HAYAO MIYAZAKI'S HOWL'S MOVING CASTLE
The first thing we see in Howl's Moving Castle (Hauru no ugoku shiro) is the castle itself, emerging from a maze of fog and haze. And we soon realize that its moving (hence the title -- see what I mean!). Anyway, as it comes into focus, it starts to resemble something youd expect Terry Gilliam or a young David Cronenberg to draw a sketch of, but it would be hard to imagine them having the audacity to make an animated film with it. Comprising of a front (or is it the back?) that kind of looks like a face; multiple layers and platforms with protruding windows; parts moving independently emitting gaseous contaminants with bells and whistles abound -- this microcosm of a weirdos idyllic castle is simply one of most indelible "things" youll see all year.
If you havent heard it by now, Howls Moving Castle is the latest opus from the Japanese anime and manga master Hayao Miyazaki. The director who has given us such films as My Neighbour Totoro, Kikis Delivery Service, Princess Mononoke , and in 2001 offered the awe-inspiring masterpiece, Spirited Away. Miyazaki, who found the now famous Studio Ghibli in 1985, is considered by many to be the greatest anime artist alive, although some Akira fans who have a certain affinity with the adult world offered by Katsuhiro tomo might disagree. The world Miyazaki usually takes us to is often kind of quiet (compared to other anime), two-dimensional, magical but not overly whimsical, containing beguiling characters that demand attention, and more often than not, the complications that arise are familiar to our adult world.
Howls Moving Castle is set in 19th century Europe (I think). It mostly deals with Sophie, who we first see as a shy and plain young girl working at her familys hat store. Her first adventure occurs when she is harassed by a couple of soldiers only to be saved by a handsome young lad who turns out to be none other than Howl; on their way they also end up dodging blobs of black goo sent in by the "Witch of the Waste." However, the witch eventually gets to Sophie, turning her into a 90-year-old woman, arched back et al. This predicament forces her to move away from town in order to seek help and she ends up in "The Waste," a sort of no-mans land between warring kingdoms. Sophie is helped by a scarecrow who she refers to as "turnip head" (based on her least favorite vegetable -- shes old, remember?!) and this creature takes her to Howls castle where she introduces herself as a cleaning woman.
Up till now, kids watching this film might be contemplating why there arent any amusing characters (other than the castle itself, of course), but that changes once we go inside this object. We first come across a talkative fire-demon named "Calcifier" who is responsible for running the show and knows it. We also meet a cunning youngster named "Markl," Howls apprentice in wizardry, and these two bring much life to the proceedings. Howl turns out to be a very wanted wizard -- he's not just claimed by the "Witch of the Waste" and Sophie, but also by "Madam Sullivan," his old master who wants his services in order to help her kingdom wage war. Howl also has a certain past which we gradually discover along with his inhibitions that help determine the choices he eventually makes. Sophie stays along, caring more for the others around her than the state she is in.
Adapted from a children's novel by Diana Wynne Jones, an Englishwoman who studied under the likes of C.S. Lewis and J.R. Tolkein, Howls Moving Castle proclaims its anti-war stance from the very start. The idyllic town and countryside are often invaded by huge Victorian era war-machineries, carefully designed by the master thus in many ways rendering them as important as the castle, but employed by selfish individuals blinded by greed and power (sound familiar?). This is not surprising since WWII was a big part of Ms. Joness childhood, and now Miyazaki has updated her stance. Marco Mueller, director of the 2004 Venice Film Festival (where the film had its world premiere), called it "the strongest anti-war statement we have in the entire festival" thus slapping the faces of luminaries like Amos Gitai and Wim Wenders. While I admire Miyazakis stance, I do wonder if he laid it on a little too thick (we hear various musings, claiming "lets stop this stupid war," not to mention some devastating war imagery) considering that its an animated film. But, Miyazaki is a strong believer and in an interview given to Newsweek; after being asked "Were you surprised [Spirited Away] won an Oscar?," he said: "Actually, your country had just started the war against Iraq, and I had a great deal of rage about that. So I felt some hesitation about the award. In fact, I had just started to make, so the film is profoundly affected by the war in Iraq."
After watching the film for the second time (this time I paid so I paid more attention), some of the plot points that seemed perplexing initially felt more relaxed and attainable. Frankly, I would have loved the film even more if the castle itself was given more prominence. Some might say that they wouldve preferred some backstory with young Sophie, but if one is aware of Miyazakis habits, theyd realize that his characters remain a little mysterious to the very end. Also, the line between good and evil isnt clearly drawn and that enables them to take various shapes and forms. His visual compositions have never been better, and while his narrative (which he wraps up a little too quickly) may not have the metaphysical depth of some of his previous films, it remains enchanting all the way through. Some of the best moments are minor ones: whether it's Howl howling that he doesn't want to live if he isn't beautiful (after his hair-color gets screwed up) or a race on the stairs between Sophie and the witch. Howl's Moving Castle might be the best animated film youll get to see all year, but I wouldnt walk in expecting another Spirited Away.
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