June 29, 2005

Howl's Moving Castle

by peterb

Bear with me for a few paragraphs, while I approach a review of the Disney release of Howl's Moving Castle from a very oblique direction.

I'm one of the people who prefers to watch movies that are dubbed instead of subtitled, all things being equal. This is, apparently, a controversial position. I don't really understand how there can be any debate over this. If you have a movie with a superb dub, and a movie with great subtitles, the dub is the better movie. Period.

Now, it's true that there are many, many movies — particularly animated movies — that have dubs that are bad, or terrible, or completely unwatchable. That, as we like to say in the software industry, is merely an implementation detail. Of course it's possible to record a dub which ruins a movie. It's equally possible to lay down a subtitled translation that ruins the movie. And of course, we can imagine an actor's vocal performance that is so singular that no dub can capture it. But be honest: this is not an issue in 98% of the films we watch. Would you really cry crocodile tears if they dubbed over Kevin Kline's voice in Wild Wild West?

So what I'm talking about here when I say "dubs are better" is: the platonic ideal of a dub is better than the platonic ideal of subtitles. This is because popular cinema — and I'm deliberately excluding experimental film and formalist indulgence — is a medium which makes use of the written word but is not dominated by it. Subtitles dominate movies. Subtitling a movie takes a primarily visual experience ("watching a movie") and converts it into a primarily lexical experience ("reading the dialogue, while periodically flicking your eyes upward to see what happened.")

This is not to say that reading is bad. Reading is one of my favorite activities in all the world. Given the choice between a book and a movie, I'll usually choose a book. But that doesn't mean that I appreciate being distracted from a director's carefully created composition by being forced to read. Neither would I appreciate turning the page of the book I'm reading and encountering a full-motion video.

I'm bringing up this discussion of subtitles in part because I think it's an interesting discussion on its own, but primarily to use as an illustration for how small changes in presentation can transform a work. It's a common phenomenon to hear people who have read the book a movie is based on grumble "They changed everything! And they left out this Really Important Stuff! And my favorite moment from the book was missing!"

Howl's Moving Castle was adapted from a book. I've already read some criticisms of it along these lines.

Popular cinema is a medium. Books are a different medium. The two mediums place different requirements on how a story should be told. Just as putting subtitles on a movie changes its essential nature, so can other aspects of how we tell a story transform the nature of a work. In other words: if you tell the same story the exact same way in a book and a movie, you will end up with either a lousy book, or a lousy movie. The first Harry Potter movie is a great example of a film that would have been better if the director (well, if some hypothetical director with talent) had attacked Rowling's book with a carving knife and used only its heart. Instead, the film was a slavish page-by-page adaptation that removed all the joy from the text.

The reason this discussion of subtitles, audio dubs, and the nature of film as a medium is relevant is because I recently read the Diana Wynne Jones novel Howl's Moving Castle, and had the opportunity to see the Miyazaki film of the same name yesterday. Both works tell the story of a young woman named Sophie who encounters magic and is transformed by it. I enjoyed both immensely. I was therefore surprised when I read Christina's opinion that Miyazaki mutilates and abandons Sophie's story. I respectfully disagree with Christina. I think what Miyazaki is abandoning is the form of the fable, and in doing it he finds Sophie's heart. If the movie had been "true" to the book, it would have been a less interesting movie. The medium required a different view of the story.

Christina correctly points out that the book is strongly redolent of European fairy tales. The movie, unapologetically, isn't. Fairy tales are not personal stories, even though we treat them as such, or though we may feel possessive and intimate about them. Fairy tales, at their heart, are archetypal stories meant to scare children into behaving and listening to their elders. Little Red Riding Hood is a story about rape, murder, and cannibalism. Scratch a fairy tale, find a nagging parent: look no further than The Boy Who Cried Wolf. This is why the witch in Hansel and Gretel is so much more interesting than the protagonists, who by definition must be blank slates onto which children can project themselves.

Wynne Jones was telling a fable; Miyazaki was not. This is why Miyazaki's Sophie is so much more compelling than Wynne Jones's dreary young heroine. In the book, Sophie serves merely as a caricature against which the author can reflect the much more subtly realized Wizard Howl. In the movie, their roles are reversed: Howl is the caricature, composed of nothing more than hair and spun sugar, while Sophie is the emotional center of the film. The fact is, while reading the book I wanted to know what happened to Sophie. While watching the film, I cared about what happened to her. This is why if you told me I could only experience Howl in its book or film version (and both are quite good), I would choose the film without hesitation.

