to which Sophie has always been a willing slave (hence Howl’s construction of this unusual mobile home). Including Sophie, these four householders span a tremendous age range, from the apprentice, who is fifteen, to the demon, who has lived for millennia. But they are none of them restricted in their movements by their apparent or actual age. In financial matters Michael behaves with a responsibility beyond his years, keeping some of the household money hidden from Howl to prevent him wasting it. Calcifer is as dependent on the other members of the household as an infant, confined to the Castle’s only hearth as a baby is confined to its cradle until somebody is willing to lift him out. Howl behaves like a spoiled adolescent, obsessed with his appearance and refusing to let Sophie clean his room. And Sophie, who makes herself Howl’s housekeeper because she can’t imagine herself as capable of anything else, becomes increasingly energetic as the novel goes on, despite her extreme old age: dashing across the landscape in seven-league boots, plotting to foil Howl’s various affairs, and rearranging the Castle so extensively that it eventually becomes her own home – quite literally, since Howl moves the building into the hat-shop at one point to avoid the unwanted attentions of the Witch of the Waste.

Age, then, in the Moving Castle, is no trap but a matter of attitude, and attitudes are always changing. Even the physical strength of the individual inhabitants’ bodies varies as much in response to hormones, cold germs and lashings of self-pity as to the motions of the heart (and Howl’s young heart is just as compromised, we learn in the end, as Sophie’s elderly organ). The movement of time determines nothing about a person’s character; it isn’t time that induces emotional or intellectual maturity, but successful interaction with other people, a capacity to adapt one’s personal needs to the demands of a community (and to resist those demands, of course, when they become oppressive). Household synchrony at its best, then, is for Wynne Jones a matter of careful and prolonged negotiation, enabling competing narratives and attitudes to achieve compatibility with one another, to co-exist – with frequent setbacks and digressions that prevent the negotiating process from becoming either consistent or linear. Her book is a celebration of domestic negotiation as a form of perpetual motion, like all her novels.

The identities of the Castle’s four eccentric tenants are as flexible as their ages. Michael disguises himself as a red-bearded man, or a horse, each time he leaves the building. Calcifer, in his capacity as (quite literally) the hearth of the Castle, changes the building’s appearance as well as its location with his demonic powers. Sophie successively takes on the roles of Howl’s assistant, his aunt, his mother, and (eventually) his partner, as the book goes on. And Howl has a different name and role in each community he visits. The Castle’s magical front door opens on a range of locations depending on the opener’s wishes: Kingsbury, Porthaven, Market Chipping, and (oddly) modern Wales; and in each place Howl has a distinct identity: as reluctant royal wizard, well-intentioned local magician, demonized ladykiller, and idle waster, all of them with alternative costumes and reputations as well as names. These conflicting roles of Howl’s converge and overlap in the interior of the Castle; and as a result the Castle provides an active illustration of the sheer dynamism of the domestic space to which Sophie has confined herself. All political and social action, all adventure, all identity originates in the creative melting-pot of the household, and the relationships between householders are forever mutating; responding to and influencing the mutations that take place in the world beyond. Nobody need be fixed, the Castle implies, in any role, whether by age, sex, birth, or any other factor – unless the community they inhabit, the household and the society it is part of, and above all their own state of mind, exert all their energy to imprison them in a single unchanging function. Nobody dominates the household, either. Control of the Moving Castle alternates between Howl and Sophie, with Michael and Calcifer taking the reins when the need arises. And the shape of the community inside it is always changing, as new members join the strange little family through Sophie’s influence. It’s a political as well as a temporal interface, a functional democracy, where the needs, pleasures and pains of old and new inhabitants succeed one another as the focus of attention according to the demands of the time.

