On Howl’s Moving Castle

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Well, I didn’t make it through all the Ghibli films before my upcoming trip to Japan and the Ghibli Museum (April 17th, yay!!!).  But I did make it as far as Howl’s Moving Castle, thanks to a couple of obliging friends who submitted themselves to sitting through these two crazy hours of anime with me.

Howl’s has always had a special place in my heart, because it was the first Ghibli film that really hooked me.  But it had been a few years since I’d last seen the film, and I was surprised when I watched it last weekend by how different it is from the rest of the Ghibli canon.  To this day, I find myself a little bewildered by the simple logistics of the film — what the heck is going on, anyways?  But still somehow, despite its confusing logical leaps and occasional absurdities, I just love Howl’s Moving Castle.

First of all, it’s written and directed by Miyazaki, with an incredibly simple and beautiful score from Joe Hisaishi.  The English version voice acting is decent, with Billy Crystal’s portrayal of Calcifer far outshining the rest.  I find Christian Bale’s voice to be perpetually annoying, and it’s no different here, where he lends vocals to Howl himself, who momentarily loses his identity as Bale breaks out his Dark Knight chops and slips into THE bat-voice (I hate the bat-voice).  The animation is beautiful, however, and the characters are delightfully exaggerated and amusing, as is Ghilbli’s wont.

Things fall a little bit apart for me where the plot holes develop.  Don’t get me wrong — Howl’s was my long-standing Ghibli favorite, though now I believe the title must rest once and for all on Totoro (unless some Ghibli film yet-to-be-released might overshadow it).  But I did feel a little disjointed throughout this viewing, because the tone of the film struggles to balance a thoroughly British steam-punk vibe with Ghibli’s characteristically caricatured Japanese flavor.  It might have something to do with the fact that the story is adapted and interpreted from British author Diana Wynne Jones’ novel of the same name.  Still, it’s not a game-changing flaw.  Howl’s Moving Castle is certainly still among Ghibli’s best, in my book, particularly if you’ll let yourself sit back, laugh at its sentimentally- and bizarrely-structured story, and enjoy the richness of Miyazaki’s world.

Additionally, I think the female lead, Sophie, is awesome.  She is easily one of the most level-headed and subdued anime heroines I can think of.  Also, although Howl is an absolute idiot pretty much throughout the film, and her attachment to him seems odd, I like the role that Sophie’s age plays in her perception of Howl and herself throughout the film.  I think it’s saying something interesting about youth and maturity — particularly when Howl’s childishness is taken into account.  But since I have no really developed theory on that account, I’ll merely state that as silly as the film can be at times, I think there’s an undercurrent of substance that I find refreshing, especially among animated fare.

Pros:  Great music, gorgeous animation, Miyazaki, lovable side characters (particularly Turnip-head, Calcifer, and old-lady Witch of the Waste), great female lead, fun and bizarre and humorous story, just a hint of depth

ConsIt gets way sentimental at times, and there’s a lot that doesn’t make sense (what is this crazy war about, who’s that dude that pops up randomly at the end, doesn’t it seem like things wrap up a little too easily, I’m confused).  Also, the film’s portrayal of love could have been genuinely profound, especially as it deals with Sophie’s appearance and Howl’s insecurities, but instead it fails to achieve genuine depth, and remains in the realm of surface-level, emotional affections.

Based on my nostalgia, I really thought this would be the third five-star film on my Ghibli list — but alas, it shall not join My Neighbor Totoro and Grave of the Fireflies with that distinction.  I love the film, though, a whole bunch.  And so, four stars it is!  **** out of *****

On (Im)Maturity

Yesterday was a long day.  I am exhausted, and feeling raw, so this post isn’t going to hold back much.  I need to vent a little, and I need to process some realizations brought on by yesterday’s crazy conversations.  For some reason, every topic that could possibly dredge up my latent insecurity, pain, and foolishness somehow came up all at once in the course of talking with good friends yesterday.  And I realized once again how wildly immature I am.

I hate to admit that there are things about my life that I don’t understand — that there are things about my life and myself that I just don’t like.  And so, I wrestled with anger, confusion, and emotion yesterday as I made premature and thoughtless pronouncements, waxed eloquent on topics I don’t know anything about, and succumbed to the nausea that I always feel when I don’t want to own up to my immaturity and ignorance.