It is this empathy that is one of the strengths of film. Books have the luxury of being able to tell you about things. Movies have to show you things, or else be soul-crushingly boring.

On to specifics, without spoilers. The voice talent is of nearly uniformly high quality. There is one high point (Lauren Bacall as the Witch of the Waste) and one low point (Billy Crystal doing his tired-when-he-started Borscht Belt schtick as Calcifer).

Miyazaki, as always, incorporates his obsessions into the narrative: aging, the loss of family, the loss of humanity, war, industrialization, the environment, and above all (no pun intended), the beauty of the fantasy of flight. Some of these elements weren't in the book. But if you haven't read the book, you won't notice.

They used to say that Johnny Cash never did a cover. When he sang someone else's song he took it, changed it, and made it absolutely his own. If you've ever heard his cover of the Nine Inch Nails song "Hurt", you know this is true. Miyazaki, it seems, is much the same. This Howl is his own.

One thing I feared going in was the dreaded Miyazaki doldrum: as I have alluded earlier, I found some of the middle parts of Princess Mononoke to be slow enough to cause me to gnaw my own leg off, like a trapped wolf, in order to escape the theater. I needn't have worried. Howl has the best pacing of any of his films since Castle in the Sky. If I have any complaint about the film at all, it might be that it wraps things up rather quickly, and a bit too neatly. But this is just mere quibbling about plot.

At its emotional core, where it counts, Howl works superbly.

Posted by peterb at June 29, 2005 07:07 PM | Bookmark This

I think I react to the statement that a good dub is better than subtitles the same way you might to "a good instant coffee is better than a good ground coffee as it is quicker to make". But each to their own.

Posted by Paul at June 29, 2005 08:27 PM

In terms of sheer effort, it is much, much easier (and cheaper) to subtitle a film than to dub it. And it's much, much, MUCH easier to subtitle a film than to make a quality dub.

Think of it this way: every animated feature, that has any voice acting, that you have ever watched in your life has been dubbed. Probably any movie you've ever seen that was made in Europe has been dubbed. Any Fellini film you have seen has been dubbed. Most of the movies you've watched that were made in your own country, in your own language, are dubbed.

It's just that some of them ALSO have subtitles, in a different language.

Are the people watching the original version in the original language being deprived of a higher-quality product, because they don't have subtitles in that same language? The question answers itself.

Two more observations, because every time I talk about this with someone, they miss these two key points:

(1) the quality of the translation of a given movie from one language to another is completely orthogonal to the question of whether that translation is delivered via subtitles or dubbed speech.

(2) I fully agree with anyone who observes that most dubbed animated features are dubbed poorly. I am not arguing otherwise. That still does not invalidate my point.

Posted by peterb at June 29, 2005 09:24 PM

The only japanese show that has a good dub, i know of, is Iron Chef. All others i've heard suck.

Posted by Dan at June 29, 2005 09:29 PM

I'm aware of the process of how almost all audio is dubbed again (voice acting etc) as I've been involved in the film making process, admittedly from the music side of things, not the voice/audio side of things. So OK, I if you want to split hairs, I like dubbed movies where the dub is in the original language, which, as you stated, is nearly all movies.

Theres a key difference however, in that its generally the same language, by the same actors who originally acted the visual part (in non animated movies that is, in animated movies they go to great lengths to ensure lip movement and speech *in the original language* are in sync).

What I'm talking about is when they translate the dub, so the characters lips are moving in Korean (or French, or English or whatever) and the audio is in another language.

Its a personal thing, I'm not saying "I'm right and you are wrong" - I'm saying I prefer the visual and audio to be in sync, I don't like seeing lips move when there is no speech on screen and vica versa, it ruins my ability to suspend my sense of disbelief. Maybe that says more about me than the process.

To use my simile again, to some people, getting caffiene quickly and easily is more important than having good coffee. Its a question of whats important to that person. To me, to have the visual queues (lip motion) and the auditory queues (words that are meant to emanate from said lips) is important.

Posted by Paul at June 29, 2005 09:55 PM

I see this as being a problem with the difficulties of translations in general. With a sub, the original actors' voices are intact, with their inflections and timbres, and only the words have been translated. In a dub, a new director comes in (if I'm not mistaken), and new actors provide another interpretation of the translated dialogue. Inevitably something gets lost, or worse yet "re-imagined".