424248_3164633998754_1352491418_3259108_263889306_nTo put an end to this condition of perpetual motion is the aim of Howl’s and Sophie’s arch-nemesis, the Witch of the Waste. Attended by a bevy of robotic page-boys, the Witch specializes in locking her victims into forms designed to limit their capacity for mobility and self-determination: a scarecrow, a dog, a skull, and of course the old woman Sophie. Each of her victims proves unexpectedly vigorous in resisting their containment; and each derives his or her vigour from Sophie’s boundless energy, which releases them one by one from their bondage through her capacity to ‘talk life’ into things – sticks, scarecrows, skulls, the dog’s inarticulate tongue – and transform them into dynamic components of her own and other people’s narratives or stories. The Witch needs only one more victim, Howl, to complete the construction of her ideal man: a crude puppet-being fashioned from parts of the complex actual people she has metamorphosed into objects or animals. She aims to set up her ideal puppet as King of Ingary – with the Witch as queen – transforming the land in the process into a barren desert bereft of material for the tales of which it should be composed, like the wasteland where she has built her own immobile fortress. Sophie’s resistance to the Witch is achieved through her ability to enable the Witch’s victims to work together as a community in spite of their differences, in spite of the instability of their personalities, in spite of their uncertainty about their individual identities. Her household is a domestic democracy rather than a monarchy.   And this notion of domestic democracy, or democratic domesticity, is another thing that seems to have attracted Miyazaki to the novel when he chose to adapt it for what was slated at the time as his final film, his swansong to the animation industry and the century in which he was born.

howlsMiyazaki’s movie has been described as less an adaptation than a reimagining, synchronizing the novelist’s concerns with the director’s through a series of daring shifts away from her storyline towards a set of themes that have engaged him for years. The problem of age remains at the centre of the narrative. Once again Sophie’s premature old age is balanced by Howl’s over-extended childhood, and the central problem is how to synchronize their ages, enabling them to cohabit in the Castle of the title. The problem could be said to represent the plight of an ageing film-maker as he seeks to engage the attention of much younger viewers – the problem I mentioned at the beginning of this talk. But in addition, the two time zones that converge in each of Miyazaki’s central characters – youth and elderliness, adolescence and maturity – become symptomatic of a pervasive dualism that extends through every aspect of their environment. It’s with the nature and function of this dualism that the rest of this post will be concerned.

Albert Robida’s Future
Albert Robida’s Dreadnoughts

The principal dualism in the film is a socio-political one, concerning the two alternative futures towards which Ingary may be moving: as a bright, colourful, mutually supportive community dedicated to the arts of peace, or a dark, war-ravaged wasteland, the energies of whose inhabitants are synchronized in a collective drive towards destruction. Suspended between these possible future destinies, the Ingary of the film is an in-between place, drawing on sources in art and history that look two ways. The setting of the movie, for instance, is an alternative turn-of-the-century Europe, where a pastoral landscape of mountains and flower-strewn valleys is overshadowed by smoke-spewing industrial chimneys and half-monstrous, half-comic flying gunships. The model for this landscape is Alsace, the disputed border territory between France and Germany which found itself caught at the epicentre of two world wars.[3] The machines that move around this landscape – from flying kayaks to steam-driven trams and the bomb-filled gunship-zeppelins that patrol the skies – derive from the work of the visionary French artist Albert Robida (1848-1926), who became famous in the fin-de-siècle for his exuberant illustrations of technology as he imagined it would evolve in the coming century.[4] Every visual detail of the film, then, looks two ways, to war and peace, to the past and the future, so that the competition between ages fought out within Howl and Sophie serves as a miniature enactment of the competition over alternative destinies being fought out in the world around them. And the Moving Castle becomes an embodiment of all these dualisms, its erratic movements recalling the jerky progress of a turn-of-the-century nation (in the 1900s or 2000s) towards cataclysm or prosperity, towards life or death – or rather towards both, since the film’s audience is conscious that both will dominate the century they have just emerged from.


Our first view of this building comes with the opening credits, and it’s a very different structure from the chimney-shaped fortress of the novel. Mounted on four metal chicken-legs, Miyazaki’s Castle resembles the hen-footed hut of Baba Yaga the Russian witch, an ambiguous figure who is either child-eater or magical helper depending on the storyteller’s whim; it points, then, to the centrality of ambiguous witches to the narrative. The surface of the Castle bristles with gun turrets and rural cottages, as if to point up the two opposite conditions towards which it may be moving, the military and the cosily domestic. The gun turrets embody Howl’s desire to defend himself from being drawn into war; but they also resemble the gun turrets of the ironclad dreadnoughts of Ingary’s navy, and thus point towards his possible enlistment as a secret weapon in the national defence force. And these ships have been part of the wizard’s life since early childhood. When Sophie visits the lakeside cottage where Howl spent his lonely vacations as a boy, she sees the model of a dreadnought on the table, reminding viewers of how boys are acculturated to play at war by the toys and games on offer. Howl’s Castle, then, fuses two influences from his upbringing, the isolated cottage and the ever-present warship, and Sophie’s adventures in housekeeping there have a direct influence on the direction in which the country, as well as the Castle and its occupants, is moving.

