Howl's Moving Castle (Hauru no ugoku shiro)
Director : s Hayao Miyazaki
Screenplay : Hayao Miyazaki (based on the novel by Diana Wynne Jones)
MPAA Rating : PG
Year of Release : 2004 (Japan) / 2005 (U.S.)
As anyone familiar with the work of Japan’s leading animation director Hayao Miyazaki might assume, his latest film, Howl’s Moving Castle (Hauru no ugoku shiro) is a visual delight and a reminder of the continuing power of two-dimensional animation done right. Miyazaki’s twin talents have always been his ability to capture time and place and his ability to render fantastical worlds through a child’s perspective, and he does both with charm and power throughout the film.
The story takes place in an unnamed fantasy world that looks vaguely like Europe in the late 1800s (the Tudor architecture is borrowed from Germany, but the clothing and hair styles are decidedly British), but is awash in magic. The wall between the natural and the supernatural, usually so rigid, is here almost nonexistent. Witches, wizards, and fantastical contraptions straight out of Jules Verne coexist with nary the batting of an eye. When the moving castle of the title -- an enormous, lumbering, steam-driven behemoth that looks like a small village collided with the machinery from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and then grew legs -- passes through the countryside near a small village, the residents talk excitedly of it, but with the familiarity that might be associated with a circus coming to town.
As they frequently are, Miyazaki’s protagonist is a young girl, a teenager named Sophie (Chieko Baisho) who works in a hat shop. The twist is that early in the film she falls under a spell cast by the Witch of the Waste that turns her into an old woman. Thus, the young girl’s mind is trapped inside a body 70 years too old, and she is forced to come to terms with her limited mobility, strength, and endurance. Nevertheless, she sets out in pursuit of the titular castle, which is owned by a handsome, androgynous wizard named Howl (Takuya Kimura), hoping that he will be able to break the spell.
Sophie ends up becoming part of Howl’s oddball family that travels around the countryside in the moving castle, which has the magical ability to open onto at least four different locations with the flick of a switch. Other members of the “family” include Markl, a young boy who is training under Howl to become a wizard, and Calcifier, a demon who takes the form of fire and powers the moving castle with his energy. Miyazaki’s imagination and sly humor are infused into every aspect of the moving castle and its inhabitants, from the endless details of the castle’s helter-skelter, yet strangely logical construction, to Calcifier’s cartoonish face and sarcastic attitude, which provides comic relief at just the right moments.
The film also carries an explicit anti-war message, one that is perhaps a bit more labored than it should be, but nevertheless carries a great deal of the film’s visual power. Howl and Sophie are caught in an escalating war between two kingdoms, one of which is demanding that Howl render his services as a wizard to their cause. He refuses, not so much out of an anti-war sentiment, but out of cowardice and self-interest (part of the film’s emotional core is a redemption for Howl, a chance for him to make good on his abilities for someone other than himself). Miyazaki contrasts his visions of pastoral beauty that dominate the first half of the film (lush meadows of rainbow-hued flowers, towering mountains, expansive blue skies) with images of hellish warfare in which giant flying machines indiscriminately rain hundreds of bombs, reducing the world to a vision of fire and brimstone.
Howl’s Moving Castle is certainly a sublime work -- it has the fluctuating logic of a dream, with characters and identities and faces constantly morphing and changing and melting into each other -- albeit one that doesn’t quite reach the emotional depths you keep hoping for. For all its visual and narrative strangeness, the film is at heart a romance, with Sophie the young/old woman falling in love with Howl the mysterious heart-stealer after he rescues her early in the film from a pack of slimy, blob-like creatures that work for the Witch of the Waste. Yet, the romantic aspect of the film never really gels; rather, the true emotional involvement is in the moving castle’s rag-tag family and the manner in which they hold together in the best and worst of times. This is, in the best sense, a true family film.
(Note: I saw the original Japanese-language version of the film with subtitles, thus I don’t know how the Hollywood voice casting of Christian Bale, Lauren Bacall, and Billy Crystal, among others, affects the English-dubbed version.)
Copyright ©2005 James Kendrick
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All images copyright ©2005 Toho Company Ltd. And Buena Vista Pictures