Among all the confusing conversations and topics in life, for me, for some reason, the topic of dating, singleness, and relationships has always been and continues to be the most disorienting, nauseating, and painfully troubling.  Perhaps it’s the fact that I’ve only dated once, and not for very long, and when I should’ve known better; perhaps I’m just bitter because very, very, very, very (did I say very, cause we’re talking like less than 5 in 25 years), very few guys have ever expressed an interest in me as anything other than a friend; perhaps it’s because I still don’t know exactly what I think about all the intricacies involved in the fuzzy, awkward topic of “just” friendships between males and females … I don’t know what exactly causes such a visceral reaction in my gut, but sometimes (and particularly when I’m already physically and emotionally exhausted, as I was yesterday) I get almost panicky when the subject of dating or crushes or relationships comes up, and I certainly get emotional.

Part of it is that I know that pretty much every other single person in the world is right there with me, in the throes of confusion and pain and hope and hopelessness.  Part of it is that opinions on these subjects vary widely — even, or perhaps especially, among Christians.  Part of it is that I’d like to be able to condemn other people’s emotional stupidity by adhering myself to some rigid, inflexible relationship protocol.  (And part of that is that if or when it happens for me, every fiber of my obsessive compulsive perfectionist being wants it to happen in exactly the right way, whatever that means.)

That last one is the big one.  I’ve spent a lot of time thinking and talking about what relationships should be.  I can pontificate at length on the subject, and on my idealistic expectations for Christian relationships —  about how dating is dumb and destructive (which, it certainly can be, but that’s not the point), about how singleness is awesome (which, it is, and every church should have a robust concept of a fulfilled and holy single life), about how the desire for marriage should be submitted to the greater desire for the will of God (which, it should, but that doesn’t make the desire wrong).  I want to think I’ve got the relationship thing figured out, and to scoff at the fickle, frantic, fluttery emotionalism of … pretty much everyone else.  Love is a soap box for me, and from the high horse of relational maturity, I enjoy looking down in condescending patronizing on the masses of immature wrecks who don’t understand how Christians ought to treat one another.

But yesterday, my pride snapped.  A few wise words from a few good friends, and I found my head swirling as if beaten by some blunt object. If I’m being honest, I am an emotional train wreck when it comes to the thought of relationships, just like everyone else.  I am deeply insecure, and deeply immature, and I have no idea in heck how this stuff is supposed to work.  And anytime I act like I know what I’m talking about, I’m just pretending (I’m just pretentious), shoving the confusion down my throat so it doesn’t get vomited out, exposing me for the lonely, emotional, unprincipled, frightened lunatic that I really am deep down.

I realized a few things about myself, and a few things about relationships, dating, and Christian friendship and love:

1)  Part of my intense desire to understand relationships and to have some universal principles to which all relationships should adhere, is that I want to be in control.  And there are two areas in my life about which I feel most helpless.  One is my pain and my health, which no amount of doctor’s visits, nutritional knowledge, nor personal effort have allowed me to gain control over.  The other is, of course, relationships — because, as we all know, whether or not I’ll meet the right person at the right time, whether or not I’ll conduct myself appropriately and Christianly in such a context, whether or not I’ll ever be married … is all completely and utterly outside of my control, and even more so because I am a woman.  And this brings me to two related subpoints:  a)  I don’t trust guys.  b)  I don’t trust God.  Or, to state the two together, I don’t trust God to work in the hearts and minds of the single guys in my life to bring about His purposes for me.

