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Miyazaki's artistry soars in winds of his invention

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Hayao Miyazaki's scintillating and soul-restoring cartoons are as central to Japan's popular culture as Disney classics like Pinocchio are to America's. Miyazaki calls his production company Studio Ghibli; the word ghibli comes from the Italian for a Sahara wind. As his partner Toshio Suzuki told The New Yorker's Margaret Talbot, it reflects the director's desire to "blow a sensational wind through the Japanese animation world."

But in their pursuit of character, story and aesthetic perfection, Miyazaki's films are brilliantly old-fashioned. He draws them cel by cel, resisting the onslaught of computer animation. And he keeps his work resolutely personal, even eccentric - qualities difficult to market in present-day America.

He uses handcrafted artifice to restore audiences' primal responses and their love for unspoiled earth. His signature creation isn't a lovable rodent named Mickey Mouse, but a pear-shaped woodland spirit called a Totoro. And his Tokyo-based Ghibli Museum contains attractions that are the opposite of high-tech thrill rides - such as "Where a Film Begins," a trip into an untidy, mid-20th century study, complete with models of an old airplane and a prehistoric creature, and books on natural science and aviation.

Miyazaki blends wild mixtures of farce and conflict as he fleshes out his themes of men and women (and girls and boys) crashing through conventions to discover their own essence - whatever makes them them. His heroes often revive a jaded mankind. But he rarely resorts to preachy or Manichaean melodrama. Even his far-out menaces - the gargantuan arachnids of Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, the towering robots of Laputa: Castle in the Sky - are never simply ominous (or lovable). Their liquid, curvy lines reflect an organic volatility.

Spirited Away, a movie comparable to The Wizard of Oz, won the 2002 Academy Award for best animated feature. His latest, Howl's Moving Castle, is an amazing tale of war, love and metamorphosis unfolding in a fantastic vision of 19th-century Europe. (It opens Friday.) This sweeping adaptation of Diana Wynne Jones' novel needs to be seen on the big screen. It overflows with offhand wisdom about manipulation and subterfuge, ageism and sexism, the tyranny of desire and the redemption of real love. It's the product of a fabulist in full bloom.

Miyazaki often fashions green and sometimes petulant protagonists - and wizened supporting characters who turn out to be more wily than they look. In Howl's Moving Castle, he rolls both types into one. He told Talbot: "Sophie, the girl, is given a spell and transformed into an old woman ... as Sophie gets older, she gets more pep. And she says what's on her mind. She is transformed from a shy, mousy little girl into a blunt, honest woman. It's not a motif you see often, and especially with an old woman taking up the whole screen, it's a big theatrical risk."

The filmmaker takes a bigger chance with his vain, slippery antihero, the wizard Howl. Talbot worriedly compares him to the King of Pop - yet, of course, that's the point. Howl's a creepy boy-man until Sophie gets him to grow up.

Miyazaki fills Howl's Moving Castle with benchmark inventions. The mobile castle boasts chicken legs, a webbed rudder, and half a dozen turrets and gun holes that give it multiple noses and eyes. But the movie overflows with insight too. At the climax, a prince discovers that his true love doesn't love him. He decides to do what he must do - stop a war - and then see what happens. "One thing you can count on is that hearts change," he says. "So as soon as this war is over, I shall return."

Miyazaki rarely gives interviews. He's a workaholic, anyway - and, as with any great artist, we can get to know him best through his art. Luckily, Miyazaki's major movies are all out on DVD, mostly from Buena Vista Home Video or its subsidiary, Miramax. (Though My Neighbor Totoro first came out from Fox, Buena Vista has promised a new edition.)

Miyazaki is right: "Hearts change."

His talent, though, remains constant.

The Cat Returns (2003) is only a Miyazaki concept, drawn from a graphic novel and developed and directed by his Studio Ghibli colleagues, but it has the peculiar satisfactions of an all-Miyazaki feature. At the center of this brisk, satirical 21st-cen- tury fantasy is a confused teenager unsure of who she is and what she wants. After she performs an act of kindness to a cat, she receives increasingly upsetting thank-yous from the whole Cat Kingdom - including an invitation to become its queen. One cat is such a dapper swashbuckler, he's like the Scarlet Pimpernel with paws. He relays the movie's message: a teenage girl must learn to trust herself. Rarely has a feminist lesson been so charmingly delivered.