I think Disney is particularly guilty of excessive reinterpretation, and I've always preferred the subbed versions of Miyazaki's films to the dubs. For example, in the opening sequence of Castle in the Sky, in the original, the only sounds are the noises of the pirates infiltrating the ship -- in the Disney version, "humorous" dialogue is added whenever the camera isn't trained on a character's face. And in Princess Mononoke, according to a friend of mine, when they cast Billy Bob Thornton as the monk, they changed his lines dramatically to fit with Thornton's backwoods drawl. Plus, Claire Danes' whiny voice completely sapped whatever authority her character was supposed to have as a guardian of the forest.

I'm sure I'll enjoy Howl's Moving Castle, even in its dubbed version, but I'm not holding my breath while I wait for a dub to be produced in my lifetime that's any better than the sub.

Posted by Joel Young at June 29, 2005 11:11 PM

I tend to watch subtitled anime out of force of habit, but as I've learned more Japanese I'm generally forced to admit that the voice actors aren't particularly good in either version. So I have to agree with your thesis here - the Disney dubs of Miyazaki's work have generally been high quality, and not having to read the movie improves the quality of the experience. Especially for movies like Miyazaki's, where the visuals are so critical.

As for adaptation itself, there's an interesting essay by Neil Postman where he is specifically enjoined to defend television and he outlines a period when he believed television reached its height - "Kitchen Dramas" in the early 60's. His argument focuses on how the technical limitations of the television image made certain things (small, close-up intensive images) more viable than big sweeping productions - 12 Angry Men would be an exemplar of the style. Each medium has its own strengths and weaknesses which have to be addressed. We're watching video games become mind-numbingly dull because video game developers are convinced they're making movies, Frex.

Posted by Mike Collins at June 30, 2005 08:38 AM

I would often agree with Paul that the disparity between visual and audio cues is very distracting, but I didn't have any trouble with that while watching Howl. They did a great job of getting the timing right, so no one continued talking after their lips had stopped moving or anything like that.

Posted by Julie Watt at June 30, 2005 09:06 AM

I almost always watch the dub if it's available, because I also find it hugely distracting to constantly flick my eyes down to the text when I'm trying to take in the visual experience. I've ocassionally gone through the exercise of turning on the subtitles while listening to the dub, and while I've found some entertaining differences in how they approached the translation problem, it was rare that I actually gained new insight.

That being said, yeah, sometimes the dub is awful. But it's got to be REALLY AWFUL for me to care enough to switch.

Posted by Eric Tilton at June 30, 2005 12:57 PM

I almost always enjoy subtitles more than a dub, good, bad or otherwise.

The reason is that I watch a movie with subtitles differently. I watch more intently. Reading the subtitles keeps my brain busy enough that I don't have spare cycles to be distracted by some other train of thought. Because of this, I generally have a better understanding of what happened in the movie, and I have more invested in it... the end result being that I like the movie better. Stupid dialog and bad acting are also much easier to ignore.


Posted by Mark Denovich at June 30, 2005 01:16 PM

I think you need the perspective of someone who
only watched subtitled movies while growing up.
In Portugal, all the movies are subtitled.
Dubbing appears only in
a) cartoons b) mexican soap operas badly dubbed
by brazillians. Your description of paying
attention to the subtitles is amusing,
as I don't think a portuguese viewer is even
aware of the reading time. The notable exception
happens with bad translation, as it jumps out to
attention. I'll never forget
a character addressing an obese person as
"Moby Dick" and seeing it translated as "Moby . I could always see what having dubbing would have been like by tuning the spanish channels, however.
There, one would notice that John Wayne's voice
was eeriely similar to J.R.'s in Dallas or,
worse, would vary from film to film.
Translation is an orthogonal problem indeed but, even when faithful, it can still
sound ridiculous (Clint Eastwood "Haz mi dia, gamberro!", or something along those lines).
Now, your claim pertained to the platonic ideals
of dubbing and subtitling. I'll state equally
strongly: the people need to be trained in
reading subtitles, and then they can enjoy both
the content and the sound experience. Think of The Seventh Seal and the prosody of Swedish. Would it be quite as effective if they spoke spanish and had Mexican accents? Come to think of it, I think I'll add that watching a dubbed film is a bit like those new-fangled booths where you have sex with someone through a plexiglass wall. The appearance
is there, but there's something odd between you and the object. Erm, *art* object.

Posted by Francisco at July 1, 2005 07:06 AM

I'm pretty sure my two-year-old, though in all other respects a dedicated fan of capital letters, prefers dubs.