airships-howlThe first major change Miyazaki makes to the novel, then, is to place war at the heart of his film’s narrative, embodying its centrality in the eccentric mobile fortress. You might remember that the military is one of the areas in which sociologists have identified the extensive use of synchrony; by moving in concert, soldiers can be trained to subsume their interests to the interests of the group, even to the extent of sacrificing themselves so that collective actions can be successfully completed. One of the things you’ll notice in Miyazaki’s movie is the coordinated movements of the flying airships, with their flapping wings, and the fleets of human-faced bombs that drop out of their bellies. Clearly certain forms of synchrony encourage only conformity, and total conformity can be as disastrous to a community as total individualism. Some other form of synchrony must be found for the household, if it’s to become a successful centre for resistance to conformity with collective aggression.

Howls20Moving20Castle01065_from_we-The second change Miyazaki makes is to the villain of the story, who gets split in two, like everything else in the movie. The movie’s Witch of the Waste starts out as monstrous as she is in the book: a towering, fleshy presence who conjures Sophie into decrepitude in a spontaneous fit of jealousy. But she is soon supplanted by a much more devious enemy called Madame Suliman. Howl’s former tutor in the magic arts, Suliman deploys her formidable powers, ostensibly in the service of Ingary, as a combination of spymaster, bomber command and military general; and she is eager to secure her most promising pupil as her successor in all these capacities. Her character, then, combines aspects of Miss Pentstemmon (Howl’s kind old tutor in Wynne Jones’s novel), and the novel’s Witch of the Waste, who wishes to fix Howl in an unchanging form as her puppet husband. Like the Witch, Madame Suliman repeatedly tries to invade Howl’s domestic space – the Moving Castle – by a range of methods: direct assaults on the Castle doors by her servants, the blob men;[5] enlisting Sophie’s mother to deliver a magical spy-worm to the building; and above all, by drawing Howl deeper and deeper into armed conflict, on defensive raids from which he returns to domestic life with increasing difficulty, often still locked in the form of a monstrous flying demon he assumes when fighting. Howl’s repeated transformations make him more and more like the flocks of identical flying fortresses that threaten Ingary. Sophie’s challenge in the movie is to compete with Madame Suliman in the effort to synchronize her heart with Howl’s well-protected organ, which he has hidden in the hearth of the Castle for security, guarded by Calcifer. The two women stand for alternative versions of his destiny, his social role: as imperialist warmonger or affectionate family member, as obedient marcher in step with the military or as participant in the mutually supportive domestic community. And the richness of the film consists in its implicit acknowledgment that he could well end up as both.

08-howlsOne of the ways in which this perception is conveyed is through the refusal of the film to set up clearly demarcated opposing sides, of the kind Wynne Jones creates by installing the Witch of the Waste as Howl’s antagonist. Characters literally metamorphose into new shapes as the film goes on, taking on aspects of each other’s appearance and actions, and changing sides in a conflict whose causes and participants are never certain. The blob men who begin as henchmen of the Witch of the Waste seem to switch allegiance half way through, hiring themselves out to the more powerful sorceress, Madame Suliman, after her easy defeat of their first mistress in a showdown at the royal palace. Meanwhile, the defeated Witch becomes a member of the eccentric family circle that occupies Howl’s Castle – a kind of second Sophie, as if to acknowledge Sophie’s complicity with the spell with which the Witch aged her. So too does the asthmatic dog Heen, who starts out as Madame Suliman’s spy but ends as the playmate of Howl’s apprentice Merkl (a younger version of Wynne-Jones’s Michael). In Heen’s place, Sophie’s stepmother becomes Suliman’s spy, delivering the spy-worm to the Moving Castle under pretence of a family reunion with her long lost stepdaughter. Meanwhile another member of Howl’s household, the scarecrow Turnip, turns out in the end to have been an enchanted prince from the neighbouring country with which Ingary is at war. Enemies and friends, in the world of Miyazaki’s later movies, can be indistinguishable – which serves both to point up the painful futility of the conflicts that break out between them, and the possibility, against all odds, of bringing them at last into synchronistic alignment.