2)  The reason I don’t generally trust the single male’s capacity to make reasonable decisions about dating is again twofold:  a)  I am ridiculously prideful.  b)  I am ridiculously insecure.  On the one hand (I hate to admit this, but I’ll go ahead — no holds barred today, folks), I am deeply and thoroughly convinced that any reasonable, mature, single Christian male should be attracted to me …  And I find it utterly bewildering that none of them ever seem to be.  Truth be told, I have a very high opinion of myself as wife and mother material.  I am compassionate, patient, and wise.  I’m not too shabby as a cook and hostess, and I love keeping my home clean and cozy and hospitable.  I have a heart for ministry, particularly to the local church body and to the incredible group of friends I’ve found at Mercy.  I love kids, and I’m good with them, and I want to have a bunch of them someday.  I’m organized and thoughtful and mature.  And, let’s admit it, I’m just super cool.  I can talk video games, I watch The Walking Dead, I love scary movies, I hang out at City Place, I’m at least somewhat intellectual, and with the exception of not caring about sports one iota, I can generally chill with the “bros” quite comfortably.  On the other hand, forget everything I just said!  Oh my gosh, I’m a train wreck.  I have absolutely no confidence that I will be a good wife or mother.  Indeed, I have absolutely no confidence that any guys will ever care enough to find out.  Did I say compassionate?  Goodness, no, half the time I don’t give a crap about anyone but myself!  And wise?  Pffft.  Bahaha.  That’s just plain ridiculous.  And, I mean, there’s nothing particularly enticing about me — I’m not at all girly, so you’re not gonna catch me dressing up and batting freshly-mascara-ed eyelashes to get attention.  And while I haven’t really ever had significant body image issues, I’m also not delusional.  I know I’m not as cute as so-and-so, and not as funny, and not as flirtatious.  And I’m not going to try to make myself that way to convince anyone that I’m attractive.  On top of that, and more significantly, I am. very. sick.  I am not well, and that leaves me emotionally unsteady, physically exhausted, and totally needy about 90% of the time.  Nobody wants to deal with THAT mess.  And I’m not actually cool at all — actually, I’m a total nerd, and super dorky more often than not.  And I’m probably just annoying to pretty much everybody pretty much all the time.  I’m childish, I’m manipulative, I’m grumpy, I’m selfish — so, so selfish — I’m silly, I’m flighty, I’m downright sinful, too.  I’ve got college/car/credit card debt, so even financially I’m not in an attractive position.  I’m irresponsible, insecure, and yes, friends, I am immature.  It’s crazy, you see, because I want to condemn single men for not recognizing what an amazing person I am or for crushing instead on “inferior specimens.”  But then I also want to condemn other single women for being way more amazing than I am or for being ridiculously shallow in their means of attracting the attention of men.  In all of this, I am determining my value by comparisons, and evincing a staunch lack of submission to God’s guidance.  I am being idolatrous rather than seeking my satisfaction in God.  And isn’t there something somewhere about not judging … because in hastily condemning others for their romantic flaws, I am merely judging myself — making obvious my own lack of trust in God, my own hateful inclinations, and my own self-centered immaturity.  AND, I am utterly neglecting the facts that I am indeed valuable, because of God’s love.  That I do have strengths, because of God’s grace.  That I can experience forgiveness and hope, because of God’s mercy.

3)  If you try to impose a strict ideal or set of expectations for healthy relationships onto specific situations, you’re just going to lose sanity, engender discontentment, and get in the way of God’s work in your life and the lives of those around you.  Don’t get me wrong — there are certainly rights and wrongs in relationships, as in all things.  But Scripture is where you find those principles.  I don’t have the privilege of deciding what’s right and what’s not in this arena, making up principles out of thin air.  And when I let myself think I’ve got it all figured out, and that I know exactly how every relationship should unfold, I only end up hurting myself or others.  You see, God doesn’t impose a strict set of particularities on every life — every Christian must garden, every Christian must go to a Lutheran church, every Christian must sing Psalms a cappella, every Christian must, etc., etc.  No, no, no, silly.  But He is intimately involved in guiding every particular of every life according to His perfect will.  In the same way, He doesn’t bring couples together by some formulaic method, and we have no right to judge the means by which He brings about healthy marriages.  Who am I to say that dating is wrong, especially when it’s the means by which most marriages begin these days?  Who am I to say that long engagements are stupid?  Who am I to say that people can’t meet on the internet?  Who am I to say that there’s any one, specific right way?  It’s not up to me how these things happen, neither in my life, nor in anyone else’s.  God is providentially governing all things, and He is (and ought to be) in control, not me.  And, as one of my friends said yesterday in the conversation that sparked this post, “When you finally get there, you won’t care so much about how you got there.”  Thus, in dating, as in church, fixed theology, flexible methodology.  Instead of focusing on the hows and whys of relationships (Who should become interested first, what should you wear on your first date, should you even date at all, what if you like the wrong person, is there even a right person, how long does it take to “know,” should we just frakkin’ go back to arranged marriages, cause this nonsense is confusing as heck?), we should be seeking Scripture for encouragement when we feel lonely, for a proper understanding of Christ’s love for the church (and thus a proper understanding of what any healthy relationship must be), for conviction and humility that will obliterate our pride and selfishness.  We should learn what it truly means to love our single brothers and sisters as friends and fellow-Christians, by sacrificing selfish desires, vain jealousies, and self-assured condescensions.  And we should learn patience and trust as we surrender this area of our lives to God’s sovereignty and steadfast faithfulness. 

