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Why ‘Howl’s Moving Castle’ is Better in English

Yeah, I said it.

Look, like any good nerd, I normally prefer watching a foreign movie as it was originally intended. When Disney scours Hollywood for top-level talent to overdub their vast catalog of Studio Ghibli titles, I’m not their target audience. And unlike most Americans, I actually don’t mind reading my movies if subtitles are required.

But let me get back to my original point. Of all the Miyazaki movies that have been dubbed in English, I believe Howl’s Moving Castle is the only one that works. Before I get into that, though, I want to talk about what’s wrong with dubbing foreign movies in the first place.

Now, I know that dubbing a film is common practice the world over. As much as we may bemoan a studio’s decision to release a martial arts or anime film with an English soundtrack as an appeal to the lowest common denominator, the fact is that every country engages in this. Disney is particularly fantastic at it. Just watch “Let It Go” in 25 different languages.

Hell, one of my favorite pastimes is watching The Dark Knight Rises on HBO Latino because Latino Bane is the best Bane1.

Animated films are even more susceptible to being dubbed since they’re, ya know, animated and all, and you don’t have to worry about matching the voices to the mouth movements. At least not as much. That’s the thing that always took me out of watching dubbed movies. I could never tolerate watching a film in which a character’s voice was disconnected from his or her lips. I think it’s this aversion to watching dubbed entertainment that prevented me, at a young age, from completely embracing anime or martial arts films2 like many of my brethren.

When Disney acquired the distribution rights to Miyazaki’s oeuvre of films in the mid 90s, Pixar chief (and devout Ghibli fanboy) John Lasseter ensured that the films would each be meticulously restored and sought out all-star talent to re-record the soundtracks to films that already had American releases. Some of the actors brought into the Disney/Ghibli fold include such nerd-friendly names as Patrick Stewart, Anna Paquin, Mark Hamill, Billy Crudup, Tim Daly, and Michael Keaton. Before Disney, previous American holders of the Ghibli license were, let’s just say, less good.

Since this practice started in the mid-to-late 90s, the general consensus is that the Disney versions are far superior to their original English dubs. Still, the authentic Miyazaki experience will always be watching the film in its original Japanese presentation. And this is all true. Except for Howl’s Moving Castle, that is.

Mainly because it stars Batman, but more on that later.

Maybe it’s the quasi-European setting (the book was based on a novel by English writer Diana Wynne Jones, after all) or that I always assumed that if a fire could talk, it would sound like Billy Crystal. But the use of English in this movie makes sense in a way that it just doesn’t in films like My Neighbor Totoro or Spirited Away.

Don’t get me wrong. The Japanese version of the movie is still pretty great. In fact, the Japanese singer/actress Chieko Baisho impressively and believably plays Sophie both as a young girl and as an old woman. (In the English version, Emily Mortimer splits the role with Jean Simmons.) Also, the famed drag queen Akihiro Miwa is pretty fantastic and definitely trumps Lauren Bacall’s take on the Witch of the Waste.

But really, this has just been a long-winded post for me to say that the only reason I prefer the Americanized version of Howl’s Moving Castle is because of Batman.

Christian Bale as the titular Howl.

It probably helped that the movie opened the same summer as Batman Begins, so it was a period of time in which Bale could do no wrong in my eyes. But real talk, Bale adds a sense of pathos and darkness that was lacking from Kimura Takuya’s version3. You also get a preview of Bale’s infamous Bat growl when Howl starts to lose his humanity.

To be honest, I not only prefer Bale’s Howl to Kimutaku’s Howl, I might actually prefer Bale’s Howl to Bale’s Batman.

  1. Considering Bane’s ethnicity in the comics, it’s also more accurate. 
  2. Even though they’re all in Chinese, most films produced in Hong Kong in the 70s/80s were still dubbed, or at least had terrible ADR. 
  3. Kimura got his start as the lead singer of the boy band SMAP before going solo and launching a career as a respected actor. Basically, Kimutaku was Justin Timberlake before Justin Timberlake. 
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