“Make toast!”

Diana Wynne Jones died last weekend, surrounded by loves ones. Her death was not unexpected – she had been coping with lung cancer for some time. However, no forewarning could prepare her friends and fans for this serious loss: by all personal accounts, she was a generous friend, and creative, fierce, and clever. These qualities also permeate her books; she stands a wondrous titan in the contemporary fantasy genre.

I always meant to read more of her novels, and had not yet gotten around to it for all that The Dark Lord of Derkholm and The Tough Guide to Fantasyland and the Chrestonmanci books sounded extremely up my alley. I would have liked to have been more familiar with Diana Wynne Jones before she left us; it saddens me to know that we now have all the books by her that we’re going to get.

Gorgeous, touching or just heartfelt things have already been said by a number of people:

Neil Gaiman – “Being alive. Mostly about Diana.”
Pamela Dean – “I want to tell of our journey down the river.”
Delia Sherman – “More Precious was the light in your eyes that all the roses in the world.”
Marie Brennan – “A Seed of Hemlock.”
Robin McKinley – “Diana Wynne Jones.”

In memoriam here, I now give you the story of the first and only Diana Wynne Jones book I’ve read, a theatre-outing to see Haoru no Ugoku Shiro, and two silly gaijin.

I am an ardent admirer of the Studio Ghibli films directed by Hayao Miyazaki, most prominently of Mononoke Hime (Princess Mononoke) and Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi (Spirited Away) at the time this story takes place in late Fall 2004.

At the time I moved to Tokyo, I actually had no idea that Miyazaki would soon be releasing his newest offering: Haoru no Ugoku Shiro, or Howl’s Moving Castle, inspired by a British author’s book of the same title. A fantastic girl I worked with – Becky, who would soon resolve as one of my fastest and best friends in Tokyo – clued me in to the forthcoming Studio Ghibli feature, and soon we were both intrigued by the film’s premise and eagerly awaiting its release.

One problem: neither of us spoke more than a few phrases of Japanese.

To counteract our ignorance, I hied myself to the nearest bookstore after work one day and purchased a copy of Diana Wynne Jones’ novel. I figured we could both read it, and then follow the basic story as it unfolded in Miyazaki’s film.

I didn’t expect to fall head over heels into such a marvelous narrative. I didn’t expect the sly humor, the meta-inclusion of fairy tale tropes, the urban fantasy mixed in with secondary world fantasy and a dash of portal fantasy. I didn’t expect this novel to push so many of my buttons, indulging my fascination with the heart and witches and fairy tales. And strong women: in a time when I was often feeling vulnerable and lost, Sophie’s irascible strength filled me with a sympathetic conviction.

We saw the film in the theatre at Roppongi Hills a couple of weeks later, reveling in super-plush seats and the fact we didn’t have to wait ages to see it in an indie theatre back in the States.

For the first five minutes, the fact that we understood none of the film’s dialogue wasn’t a problem. (Especially considering there isn’t any dialogue for the first several minutes of the film.) We were armed with our knowledge of Diana Wynne Jones’ fantastic book. We were prepared!

Of course, then Miyazaki took us for an utterly fantastic ride away from the source material and into his own, equally genius vision. We were soon utterly lost, but it didn’t matter. The intoxicating imagery moved us, the music enthralled us, and I sat transfixed as even more of my thematic fascinations played out on screen: fallen stars, the lure of power, the glory of flight.

I may have missed all the nuance of Miyazaki’s concept in that first viewing, but I had a wholly complex two hours there in the dark: Diana Wynne Jones’ narrative and Miyazaki’s vision collided in my heart, leaving me immersed in an artistic experience beyond language that enthralled much deeper than either the novel or the film could have on their own.

It’s an experience that has stuck by me, and it need not have happened at all. The theatre we visited apparently also does a small number of showings of Japanese films each day with English subtitles. We had just missed that detail, and didn’t realize what the beleaguered ticket lady was trying to communicate to us before she just gave up and sold us tickets to the Japanese-only showing.

Still, I’m glad Becky and I were such silly gaijin. Otherwise, I would have missed out on a potent experience.

If you’re not familiar with Diana Wynne Jones’ work, do yourself a favor – find her books and read them.

That’s one of the best memorials such a fine writer could have.