Laputa: Castle in the Sky (1986) offers undiluted euphoria. It's a tale of two orphans - a girl who drops from the sky into a mining town and the spunky boy who catches her. The view of childhood here is full of risk, as it is in all great kids' films, from The Yearling to Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. The girl carries a potent crystal that attracts pirates and government agents and leads them all to the floating island of Laputa, an Atlantis of the sky - both a warning of rampant technology and an example of machines and wildlife evolving into peaceful coexistence. Suspense and humor heighten this soaring adventure. Miyazaki plays the who's-more-macho game for rib-tickling pranks - a miner and a pirate compete to see who can burst his shirt-buttons more impressively with his flexed pectorals.

Kiki's Delivery Service (1989) tells the quaint, fantastical story of a 13-year-old witch-in-training who goes to a Germanic seaside city with her black cat, Jiji, and puts out a shingle as a flying delivery girl. Along the way, she wins (and rescues) her first beau, an overenthusiastic aeronautics freak, and overcomes a case of "witch's block" with the encouragement of a female artist friend who has experienced painter's block. It's a beguiling version of the timeless tale of a prodigy so obsessed with her vocation that she forgets why she loves it in the first place. Miyazaki's appreciative eye for land, city, sea and air transcends kitsch. So does his visual sense of humor: There's some precious broomstick slapstick and jazzy sidekick riffs from the randy, saturnine Jiji. Miyazaki builds this indelible comic figure out of mismatched parts - triangular ears, a malleable, circular big mouth - that miraculously meld, especially when Jiji poses as a stuffed toy.

My Neighbor Totoro (1993). It's deceptively slight, yet sublime: a contemporary fairy tale that's subtle and tender and free. There's not much to the story. To be close to his wife, who's being treated for an unnamed illness in a rural hospital, a genial academic dad moves into a country house with his two small daughters. There the girls first meet tiny "dust bunnies" - furry, bright-eyed ebony balls who assume squatters' rights in deserted homes (and leave en masse when the homes become occupied) - and then a series of Totoros, toy-bunny-like creatures who range from mini- to king-size. It's a giant flying Totoro who becomes their pal and protector from physical threat and (more important) emotional trauma. Few movies do as much to awaken young and old eyes to the power of the movie frame and to the vitality of its contents.

Nausicaa of the Valley of the Winds (1986) is a magnificent anomaly - a rousing vision of scorched earth. The heroine of this post-apocalyptic fantasy disdains petty tribalism and believes that she can bring man and nature back into synch. Complete with bellicose city-states, menacing monsters, a toxic jungle and a valley whose winds protect it from poisonous vapors, the movie is violent yet stirringly hopeful. When mammoth dandelions puff out spores, the sight is as seductive as it is lethal.

Porco Rosso (1992). It's an outrageously funny and moving spectacle, starring an Italian flier who grew the face of a pig during the First World War. Between wars, he operates as a bounty hunter in the Adriatic. He's like Bogart or Jean Gabin with a pro's code and a snout, and his antagonist is an American aviator - a wonderful caricature of the glamorous daredevils who helped create Hollywood spectacles like Wings. Their skirmishes climax in a slapstick corker that reaches from the sky above to the mud below. But overall, the movie has a European melancholy that creeps right into your inner chambers. The sight of ghost planes rising up to form a glittering streak across the sky is an inspired tribute to a lost age of honor among aviators.

Princess Mononoke (1997). A milestone animated epic: one of the few original screen fantasies with a thrilling density and splendor comparable to the best of Tolkien. Miyazaki sets this elemental yet intricate and textured saga in an antique Japan where nature is in turmoil: Firearms have made humans as powerful as gods, and industry has just begun to devour the primordial forest. At the start, the snakelike tentacles of a gigantic demon boar infect the prince of an isolated tribe with a wound that will grow and kill him - unless he can discover the poison's source. His journey lands him in the middle of a fight between forest spirits and an arrogant noblewoman who runs an ironworks manned by former prostitutes. Princess Mononoke, the adopted human daughter of a wolf goddess, becomes a reluctant ally of the prince, but there's nothing predictable about the romantic outcome or anything else in this movie.

Spirited Away (2002) is Miyazaki's masterpiece, the way Pinocchio is Disney's and E.T. is Spielberg's. The heroine, Chihiro, starts out as a cranky 10-year-old frightened of her family's relocation to a new suburban town and frantic over the wilting of her first bouquet. Soon, without knowing it, she becomes an adventurer. In the prologue, her parents stumble upon an apparent abandoned theme park that's a Coney Island of the mind. At an unassuming stall, they unknowingly devour the food of the gods - and turn into pigs. With the aid of a mysterious wonder boy named Haku, Chihiro navigates this secret universe. Before she can free her mother and father, Chihiro must learn the power of imagination, intuition, empathy - of every girl's or boy's innate resources. It's Miyazaki's crowning achievement. He locates for all time the intersection of Nature and human nature in a bold child's heart.

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