Witch's_henchmenThe most disturbing ambiguity of affiliation is that of the blob men. As the servants of Madame Suliman one might expect them to form part of Ingary’s army, and indeed when they attack the Castle they wear Ingarian military uniforms. But they also share a civilian uniform – of top hats, masks and tarry bodies – with the winged monsters who emerge from the bellies of the flying gun-ships as they attack Ingary. Madame Suliman, then, seems to be fighting on both sides of the conflict she presides over. For her it’s nothing but a game: the kind of war-game that might delight the young pages who surround her, each of them designed to look like Howl, as if to illustrate her desire to add him to her collection of pretty boys. Madame Suliman exposes her attitude to conflict at the end of the movie when she tells the pages, ‘Let’s put an end to this idiotic war’, implying that she could have done so at any point in the preceding action.[6] She is sinisterly playful, indulging a second childhood in old age as she conducts the affairs of the country from the comfort of a padded wheelchair in her flower-filled conservatory. Yet even Suliman cannot be dismissed as a mere monster; she is too humorous, too detached and too attractive to be so easily summarized, especially because it’s never entirely clear if all her machinations are actually causing damage to the people caught up in them. Her body, like Howl’s and Sophie’s, or like Ingary itself, is a space where different elements converge, each in turn becoming dominant as she wearies of the game she has been playing and moves on to a new one. So she too harbours the potential to be subsumed into a new model of domestic cohabitation.

21e63264e1ed9b48c5cf7c5b5e92a182War itself slips between identities as the film goes on, becoming sometimes a game, sometimes a hideous nightmare, in response to the changing moods of its conductors. At the beginning it’s a carnival, a form of collective play for the people of Ingary, whose lives are filled with toys: fancy hats from Sophie’s hat-shop, fancy cakes from the bakery where her sister works, national flags, charmingly silly steam-driven vehicles. It’s conducted by dashing soldiers in bright uniforms, post-adolescent show-offs who steer motorized kayaks around the sky like teenagers in sports cars. At the harbour, the civilians celebrate with childish enthusiasm the deployment of the national fleet. Sophie’s own stepmother adds to the air of flippant collusion with warfare by wearing a hat decorated with naval cannon in honour of the dreadnoughts. At first, then, war is full of light and colour; but it soon grows dark and violent, swallowed up in the bomb-torn night whose reds and blacks threaten by the end to dominate the movie’s palette. Lightness, then, and light, are capable of giving birth to heaviness and gloom; and in this war follows the trajectory along which Suliman is keen to steer her pupil Howl.[7]

tumblr_lk11muJQKe1qe0xgwo1_500From the beginning, Howl shares Suliman’s moral ambiguity. Rumour has it he devours the hearts of the girls he seduces; and although he first makes his appearance in a very different role – snatching the girl Sophie from the clutches of a pair of soldiers – even at that point he’s a source of danger, pursued by blob men who threaten Sophie more than the soldiers did. Not long after this, Sophie undergoes her transformation at the hands of the Witch, leaves home and joins Howl’s household as an elderly cleaner. But when she starts to clean up, she accidentally switches the blond and black hair dyes in his bathroom; and the transformation of Howl’s hair from blond to black signals his potential to transform himself from hero to villain, like a cowboy changing hats. This prospective switch of moral allegiance is foreshadowed by his reaction to the hair-dye incident. Howl goes into a titanic adolescent sulk, during which he generates both copious quantities of green slime, as in the novel, and a host of shadow-monsters closely resembling the blob men. This extravagant reaction, with its echoes of the sinister sorcery of the Witch and Suliman, is rendered more disturbing by the fact that immediately before this scene we witnessed Howl in action for the first time against the invading air force; an experience he seems to take far more lightly than Sophie’s assault on his cosmetics.

Howl.full.150241Howl’s lightness, then – his excessive concern for his appearance and the pleasures of flirtation – represents the flip side of his increasingly frequent forays into the darkness of war. If boys are the perfect recruits for a nation’s armies, Howl’s insistence on retaining his adolescent traits – his filthy, toy-strewn bedroom, from which he bars the cleaner Sophie; the ‘secret garden’ of his childhood, where his cottage retreat is hidden;[8] his love of fancy clothes – is what renders him vulnerable to Suliman’s efforts to draw him into her war games. The connection between his boyish lightness and his attraction to war is made most vividly when he shows Sophie the secret garden. At this point he looks much younger than he did earlier, gesturing towards flowers and mountains with the wide-eyed enthusiasm of childhood. But the appearance of a flying gunship prompts him to begin the change into a winged monster, smiling as he launches a magical attack on the gunship with one claw-like hand. The monster and the boy cohabit in Howl, both of them symptoms of his heartlessness – that is, his staunch defence of his emotional secrets, his carapace of bright insouciance, from external assault. If the literally light-hearted Calcifer guards Howl’s heart in the hearth of the Castle, safely hidden from intruders, it’s for Sophie to lend him the weight he needs to launch into a mature relationship.