Posted by sprite at July 5, 2005 12:47 AM

There is no such thing as a "superb" dub. English voice actors have no IDEA how to perform in an anime. The closest to a good dub I've ever seen was in Mononoke Hime (Sorry, you probably don't know what I'm talking about. You would know it as "Princess Mononoke"), and even that was sub-par.

It's up to you what you like, but don't presume to tell ME what *I* should like, dumbass.

Posted by Spooooooooooooooooock! at July 6, 2005 03:06 PM

> was in Mononoke Hime (Sorry, you probably don't know what I'm
> talking about. You would know it as "Princess Mononoke")

I am touched and honoured that the Comic Book Guy from the Simpsons has taken the time to comment on my article.

Posted by peterb at July 6, 2005 03:37 PM

I saw Howl in Japanese (with subtitles), and I think the experience was perceptually different than it would have been if I'd seen the dubbed version. For example: whenever I read "Calcifer" here, I hear "Carcifuh!" Also, I was a little confused at first as to why these European-looking characters were speaking Japanese. But I got over it.

Posted by Karen at July 11, 2005 02:38 PM

I've been watching subtitled films from all sorts of countries in all sorts of languages since I was a little kid. For all you folks who whine about having to read subtitles... all I have to say is that you get used to it rather quickly if you actually get into the swing of watching them.

My reading speed has long since gotten to the point that when I'm watching a subtitled film I don't even realize that I'm reading. Whole sentences and such are just absorbed into my eyes along with the images on screen without even having to move my eyes.

The biggest thing that trips me up is when I have those fan subs that put explanitory notes above the dialoge text as they speak... that can get to be tough sometimes but even then... I usually read it all without missing what's going on and without having to pause.

So yeah... don't be lazy... just watch more subtitled films... try to get used to speed reading... eventually you'll wonder why you were ever complaining about "having to read during a film".

Posted by Eugene at September 7, 2005 02:01 PM


Fine, fine, fine. I bow before the incredible power of your immense brain. With a little more practice, you should be able to dispense with actually having to watch the movies, and will be able to just hold the DVD up to your forehead and absorb the contents psychically. From there it should be just a short hop to transcending your humanity and becoming a being of pure energy.

In awe of your 3l33t reading sk1llz,


Posted by peterb at September 7, 2005 11:13 PM

ok..I'll try to explain myself...........................
In Mexico 50% of the movies are with subtitles and 50% are dubbed. But when they release it on DVD most of them are dubbed.
The dub in Mexico is the best I've known (specially in anime, where the actors and directors really know what they're doing, the voices match the age, unlike english dub), but Lately there have been a lot of subtitled movies (more than usual), maybe because more people is starting to learn other languages, or because mexican Dub is going down (sad but true)....
the reason for this is that mexican voice actors aren't well paid...I mean, hey hardly get 6 dollars per hour, and the dub companies even think this is too much and they are taking all the dubs to be done in palces like Venezuela or argentina where they pay voice actors even less, and their accent and dub quality isn't good, not all Latin americans can understand them.
For example, the voice actors for the simpsons, they are Humberto Velez, Patty acevedo, etc, the had a fight with the ANDA (the asociation of actors) because they wanted a decent payment for their job....THEY GOT FIRED.....6 dll per hour! and the voice actors in US. for exactly the same job get 125,000 dll per chapter......
But I have always prefered dubbed versions over subtitled, but lately the spanish dub is not good, I Hope something can be done to solve this situation.
About Howl's moving castle......I liked spanish dub, but it was not as good as It was in it's golden age( like 10 years ago), I heard the english dub too, and I didn't like it, unlike spirited Away, in which I prefer the english dub rather than the spanish dub.

Posted by Areli at October 30, 2005 12:40 AM

i have to agree with the excellet dubbing over excellent subtitles. i think the dubbing was done very well and the voices fit the characters. i don't like reading subtitles in movies like this when i see them (unless i know them by heart by the time i do), because it distracts me from the art. there are some movies that are dubbed horribly, but this wasn't one of them. and for this movie in particular...it makes more sense for the characters to speak english, as the characters are european and the author of the book is english. i'm not against subtitles, but i really prefer dubbing when it's done well.

Posted by Lindsey at December 29, 2005 09:45 PM

I must say, this is by far the best article I have read in reviewing this movie--or any dubbed anime, for that matter. I'd seen Howl's Moving Castle twice in theatres' for the short time it was out, then recently watched it muliple times at the dollar theatres' near my home.

