Review: Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)

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Howl’s Moving Castle is as charming, as astonishingly detailed, as wonderful and magical as anything Miyazaki has ever offered to date. More fairytale than mythology, the story is based on the work of Diana Wynne Jones, a British fantasy novelist of long and popular standing. Sophie Hatter has a quiet and perfectly satisfying life taking after her name as a hat-maker, that is until the she meets both handsome magician and wicked Witch of the Waste in the same day and her life is turned around — or rather, fast-forwarded, until she is a 18 year old girl in a 90 year old woman’s body. And the curse, in the best tradition of fairy tales of old, means that she can tell no one who she really is, or she will stay 90 until her life is through. As staid as Sophie’s life is, she doesn’t fancy missing most of it.

And like a fairy tale, that is of course where the real adventure begins. As Sophie makes for the only place she knows of that might be able to break the curse — the famous and mysterious magician Howl’s Moving Castle, she starts to realise both the limitations and freedoms of her predicament. It is during this journey that some of the most touching, affecting aspects of this film are visible. Sophie’s heart does not linger long on the loss of her beauty or youth – she never believed she had such things in the first place – but her inherent nature reveals something about youth’s impressions of age through her sudden transformation. Unexpectedly, nothing works as it should, and everything is harder and what she wants to do is restricted to what she can do. Literally, old age has not crept up on Sophie, but settled down abruptly, and in that typical, gentle Miyazaki style, we see this deterioration of her outer strength in a way that only makes her inner strength — her practical yet generous nature — that much more apparent. She laughs at her own physical failings, taking her decrepitness in the kind of honest stride that shows age to be as much a thing of wonder as youth. And in the province that age has magically bestowed, she takes seriously only those things that are important — life, peace, compassion and love.

It’s the broader themes that Miyazaki (and by extension Wynne Jones) touch upon in Howl’s Moving Castle that take themselves seriously in this film. True to his auteristic tendencies, the director is as concerned with social commentary, however fantastical, as he has always been, and the influence of the original content brings to the director’s style conflict less grand and slightly more impersonal than something like Princess Mononoke. The two sides of the war Sophie finds herself witness to upon arrival at Howl’s Castle are slightly more remote, almost lofty entities, symbolised in scenes of giant staircases and daring aerial battles. Wynne Jones was a child in the 1940’s when her father evacuated his family from London on news of war, and that experience surely reflects in her work, because it certainly reflects in Howl, where the true empathy of the narrative lies with the nameless masses caught in the crossfire. Yes, Howl is a heroic character, although perhaps not conventionally so (the surprise involved in realising that the hero is indeed having a hissy fit is just too delightful to mention!), and his true beauty lies in his innocence and gormless acceptance of Sophie for who she is and not who she appears to be. But Miyazaki’s punch is at a more mundane level this time. The houses being bombed and the people being killed are almost insignificant against the greater forces clashing. Like Sophie, they are ordinary folk finding themselves struggling to make it through an extraordinary time. The understanding that message engenders is as relevant in the real world as the fantasy First World War the story is set in.

With music by the inestimable Joe Hisaishi, and the vocal talents of ex-SMAP popstar and TV heart-throb Takuya Kimura (2046, Beautiful Life) and Chieko Basho (Otoko wa Tsurai Yo) in the original language, and Jean Simmons, Christian Bale, Billy Crystal and Lauren Bacall in the upcoming Disney dub, this new Miyazaki offering was a hit before it even landed anywhere near a cinema screen. Critics’ comments that Miyazaki films are still a little too Japanese, that his stories are too deep, his heroines too complex, to truly find a home in the hearts of mainstream Western audiences seem, in light of this film, something of a Luddite reaction. Howl’s Moving Castle is at its core a fairy tale, a coming-of-youth, rather than age, a wondrous adventure perfectly suited to Miyazaki’s talents and above all, a love story in the most universal tradition. It is such things that speak can to anyone’s heart, Japanese or otherwise, such things that are the true secret to Miyazaki’s magic.

9.5 Turns of the Handle out of 10.
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