o-oSophie, on the other hand, needs to achieve synchrony with Howl if she’s to escape the weight of self-inflicted reponsibility that binds her to an aged body. Their first meeting shows her what is missing from her life as a girl: the lightness Howl possesses in abundance. Wearing her trademark sober clothes and unflattering hat, she timidly skirts the carnival crowds as she crosses the city, dodging into shadowy back-streets to avoid the limelight. It’s in one of these alleys that Howl rescues her from the soldiers; and he later saves her from the blob men by launching them both into the air without the aid of wings, then walking with her, arm in arm, along an invisible pavement in the sky, visually acting out the light-heartedness of first love. After that, Sophie continues to see the airborne Howl as the carefree young man of this meeting, and works, as he grows darker and more monstrous, to align the chaotic interior of his Castle with the brightness of his first appearance. In the process she discovers lightness and colour in herself, which are reflected in the light and colour she brings to Howl’s shabby domicile – as well as in her increasingly frequent unconscious shifts from old age to youth. For a woman burdened with an overdeveloped sense of responsibility and wedded to the shadows, Sophie succeeds in bringing an abundance of brightness to the Castle’s gloomy interior. She smashes a hole in the wall with a flying kayak while escaping from Suliman’s troops, and inspires the wizard to shift the Castle to the many-windowed, sunlit hat-shop to keep his household safe. Her final transformation of the Castle, when she rebuilds it from scratch by removing Calcifer, with Howl’s heart, from the fortified hearth and carrying both outside, culminates in the reduction of the building to an open platform, its defences stripped away, its inhabitants exposed to the elements. And although this transformation begins at night, so that its implications are hidden by the mountain gloom that surrounds the platform, when the dawn comes it’s clear that Sophie’s housekeeping has finally exposed Howl and his remarkable family to the open scrutiny from which he has so sedulously been keeping them hidden.

1446593538-5260766be0110108a38b58383f966fe3The synchrony between Howl and Sophie reaches its culmination in the reconstructed Moving Castle of the final frames. Winging its way across an open sky, on flapping wings not so very dissimilar to the wings of the airborne gunships, the flying fortress is now dominated by cottages rather than gun-turrets, gardens rather than protective armour. It represents, then, Howl’s opening up of his childhood secret garden to a wider community, his entry into full socialization – an entry in which the rejuvenated Sophie fully participates. But the gun turrets still poke out of the castle roof, and though the flying gunships are heading home they have not been destroyed or dismantled. The difficulty of achieving synchrony in personal relationships – between generations of a family or different people in the same generation – is clearly equivalent here to the difficulty of achieving synchrony between rival nations: a harmonising of different interests to the mutual advantage of both parties.

Howl-5Flight has been rendered joyful rather than threatening in the final frames of Howl’s Moving Castle. Howl and Sophie face forward into the future from the bows of the Castle with the self-assurance of young lovers, whose relationship has been literally tested in the fire. But the future towards which they are facing – whether it’s the twentieth century, when the film is set, or the beginning of the new millennium, when the film was made – will surely share the synchronies of their relationship: its darkness as well as its light, its war as well as its peace, the premature ageing brought on by anxiety as well as the exuberance of childhood prolonged into maturity. And the Moving Castle remains a poignantly rickety structure in which to confront such a future.

[1] For a full account of Diana Wynne Jones’s recurrent themes, see Farah Mendlesohn, Diana Wynne Jones: The Fantastic Tradition and Children’s Literature (New York: Routledge, 2006).

[2] Diana Wynne Jones, Howl’s Moving Castle (London: HarperCollins, 2005), p. 9.

[3] See The Art of Howl’s Moving Castle (San Francisco: Viz, 2005), p. 12.

[4] For Robida, see The Art of Howl’s Moving Castle, p. 49.

[5] The term ‘blob men’ is used in The Art of Howl’s Moving Castle, p. 212 and elsewhere.

[6] The quotation is taken from the script of the film as translated by Jim Hubbert, The Art of Howl’s Moving Castle, p. 252.