4)  WE ARE ALL IMMATURE.  This was perhaps my most comforting realization, because it means that I don’t have to pretend that I’ve got it all figured out.  I don’t have to be fully mature in order to participate in a healthy relationship, and I shouldn’t expect complete emotional and relational maturity in a potential spouse.  Now, I don’t mean that every unmarried person is, by necessity, immature or lacking in any way.  On the contrary, I think singleness is a blessing not to be squandered, and I believe that God develops single persons into Christian maturity just as powerfully as He works in the lives of married couples.  Though I have many faults, I think I am mature in a number of areas of my life — BUT, dating is NOT one of them.  And there’s the distinction.  Marriage is the only male/female relationship that reaches its full maturity — and I’m fairly convinced that until we get there, no matter how principled or rational or prepared we think we are, immaturity is our natural inclination in regard to all things related to romance.  I’d wager you’d be hard pressed to find any married couple who believes that their relationship began, continued, and culminated in complete maturity and level-headed-ness.  In fact, I’d guess that most couples’ stories are far from ideal, fraught with pain, mistakes, and childishness.  And to hazard one last hypothesis, I’d say most people would claim that they didn’t really begin to understand what God intended male/female relationships to look like until they began to undergo the maturing process of marriage itself.  That is to say, we won’t understand genuine romantic love (for, I believe that there is such a thing, though I do not believe that it exists outside of marital commitment and covenant before God) until we are married.  And that’s okay — we’re not supposed to.  But we are supposed to learn genuine Christian love, because every individual is called to love his neighbor as himself.

And so, in our confusion and emotional craziness, we should be comforted that we are not alone.  When we feel confident and rational, we should be humbled towards the emotional craziness of others by the recognition of our own immaturity.  When we are lonely, we should look to the fellowship of our church body, our brothers and sisters in Christ, for edification and community.  When we are anxious, we should remember that God is in control, and that He loves us infinitely more than any other human being ever will, and that it is only because of His love that we are able to love and be loved.

It’s all easier said than done, I suppose, but such is life.  I, for one, hope I can be a little more honest with myself and about myself from here on out.  I am not undesirable or somehow unworthy of a relationship.  But I am called to be single right now, for a season, or forever, as God wills.  And though I’m not thoroughly childish, selfish, or immature, I confidently and humbly place myself among the ranks of all of us single folks, whose emotions get the better of us more often than not, and whose immaturity and insecurity drive us to our Savior for our hope and happiness, significance and security.  Because nothing happens except through Him and by His will, and He is the one who in holiness, wisdom, and power preserves and governs all His creatures, and all their actions.  Would that He might grant us patience, sanity, charity, and hope.

And still, I have absolutely NO idea what I’m talking about … haha.  But at least talking it out made me feel less crazy.  🙂

On Communion

Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.  For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. – Romans 5:3-6

Last Sunday was Communion Sunday at Mercy Pres.  It came at the end of a very long week for me, and at the beginning of another.  I am chronically ill, and I always feel bad, but recently I have felt … very bad.  Sometimes I think it’s wrong to describe my illnesses as though they’re somehow worsening — I don’t know if that’s accurate, though it feels accurate to the way I experience things.  Sometimes new symptoms arise out of the blue, scare me for awhile, then fade into oblivion as though they’d never existed.  Sometimes old symptoms flare up, distressing me with near-unbearable pains.  Sometimes it comes and goes in frustrating cycles of hope/victory (when I feel a little better than normal, or when I’m able to try some new way of treating myself or helping ease my symptoms), depression/despair (when inevitably any attempts at treatment or betterment fail, and when my fluctuating emotions get the better of me), apathy/indolence (when the sadness fades, and I just stop caring about whether or not I’m doing anything to help myself feel better), and anger/anxiety (when I just can’t take it anymore, and frustration overwhelms me in a flood of helpless discontentment).  Although I know my pain is very real — it’s not just in my head, thank you very much — I am also aware that my varying moods affect how much pain I feel, and/or the intensity of my pain affects my varying moods.

Regardless of its current severity, the fact is that I suffer — daily.  Some days are worse than others, but it’s always there.  And in the past few weeks, I’ve felt particularly incapable of dealing with it.  I’ve cried out to God, “I can’t.  I can’t do this.  Help me.”  I have cried out in anger, “This isn’t fair, it isn’t right — Why me?”  I have melted into my couch, subsuming myself in the distraction of television, and bitterly moping until sleep comes to deliver its rest — which is never nearly enough rest.  I have begrudged others their health, and blamed them for not understanding what I’m going through, for not knowing how to be helpful.  When things are at their worst, my sin shines furiously forth in its pale, ugly, filmy, shadowy light — it is dark, but I cannot ignore it.  And guilt, seizing the opportunity, flies to my side, wailing out its own tunes in malicious harmony with the violent melody of my pain.

I have two overwhelming desires in life:  to be understood and to be comforted.  Sometimes I long for these as though my very life depended on them.  And often, in His mercy, God places in my path people whose lives encourage me — because they do understand.  And even more often, God grants me friendships that are truly comforting — people who will share my burdens, and with whom I can rest, laugh, find joy and peace.  But every earthly comfort, every human understanding eventually falls short.  I think anyone who has suffered (and that is everyoneas I would do well to remember) knows that this life offers no permanent solutions to the problem of pain.

