Howl’s Moving Castle, the latest Japanese animated feature from legend creator/director Hayao Miyazaki has recently been released on DVD after its cinematic run during 2005.
The story follows the adventures of Sophie, a young, “plain” looking hat maker who, while walking home from work down the backstreets is met by two soldiers, on leave from the war that is breaking out across the country. Amidst their attempts to “chat-up” young Sophie (and not taking no for an answer), a dashing wizard (Howl) comes alongside here, rids her of the soldiers and escorts her to safety.
Howl is being pursued however by evil-looking black slime creatures, minions of the Witch of the Waste (voiced in the English speaking version by Lauren Becall) and only affects their escape by flying into the air. Unfortunately young Sophie, now seen as an ally to Howl, is visited late at night by the witch herself who casts a malicious spell, aging Sophie by 75 years with no known means of reversing the curse.
And so begins the journey of Howl’s Moving Castle. With bones cracking, complaints about the cold and the inherent frailty of an elderly woman, Sophie sets off into the wild country in search of Howl and his moving castle. It is here that Miyazaki does his best work. With vivid landscapes and quirky characters he is the very best of what Disney can offer without the need to dumb-down his ideas or overlay his concepts so that he is exclusively understood by primary aged viewers. It is very much for the sophisticated movie watcher that Miyazaki does his best work.
The castle itself is a collection of improbable moving parts, metallic chicken-like legs, great moulded hubs that form rooms and powered by a cartoon-like fire spirit, Calcifer, (Billy Crystal who does not go over the top and in fact plays his comic part with just the right degree of dignity). Sophie (voiced by 77 year old Jean Simmons – she of Robert Mitchum’s femme fatale in 1952’s Angel Face and a hundred other screen credits) begins her new life as a member of the moving castle in addition to Howl (voiced by Christian Bale), junior apprentice Markl, and a helpful, mute scarecrow affectionately dubbed Turnip Head (who in turn happens to be under a spell and, with spell reversed, appears as the king’s nephew at the end of the movie and agrees to stop the war – how’s that for a deus ex machina ?).
Often Miyazaki is not just looking for entertainment in his films but to convey a serious message – usually about the environment (take for example Princess Mononoke or Nausicaa Valley of the Winds). In this one his not so subtle lens takes in the destructive stupidity of war and how it is perpetuated by vain and selfish men and women. Each character in the moving castle is battling their own spell (some of their own making) and it is the personal stories that are the most vividly drawn whereas the global story of war and governments is only drawn in broad brush strokes. Some of the interplay between Howl and his role in the war is indistinct and esoteric and it is here that the storyline foundered. I recall having a similar level of disengagement during some of Miyazaki’s other stories where giant armies are facing one another.
The beauty and majesty of the Miyazaki canvas however is in the detail : the water from the lake lapping the shore and washing over the smooth pebbles; the field of wild flowers swaying in the wind; the clouds of smoke billowing from the steam train as it pulls into the station. These images are spectacular and are the absolute highlights of the Miyazaki experience and Howl’s Moving Castle does not disappoint.