“I love the animation, ’cause it’s very magical and very… fantapsychological?”—12-year old Josh Hutcherson (who played Markl) on Howl’s Moving Castle
DIRECTED BY: Hayao Miyazaki
PLOT: Sophie is an 18-year old girl who works in her mother’s hat shop in a kingdom where wizards exist alongside flying airships. One day a witch strides into the shop and curses the girl, turning her into an old woman. Sophie runs away from home and finds work as a housekeeper for the wizard Howl, who lives in a magical wandering castle powered by a captive fire demon.
- The movie was loosely based on the children’s novel of the same name by English writer Diana Wynne Jones.
- Miyazaki had announced his retirement from directing feature films after 2001’s Spirited Away, but stepped up to complete this project after the original director quit over creative differences.
- One of the major changes from the novel is that the action is now set during a senseless war. Pacifist Miyazaki added the war subplot to express his anger at the United States-led invasion of Iraq.
- In the Japanese version the same actress (Chieko Baishô) voices both young and old Sophie; in the English dub the duties were split between Emily Mortimer (young) and Jean Simmons (old).
- Howl was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Animated Film (losing to the Wallace and Gromit feature Curse of the Were-Rabbit).
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Obviously, it’s Howl’s moving castle, as clinking, clanking, collection of caliginous cartoon junk as ever animated. The castle is a random assortment of turrets, gangways, girders, smokestacks, and bat wing fins, with cottages attached at various points, lurching along precariously on mechanized chicken legs like some replica of Baba Yaga’s hut commissioned by a mad steampunk billionaire.
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Take witches and wizards and place them inside a world with low-tech Victorian technology, and you have a steampunk fantasy. Now, filter that peculiarly Western brew through Japanese sensibilities, and add in Hayao Miyazaki’s flair for spectacle and childlike surrealism, and you end up with a story containing so many strata of magic that it approaches the casual incoherence of classic folk tales.
Disney American dub trailer for Howl’s Moving Castle
COMMENTS: Although set in a mythical European milieu—the picturesque cobblestone streets and red-trousered dragoons with handlebar mustaches suggest France on the eve of World War I, but it could just as easily be set in Wales, or Austria-Hungary—Howl’s Moving Castle reflects Hayao Miyazaki’s Japanese storytelling techniques. Miyazaki values emotional reality over the logical continuity of space-time, and he is not afraid to bend the latter to get to the former. Miyazaki’s methods often take his stories to the same mystical places fairy tales go: places where the logic of the original story has faded away over time, leaving only mysterious symbolism and unforgettable uncanny incidents, stories where hedgehogs ride chickens and animals poop gold. There is much in Howl’s Moving Castle‘s story to confuse the casual viewer, but the coming-of-age themes in heroine Sophie’s quest resonate universally, and the brilliance of the imagery blinds us to logical objections.
Going all the way back to Greek myth, one of the central ideas in fairy tales is metamorphosis or transformation: handsome princes secreted away in the body of frogs. Howl’s Moving Castle has scads of metamorphoses. This story’s characters are in a constant state of flux that would make Heraclitus’ head spin. The commonplace fairy tale trope of the prince secretly imprisoned in another body occurs here, but many of the characters’ transformations are more mysterious, and usually have psychological roots. When the Witch of the Waste’s powers are stripped from her, the spell that has been holding up her multiple chins over the centuries collapses, and her face turns into something that looks like a deflated wedding cake with makeup. Howl himself goes through numerous mutations. As a wizard, he can (quite naturally) turn into a hawklike creature in order to do battle with dirigibles, but each alteration leaves him closer to being permanently trapped as a monster. He begins the film with bangs as blond as the front man in a boy band, but by the movie’s end stress (and Sophie’s mismanagement of his dye collection) has taken its toll and left him a brunette. This pigmentation disaster cuts his vanity to the core, and the symptom of his self-perceived ugliness is that he secretes a green goo and almost dissolves into a snotty puddle on the floor. Of course, the movie’s key transmogrification is the one that drives the plot: the curse that turns Sophie from an eighteen-year-old girl into a ninety-year-old woman. In itself, the transition is simple enough, but what has caused fans hours of debate is the fact that, as the movie goes on, Sophie sometimes appears as a girl again, and frequently she is shown as a hybrid of young and old woman. By the end of the movie her youth is restored, except for her hair, which is now permanently grandma gray.