[7] For an extended discussion of the concept of lightness (as against weight) in twentieth-century history, see Italo Calvino, Six Memos for the Next Millennium, trans. Patrick Creagh (London: Penguin, 2009), Lecture 1, ‘Lightness’, pp. 3-29.

[8] The term ‘secret garden’, with its invocation of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s novel, is used in Hubbert’s translation of Miyazaki’s script. See The Art of Howl’s Moving Castle, p. 240.

The Empire of Corpses by Ryotaro Makihara

tftf3ffsv3ctfopnyfaq The movie Empire of Corpses, which had its world premier outside Japan in the Glasgow Film Theatre on Sunday 11 October, had everything that attracts me to anime in insane profusion: a vast sprawling plot, an ornately beautiful cataclysm at its climax, an impenetrable philosophy which inexplicably roots itself in your mind for days afterwards, and a magnificent soundtrack. That these elements don’t really cohere – there are gaping plot holes which one can only ascribe, like the holes in Takashi Nakamura’s Tree of Palme or Katsuhiro Otomo’s Steamboy, to the likelihood that it has been cut down from an even vaster and more insanely ambitious director’s edit – hardly diminishes its attractions. And it made me think quite hard about two things: the powers that drive the subgenre called Steampunk and the passionate love affair between anime and books.

The first of these is something many people have written about, but Makihara’s film drove it home to me: how well Steampunk is named, since the term for the genre incorporates the energy source of an era. Steam isn’t always, though, as central to the plot of a Steampunk narrative as it is in Steamboy, which is full of massive metal components being propelled at appalling forces in all directions by compressed superheated water vapour, to devastating effect on the London landscape. Indeed Adam Roberts’s novel Swiftly, which takes as its premise the notion that all the lands discovered by Jonathan Swift’s egomaniac traveller Lemuel Gulliver have been colonized by various global empires, contains no steam at all. Why invent the steam engine, after all, when you have Brobdingnagians to lift your heavy loads, Lilliputians to do your delicate work, and Houyhnhnms and Yahoos to stock your armies? The power that drives the British Empire in Roberts’s mid-nineteenth century is slavery, and the pattern of the enslavement of smaller species by larger ones – and of more or less organized rebellion against oppression – seems to be repeated throughout the physical universe.

In Empire of Corpses the empires of the world are powered by the dead. Soulless hordes of staggering zombies have replaced the working classes as the components of every industrial enterprise and imperial war machine on the planet. What has become of the actual working classes we aren’t told, but by the middle of the movie it seems distinctly probable that they have been turned into zombies before death, through the horribly aggressive method, depicted in the movie’s opening shots, of inserting an oversized syringe into the brainstem – thus overriding their personalities with an artificial compound of music and opium (a witty take on Marx’s famous conflation of religion with a hallucinogenic drug). The premise satisfies because it brings together a number of themes associated in viewers’ minds with the nineteenth century: decline of religious faith, religious and moral hypocrisy, alienation of labour, men conceived as mechanisms, a morbid fascination with mortality, an inhuman ruling class who preach the highest ideals (one especially ambitious proponent of zombyism insists that filling the world with walking dead will bring universal peace at last – an assertion it’s hard to deny). And the fact that the movie’s central character shares the imperialists’ obsession with reanimating corpses for what may well be entirely selfish motives is equally satisfying. John Watson – yes, that John Watson – is literally hell bent on restoring his dead friend Friday to life; and his exploitation of Friday’s zombiefied corpse as a servant, bodyguard and amanuensis while ostensibly working for his benefit makes a neat point about the ease with which selfless high ideals can mutate into a cover for self-interest – a situation Makihara implicitly extends to the whole of the British Empire (and every other imperial power) in this movie.

But Empire of Corpses also reminded me of anime’s love affair with books, and that’s what lingered in my mind after the end credits (which are well worth watching to the end – Japanese audiences, I’m told by my colleague Saeko Yazaki, consider it rude to leave the cinema before the screen goes blank). Not only is the film stocked with literary figures – John Watson, Friday from Robinson Crusoe, the brothers Karamazov, Captain Nemo (or at least his ship), Mary Shelley’s eloquent creature (as well as James Whale’s dumb one, who unaccountably makes an appearance towards the end) – but the plot is unabashedly literary in character. The quest throughout is to recover Victor Frankenstein’s lost notes, which are said to contain the secret for reanimating the soul as well as the body – thus enabling zombies to speak, as Friday cannot. The villain – James Bond’s M – aims to overwrite the minds of the intransigent subjects of the British Empire with a more docile model of consciousness; in other words, he’s more interested in soulless zombies than articulate creatures of the sort Frankenstein created. Watson, by contrast, hopes to find a way to overcome Friday’s muteness by having him write down everything that happens to him as the two of them traverse the globe in search of that earlier set of notes. Dead Friday, then, writes living Watson; M seeks to rewrite the imperial citizen as a docile animated corpse; Frankenstein’s creature seeks to rewrite the android woman with the consciousness of his uncreated bride – acts of writing, over-writing, co-writing and rewriting fill the plot, till one could be forgiven for losing track of the characters’ motives altogether.