Last Sunday was Communion Sunday at Mercy Pres.  And I was reminded, in the midst of my cold and sinful and hopeless week, that there is One who not only understands suffering, who not only provides comfort in the midst of suffering, but who also has borne my suffering already on my behalf, so that in His presence guilt must flee, and even my blackest sins are forgiven.  It is only in the death and resurrection of Christ that we can find hope in this life — Indeed, my only hope in life and death is that “I am not my own, but belong, body and soul, both in life and death, to God, and to my Savior Jesus Christ.”  This gives me comfort when I long to be healed, but shudder at the thought of asking God for such a surcease of pain, which I do not deserve — it reminds me that He is able to heal me, for my very body belongs to Him, and it encourages me that when I feel pain, it is according to His good and perfect will, and for His purposes in my life.  It reminds me that I am both to trust Him with my deepest desires, and to submit to His will, even when it seems as though my desires remain unmet.  It is a tense and weighty hope, but it is hope, and a hope that depends wholly on the grace of our kind and loving God for its continuance.

Furthermore, my suffering pales in comparison to the humiliation of Christ — “he descended into hell” — and to the anguish out of which He prayed, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.”  My suffering is like a mere pinprick when compared to the glorious suffering of Christ on the cross, where he bore the full wrath of God, and died in my place. And it is a blessing, not a curse, to be granted the grace that I might partake in his sufferings to some small degree — that I may learn gratitude, trust, patience, love, endurance, character, hope.

As we prepared our hearts to receive communion, we sang this hymn, and I was shaken to the core:

Jesus, I my cross have taken,
All to leave and follow Thee.
Destitute, despised, forsaken,
Thou from hence my all shall be.
Perish every fond ambition,
All I’ve sought or hoped or known.
Yet how rich is my condition!
God and heaven are still my own.

Let the world despise and leave me,
They have left my Savior, too.
Human hearts and looks deceive me;
Thou art not, like them, untrue.
O while Thou dost smile upon me,
God of wisdom, love, and might,
Foes may hate and friends disown me,
Show Thy face and all is bright.

Man may trouble and distress me,
’Twill but drive me to Thy breast.
Life with trials hard may press me;
Heaven will bring me sweeter rest.
Oh, ’tis not in grief to harm me
While Thy love is left to me;
Oh, ’twere not in joy to charm me,
Were that joy unmixed with Thee.

Go, then, earthly fame and treasure,
Come disaster, scorn and pain
In Thy service, pain is pleasure,
With Thy favor, loss is gain.
I have called Thee Abba Father,
I have stayed my heart on Thee
Storms may howl, and clouds may gather;
All must work for good to me.

Soul, then know thy full salvation
Rise o’er sin and fear and care
Joy to find in every station,
Something still to do or bear.
Think what Spirit dwells within thee,
Think what Father’s smiles are thine,
Think that Jesus died to win thee,
Child of heaven, canst thou repine.

Haste thee on from grace to glory,
Armed by faith, and winged by prayer.
Heaven’s eternal days before thee,
God’s own hand shall guide us there.
Soon shall close thy earthly mission,
Soon shall pass thy pilgrim days,
Hope shall change to glad fruition,
Faith to sight, and prayer to praise.

And as I saw each member of my fellowship proclaiming the words of that song along with me, I remembered their suffering, and our mutual burdens to bear.  And as I took the bread and wine from the hands of godly men, in the presence of the body of Christ, His church, I was told, “be thankful,” and I felt the sting of my ingratitude and the incredible weight of God’s forgiveness.  And as I ate and drank what for me are otherwise forbidden — wheat and wine in even moderate quantities make me very ill, but in communion I consider the minor discomfort I might experience from consuming a small amount of each as another beautiful reminder of Christ’s suffering for me — as I ate and drank, the words of Psalm 4 flooded my mind, and I prayed with tear-filled eyes, “You fill my heart with joy beyond when wine and grain increase.”  Because, you see, wine and grain are joyful indeed, when they are abundant (and when you can digest them, haha) — but in communion they are symbols of misery and brokenness, of the very body and blood of Christ, battered and poured out for our salvation.  And so, when sufferings abound in our lives, we ought to “count it all joy” that our trials should increase, that we might be made complete in Christ alone.  Only then may we be comforted, although we mourn.  Only then may we be satisfied, although we hunger and thirst.  For we will learn that the mourning and the hunger draw us to God, break our foolish human pride, and teach our sorrowful hearts to find joy in the midst of pain, and hope in the midst of disappointment.