Miyazaki does not explain why Sophie’s appearance changes, and no one in the film comments on it, either. We expect a casual acceptance of magic as an equal competitor to technology in this steampunk universe; but in Howl, seismic shifts in character and circumstance are often met with the same nonchalance. Sophie is no more surprised to find a scarecrow hopping around on a pole like a pogo stick than she is to see a battleship sailing through the air. She is indeed surprised to find herself prematurely aged into a spinster, but she accustoms herself to the rhythms of the elderly quickly and comfortably. The rules of the social world here also work according to their own magical logic, and the characters accept changes in status as casually as they do morphological changes. No one is terribly surprised when Sophie appears in Howl’s castle, declaring herself the new housekeeper; the wizard himself registers no visible reaction to the news, although he hasn’t ordered any cleaning lady. Throughout the film various characters are integrated into the fabric of castle society, without much vetting; they are simply absorbed into a growing family. One of the strangest encounters occurs when Sophie meets her old nemesis on the steps of the royal palace; they talk more like old bridge partners who’ve grown apart rather than sworn enemies. Whenever a relationship needs to change, Miyazaki rushes through the dull establishment scenes and skips straight to the new configuration; a stranger or an enemy can transform into a trusted friend as quickly as a girl can go from eighteen to ninety. It would all seem strange if the characters did not accept every radical reconfiguration, maids turning to hags and witches to aunties, with the same obliviousness as if they were in a dream. They are at peace inside this strangeness, and their easygoing bearing cues us to be comfortable in their weird world, too.
And this is, we must stress, one weird world, often confusing, often surreal. Howl’s backstory is mostly unrevealed, and what revelations we do get about him are often hard to wrap our heads around. We never really understand all the details of his curse, or the motives of his antagonist, or the origin of the castle, or the precise reasons for his avian alter-ego, or why he becomes an unwitting brunette. As if the main plot wasn’t outlandish enough, Miyazaki decorates the corners of the film with his usual odd touches. Blobs of shadow wear straw vaudeville hats. Howl’s private bedroom is a forest of psychedelic jewels and tapestries that looks like a steampunk head shop; his bathroom is stained with pastel filth. The Witch of the Wastes stuffs herself into a hand-drawn rickshaw carriage far too small to accommodate her girth. An aerial battle rages above bombed-out cities pitting Howl against zeppelins that spit lizard-bats with butterfly wings. Giant light bulbs summon magic-stealing prismatic fairies. And the hard-to-follow final half-hour nearly goes off the rails a couple of times, climaxing in what appears to be a time-traveling trip into a fireworks show deep in Howl’s past that answers one of the movie’s main questions, while raising several new ones.
Although everyone admires Miyazaki’s astounding visual compositions and gift for spectacle, the story’s loose ends and the bafflement of the finale–i.e., the movie’s “weirdness”—put some viewers off. Many critics and mainstream fans rate Howl as “lesser” Miyazaki, but it’s his one of most overwrought, grandiose, and rambling works—in other words, one of his best, from the perspective of anyone who values rambunctious energy over tasteful restraint. The mix of classical European influences, contemporary fantasy literature, Japanese sensibilities, and Miyazaki’s own preoccupations fuse into a unique universe. Like Howl’s castle, this movie is cobbled together from mismatched parts; it looks unstable and threatens to tumble over as it rambles along, but magic holds it together.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“A parade of weird characters comes onstage to do their turns, but the underlying plot grows murky and, amazingly for a Miyazaki film, we grow impatient at spectacle without meaning.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)
“Mr. Miyazaki’s capacity for narrative invention has yet to find its limit, and this movie is filled with strange and marvelous creatures and incidents, some inspired by the book, others entirely of his own devising.”–A.O. Scott, The New York Times (contemporaneous)
“A stunning example of a pure, disorienting dream logic that cinema provides all too rarely.”–Joshua Rothkopf, Time Out New York (DVD)
Howl’s Moving Castle | Disney Movies – The official Disney site hosts three clips from the movie
IMDB LINK: Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
Howl’s Moving Castle // Nausicaa.net – There are plenty of juicy links to follow, including a production diary and a FAQ, on the Howl page at this Miyazaki fan site
Interview: Hayao Miyazaki – The Guardian’s profile of/interview with Miyazaki on the eve of Howl‘s release
DVD INFO: Say what you want about Disney, but their digital releases are always of the highest audiovisual fidelity possible, and the 2013 Howl’s Moving Castle Blu-ray (buy) is no exception. This is a two disk release, containing the film on Blu-ray and an almost identical DVD. The DVD lacks one Blu-ray feature: the entire 119-minute film presented in storyboard form. Both sets contain the option to watch the film either in the original Japanese (in two separate translations) or in the star-studded American dub. Other features common to both discs are an extensive collection of trailers (12 minutes of Japanese language Howl trailers, plus trailers for other Disney/Pixar/Studio Ghibli movies), a featurette on the dubbing process, an interview with English translator/voice director Pete Docter, and a chronicle of “Miyazaki-san’s” visit to Pixar studios.
If you only want a DVD, it’s cheaper to purchase Disney’s 2006 2-disc release (buy), which contains all the same features as the Blu-ray (the storyboard feature takes up the second disc).