It was reminiscent of my childhood, growing up in fantastical worlds created in books, as I listened to the dubbing. While I am a fan of the book, I can honestly say I'd prefer the movie. As two different mediums tell quite different stories, it was only through Miyazaki's adaptation that I learned anything.

I have watched the movie in both languages, and as someone who has never minded subtitles, I found nothing lost in script or emotion. Not to mention, the characters seemed to have more depth when matched with European accents.

I enjoy your outlook on the differences in subtitles and dubs as it is closest to my own. Reading through a few previous comments I couldn't help but feel a sense of ignorance and biased in many replies. While some shows may *sound* better subtitled, I will not bash any dubbing as I know the time and effort it takes to record.

My sympathy to anyone "fan" who fights the "subtitle vs. dub" battle with little more knowledge than hours they spend endlessly watching anime.

Posted by Amy at March 2, 2006 03:22 AM

I have seen this movie quite a bit in both english and japanese. I must say I prefer the english dubbing to the japanese because I think the english voices fit the characters more fully than the japanese voices do. I also agree with Amy that it makes much more sense in context of the story to have the characters speaking in english than japanese.

For this film in particular, I don't think it matters at all whether it's in english, japanese, or silent. The vast majority of the film is told through the imagery and by solely paying attention to the spoken words, you would miss pretty much everything that was important in the story. Since the words don't really drive the plot or develop the characters much at all, I don't see why it should matter if some prefer it in one language and some in another. Do whatever floats your boat and call it good.

Posted by Suzy at April 13, 2006 03:33 AM

I have seen this movie quite a bit in both english and japanese. I must say I prefer the english dubbing to the japanese because I think the english voices fit the characters more fully than the japanese voices do. I also agree with Amy that it makes much more sense in context of the story to have the characters speaking in english than japanese.

For this film in particular, I don't think it matters at all whether it's in english, japanese, or silent. The vast majority of the film is told through the imagery and by solely paying attention to the spoken words, you would miss pretty much everything that was important in the story. Since the words don't really drive the plot or develop the characters much at all, I don't see why it should matter if some prefer it in one language and some in another. Do whatever floats your boat and call it good.

Posted by Suzy at April 13, 2006 03:35 AM

It seems this post has been receiving comments steadily throughout the months.. and has become a discussion about dubbing and subbing.

It's hard to say which is better, dub or sub.. obviously, there's no objective answer, even if you're thinking of the "platonic ideal." Like some people have commented, their experience has been growing up with watching almost everything subbed, so their experience of text-on-screen would be quite different from a lot of american viewers that would not be as accustomed to reading during watching.

The main qualm I have with Dubs are the re(mis)-interpretation of the characters.. I doubt it is even possible... (which puts that "platonic ideal" into question). Even if the same Japanese voice actor were to also do the English dub, the two languages have a difference of Culture that, even with the same voice, cannot be bridged.
For example, the simple expression of "Tadaima" (I'm Home), cannot really be carried over to the English speaking audience, as it's a part of Japanese culture that doesn't really translate itself adequately with "I'm Home."
This example is only one, and a really simple one, out of many that are spread throughout the movie. You can imagine how much this will change and skew original intents and the integrity of the piece.
Granted, subtitles too will encounter this problem. However, with sub, you get both the translated yellow words along with the idea of its original meaning and emotion aurally.

(I'm sure actors themselves confront this problem as well, not really understanding why certain characters say certain phrases at such times. However, their characters' mouths are moving, so they have to say Something, so the actors just blurt it out anyways. This problem adds distance between the voice actor and their animated characters, and that awkwardness can really be felt.)

however, there is one anime that i've seen with great dubbing. Whoever did the voices for Cowboy Bebop series really did well. Even if it might have been a re-interpretation of the characters, it was believable. And the voice-actors themselves also seemed to be experienced with dubbing, as they really got into the 2d flesh of their characters and made every word, weep, and pant sound natural.

so, yeah- sometimes, rarely, dubbing does succeed. But there are just so many obstacles (only a few of which i mentioned above), that really finding such a great dub will be really hard.

[i think the main problem is just the inexperience and ignorance of actors that don't really know how to deal with dubbing for animation, especially anime, that tent to be for audiences older than the american animation audience. If the voice actors were well chosen, and those chosen decided to actually invest enough time and effort in their characters as they would a live action movie, then those hurdles of language, culture, timing and other problems could be sufficiently overcome.]

Posted by dubidub at April 25, 2006 12:16 AM

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