Friday, February 7, 2014

Howl's Moving Castle

Howl's Moving Castle
seen @ Ample Hills, Brooklyn NY

One could hardly blame me for thinking, as a child, that all Japanese animation was about giant robots, wicked-cool looking tech stuff, and prepubescent-looking girls. As I've written about before, TV shows like Battle of the Planets and films like Akira cemented those impressions in my mind for a long time. 

I remember this one kid from high school who would draw nothing but giant robots and Pacific Rim-style mecha armor. Later, I had a close friend named Becky who got me into other anime shows. She drew some anime-style art as well. One time I was at her place and we pigged out on this one anime show she had on VHS for hours, and for the life of me, I can't remember what it was now. I wish I could.

I would imagine that I first heard about the films of Hayao Miyazaki sometime in the late 90s, when Princess Mononoke came stateside. I recall what a big deal that was at the time, and rightly so. Here was a filmmaker who made animated films that were ostensibly for a younger audience, yet did not use the same old tired tropes as mainstream American animated films in general, and Disney in specific. 

It's undoubtedly the result of coming from an alternate culture and a different, often times more sophisticated, storytelling sensibility: Miyazaki's films stretch the imagination to different planes and often have that childlike sense of wonder that is prized by many modern storytellers, yet doesn't condescend to the viewer, either. It's the same kind of balance that Pixar has mastered.

And now they tell us that Miyazaki has had enough. He's getting out of the game. (Maybe.) If this is so, well, all I can say is that he's earned the right. The whole world loves and appreciates his films, to a degree surpassed, perhaps, by only Walt Disney himself, and if he feels like he's no longer physically capable of maintaining his career pace, then so be it. He's left behind a remarkable body of work that will be appreciated for generations.

I myself have only seen bits of that body of work, however. I've seen Mononoke, Spirited Away, and Kiki's Delivery Service (might have seen Castle in the Sky; don't recall), so when I saw that Howl's Moving Castle was playing in Brooklyn yesterday, I went to see it.

This was one of the more unusual screenings I've been to lately. Ample Hills is a popular ice cream parlor in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Prospect Heights, near Grand Army Plaza. The name comes from a line written by author and Brooklyn native Walt Whitman describing his home borough. I discovered the place a few years ago, completely by accident. 

I was out biking in Brooklyn one Saturday, just following the bike lanes wherever they went, and at one point I went up an incline, and by the time it leveled off, I was pretty tired, so I stopped for a bit and looked around. Didn't recognize the neighborhood, but I still had a vague sense of where I was in relation to some of the cross-streets, so I kept going. I went past Atlantic Avenue and over the Long Island Railroad tracks and into a nice-looking part of town I'd never seen before, and among the shops I saw there was Ample Hills. 

They've got a sweet combination of unusual flavors, such as their ever-popular "salted crack caramel," made from salted butter caramel ice cream with "crack" cookies (not what you think); or "the munchies," made with pretzels, potato chips, Ritz crackers and mini M&Ms! There's even a film connection: the owner used to write screenplays. I don't make it into Prospect Heights all that often, but when I do, I often stop in for a cone, especially in the warm months when the joint is really jumping.

In the winter time, AH shows all-ages movies, and Howl was the latest. Unfortunately, I got there after the movie started, but not by much. They put up a makeshift canvas in front of their window and projected the movie onto it. Most of the seating faced the screen. The movie didn't attract many viewers; besides me, there was a dude with his two children, perched on stools in front of the main counter, and throughout the night, there were maybe three or four other people (counting their kids) who showed any interest in the movie. I couldn't tell you if that was par for the course.

AH usually gets their online fans to make up a flavor to go with the movie showing. in this case, the new flavor was called Calcifer's Hot Cocoa Coals, named after a character in Howl who's a fire demon - literally, a sentient ball of flame. The flavor was made of toasted marshmallow ice cream with chocolate cinnamon swirl and pocky, a Japanese snack. I forgot they had this flavor, else I would've sampled it; instead, I bought something called "bananamon," which is organic bananas, Saigon cinnamon and vanilla wafers. It was good.

While the audio in AH was fine, I couldn't tell you much about the movie itself because I soon discovered the drawback to holding a movie screening in a place like AH: not everyone who comes in there comes for the movie. When I arrived, there were few people in the shop, but about a third of the way into the movie, a bunch of young women arrived, and two of them sat in the booth behind me (after ordering cones for themselves) and chatted up a storm, oblivious to the movie. There wasn't exactly anything I could do about it; I mean, this isn't the same as people chatting during a movie in an actual theater, so I tilted my head a little closer to the speakers and did my best to shut them out. They left after awhile, but others took their place. It wasn't the most ideal way to watch a movie.

The titular Howl lives in a world of magic and rides around in a mechanical "castle" with legs, that has dimensional doorways to other parts of the world. An old lady named Sophie seeks him out for help because a witch put a spell on her that made her prematurely old (I think), but she has to help Howl find his heart, and there's a war going on, and that's about as much as I can tell you of the plot without looking at IMDB. It's certainly recognizable as a Miyazaki film, with lots of bizarre looking characters, fantastical gadgets and creatures, and beautiful landscapes. I think I'm gonna have to see this one again, though, if I wanna get a better sense of the story.

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