Howl's Moving Castle (Hayao Miyazaki, 2004)

Man in a high castle

(Written in response to Walter's Miyazaki Fest at his Quiet Bubble blog, now ongoing)

Hayao Miyazaki's version of Diana Wynne Jones' Howl's Moving Castle doesn't look as good on DVD as it does on the big screen. That opening shot, of mysterious fog through which the castle suddenly lurches into sight (a gigantically mutated armor-plated version of the Baba Yaga's chicken-leg house, complete with gun-turret eyes and goldfish fins (is Miyazaki familiar with Russian folklore?)), loses much of its impact on the small screen. But as with most of Miyazaki's projects, there are other pleasures to be had.

It's an encyclopedically monstrous patchwork compendium of his previous films, if you want to see it that way--the castle moves in the same sliding-plates manner he developed for the Ohmu in Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind; clouds and airships loom over grassy hills as they do in parts of Laputa, Castle in the Sky; tarry spirits menace our hero and heroine the way they did in Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away; a fire demon quips from his grate, much like the cat does in Kiki's Delivery Service. Even some of the aerial battleships recall, in design and movement (metal fins or cilia rowing in the air), mechanical versions of some of the more bizarre monsters you find in the thousand-page manga version of Nausicaa.

What's new is Jones' intricately plotted story of a young girl cursed to be an old woman, and the heartless wizard she meets; that, and the sense that magic plays a common if occasionally complex fact of life in her world, much as technology does in ours. Miyazaki doesn't include all the details; he picks and chooses. Jones' heroine Sophie is plucked whole from the novel, a girl so gray and timid she seems old long before she's cursed with an aging spell; Howl's knotty relationship with his fire demon Calcifer makes it intact--remains, in fact, the heart of the film (in more ways than one) as it was the book's.

Miyazaki downplays Sophie's sorcery--she does talk to objects, but whether they obey her or not is not immediately apparent; when the Witch of the Waste turns her into a ninety-year-old, the spell appears to strengthen or fade, but Jones implied as much (if aroused, elder Sophie calls upon reservoirs of strength she never even suspected she had). The moments when her youth returns seem arbitrary, but I think John Lasseter in his DVD introduction to the film was right in saying it comes in times of high passion--when Sophie is provoked, or feels the need to rise to the occasion (her most sustained period of renewed youth happens after Howl (who has admitted to caring for her) walks into danger).

His biggest change, however, is in altering the basis of conflict. It's still the twin story of Sophie's coming out of her shell, and of Howl assuming the mantle of responsibility and commitment (both crucial requirements for young people to become adults), but what causes them to do this is not the Witch of the Waste (she's pretty much sidelined midway through) but the war that in Jones' novel merely loomed in the background. In Miyazaki's film the threatening crisis has become a full-blown conflict, and Miyazaki reserves his most spectacular effects for depicting its horrors, from smoldering battleships limping into harbor to hellish night-time bombings that leave cities glowing like hot coals (the level of technology has been advanced from what seemed like the 18th century in the novel (sailing ships, horse-drawn wagons) to around the time of the Second World War, and in fact the bombings recall the London Blitz). Instead of a personal antagonist as in the book, a former lover who insists that Howl recognize her claim on him (insisting, in effect, that he grow up), Miyazaki gives us a society suffering the fever of war, a society under which young men and women are forced to choose between fighting--giving in to the fever, the societal madness--and the perhaps more mature alternative of resistance. From the more focused threat of a fearfully powerful Witch Miyazaki shifts to the broader one of a besieged police state, desperately recruiting its warlocks and witches, turning them into monsters, and hurling them against its opponents (shirkers like Howl, conscientious or not, are ruthlessly hunted down as enemies of the state).

It's not a matter of which is better, I think; Miyazaki has simplified the plot twists, dropped or changed several characters, and along the way lost much of Jones' unique flavor (the way Sophie point of view departs from, or collides with, reality; or the way magic is cunningly introduced, either as a bit of trickery, or as a fragment of a poem by John Donne) and understated humor (Howl with nonchalant pride parading past Sophie, trailing a blouse several miles long); on the other hand, he's made a film that speaks more urgently to us, what with the recent images of war and violence lingering in our minds.

As for the dub voices, it's a pleasure to hear the new Batman (Christian Bale) speaking out as Howl (you sense the spoiled Bruce Wayne ultraconfidence in some of his line readings); the beautiful Jean Simmons playing the elderly Sophie; Emily Mortimer, she of fresh face and fine figure and delicate yet emphatic warble, matching Ms. Simmon's own voice as a young girl. Critics didn't much like Billy Crystal's Borscht Belt fire demon, but I did; he goosed his lines the way a good comedian gooses his audience--that is, hard and often.

The ending is problematical--perhaps the first really obvious misstep in Miyazaki's career (please skip this paragraph if you plan to see the film). I'm not talking about all the loose ends suddenly being tied up (Jones' novel had a similarly hurried conclusion), but the way Miyazaki has the authorities end the war, as if it were a silly game you can call off and not some collective insanity that requires radical therapy for everyone concerned--war and the hatred that creates war can't be so easily dismissed as all that. Miyazaki's ending has the unintended effect of almost trivializing the tremendous scenes of destruction and carnage he's worked so hard to create.

Almost; perhaps I'm just saying the glass is half-full when it's half-empty, but the ending doesn't quite wipe out my memory of those war scenes, and what it meant for Howl to be in the middle of them, acting out his defiance. It's a wonderful picture despite the flaws, full of indelible images--of lonely Sophie on her stool, working on a hat; of Howl looking down at the fallen star nested in his palms; of the castle itself, a rickety, clanking wonder that in terms of charm and sheer amount of bolted-on imaginative detail leaves Katsuhiro Otomo's larger (if far more bulky) Steam Castle in the dust. One of the best films I saw in 2005, and easily the most complex and ambitious animated film in recent memory.


Some other articles / posts I wrote on Miyazaki:

Sherlock Hound DVD, Disc 1

Sherlock Hound DVD, Discs 2 & 3

Miyazaki and Takahata's Panda! Go Panda! DVD

Princess Mononoke

Spirited Away

Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind

Links to posts of other blog-a-thon participants:

Tuwa on My Neighbor Totoro

Walter on Spirited Away

CultureSpace on Spirited Away

Walter on Princess Mononoke

Cinemarati mention ofthe Miyazaki blog-a-thon

Walter on Kiki's Delivery Service

Walter on Porco Rosso

Walter on My Neighbor Totoro

Walter on Laputa, Castle in the Sky

Walter on Nausicaa, of the Valley of the Wind (my favorite Miyazaki)

Walter on Castle of Cagliostro

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