All these acts of posthumous writing and rewriting are rendered poignant by the fact that this movie is an adaptation of the last novel by Satoshi Ito – Project Ito – who died of cancer while writing Empire of Corpses, leaving it to be finished by his friends. The clearly homoerotic relationship between Watson and Friday – which precedes his quasi-homoerotic relationship with Sherlock by a decade – looks like a passionate tribute to a much-loved writer by friends and fans, who are determined to continue his project in spite of his death (there are two more full-length animes planned, which will make this movie into the first part of a trilogy). Indeed, one could say that this bid to film Ito’s work is powered by his death, lent passion by it; the zombie empire in the film can be read as a metaphor for grief, which so easily becomes a struggle to keep a lost one’s memory alive, to defy death’s tyranny, to promote the words that are all that survive of a writer’s mind after her demise. Reading a dead writer’s words is an act of reanimation, and this film indulges in this particular form of Frankensteinian re-creation with flamboyant enthusiasm.

Of all forms of film, anime is perhaps the one that’s most obsessed with books. It’s not just a matter of the dozens of adaptations of novels with which it’s stocked, from Isao Takahata’s TV series Heidi, Girl of the Alps to Hiromasa Yonebayashi’s Arrietty, from Satoshi Kon’s swansong Paprika, based on the novel by Yasutaka Tsutsui, to Nakamura’s post-apocalyptic versions of Pinocchio (A Tree of Palme) and Peter Pan (the TV series Fantastic Children). There are also the shows that dramatize the love of books itself, such as Koji Masunari’s OVA Read or Die (itself adapted from a series of light novels), featuring a bespectacled, shy librarian with superpowers that enable her to make anything out of paper, from full-size planes to bullet-proof shields; Mizuho Nishikubo’s Giovanni’s Island, in which two young brothers are sustained through the Russian occupation of their island home by their passion for Kenji Miyazawa’s novel Night on the Galactic Railroad; or Yoshifumi Kondo’s masterpiece Whisper of the Heart, whose heroine finds herself drawn to a boy in her high school by their mutual love of reading. Hayao Miyazaki (who scripted Whisper and Arrietty) is famously literary in his inspirations: Treasure Island underlies Laputa: The Castle in the Sky, Andersen’s Little Mermaid haunts Ponyo, while the success of his adaptation of Howl’s Moving Castle added insult to injury when his son Goro enthusiastically mashed together the Earthsea books in the critically panned Tales from Earthsea (for which I have a not-so-sneaking admiration). The labour of drawing characters, backgrounds and successive frames by hand for animated movies seems to yoke them to other forms of visionary, labour-intensive activities such as those of the solitary novelist, the mangaka or the attentive reader.


Reading and writing have never been more violent than in Empire of Corpses, nor so perversely erotic. I say ‘perversely’ because the central character has necrophiliac tendencies, which finally find an outlet in his willingness to embrace corpsedom himself (no spoilers here) to get close to his departed friend or lover. Is the film suggesting that reading books by dead authors (and Friday becomes a dead author by virtue of his note-taking) is, like orgasm, a kind of death? It certainly seems to suggest that encountering the past through books resembles a battle with enraged zombies – an idea which surely has some weight in these zombie-obsessed early decades of the twentieth century. The film’s greatest perversity, though, is the absence of female characters. The only prominent woman in it is an android with outsized breasts who spends half her time wielding a flamethrower and the other half flailing around in agony as Mary Shelley’s creature strives to convert her into a vehicle for the resurrected soul of his lost bride. There are some Victorian imperialist attitudes that aren’t worth reviving – and others that have shuffled on into the twenty-first century, gnashing their corpselike teeth in a vain attempt to fend off the forces of feminism. A shame that this film chooses in the end to align itself with the latter.