A Review of Howl's Moving Castle
by Cynthia Ward
Directed by Hayao Miyazaki
Written by Hayao Miyazaki, based on the novel by Diana Wynne Jones
Starring voices of Emily Mortimer, Lauren Bacall, Christian Bale, Billy Crystal, Jean Simmons
Eating lunch on my porch, I looked up to find a wild cottontail grazing not ten feet away. Until a passing car spooked it, the rabbit and I prey and predator ate together, in one of those rare moments of harmony that are a form of magic. This magic of harmony lies at the heart of the animation created by the great director and screenwriter, Hayao Miyazaki especially his new movie, Howl’s Moving Castle (Japanese title, Hauro no Ugoku Shiro).
You'll also find plenty of traditional spells-and-wizards magic in Howl’s Moving Castle, an anime (Japanese animation) movie adapted by Miyazaki from British fantasy writer Diane Wynne Jones's 1986 novel of the same name. As the movie opens, a shy young workaholic named Sophie (voiced by Emily Mortimer) is a hat-maker in an imaginary, Germanic kingdom which is reacting to a prince's disappearance by preparing for war. The kingdom booms with new technology, like coal-powered train engines and flying warships (for this fantasyland is a steampunk Ruritania). When a pushy pair of pseudo-Prussian soldiers threaten Sophie, she is rescued by a gorgeous, dandified young man (voiced by Christian Bale), who literally sweeps Sophie off her feet and sets them walking on air. (An atypical Miyazaki character, this dandy looks like he wandered into Howl’s Moving Castle from a completely different sort of fantasy: a slashy "shonen ai" or "yaoi" anime about beautiful men in love.) Like Sophie, the dandy too seeks to avoid trouble in his case, the Witch of the Waste's magical servants, which resemble crude oil or toxic waste imbued with life, limbs, and sinister purpose. And the dandy, Sophie discovers after his departure, is the notorious Howl, a wizard rumored to not only steal young women's hearts, but eat them.
Howl's talent for stealing hearts brings the jealous Witch of the Waste (voice of screen legend Lauren Bacall) to the family hat-shop. An elegant older woman of majestic, opera-diva proportions, she curses the teenage Sophie, turning her into a ninety-year-old crone (voiced by another screen legend, Jean Simmons). Not brave enough to face her shallow, appearance-oriented mother, Sophie still has the courage of a traditional Miyazaki heroine (his protagonists are generally girls or young women). Sophie travels into the wilderness wasteland where the wizards and witches are reputed to live in search of someone who can break her curse. After rescuing an animate, speechless scarecrow and naming it Turniphead for its root-vegetable face (which Miyazaki fans will recognize as bearing more than a little resemblance to a totoro's), Sophie finds herself in the titular castle.
"Castle" hardly seems the right term for the massive mobile stronghold. Yet "city" too is an inadequate description for this conglomeration of houses, gun turrets, ladders, portholes, pipes, and pulleys. It's a clanking, wheezing, smoking, steam-powered edifice that lurches about, like Baba Yaga's far more modest hut, on chicken legs but they're great, riveted, cast-iron chicken legs. An apotheosis of both Miyazaki's visionary prowess and steampunk design, Howl's moving castle is like no place in film or prose fiction, until China Miéville overdoses on Russian fairy-tales and lapses into a fever dream.
Powering the castle's movements is the fire demon, Calcifer (Billy Crystal, in a love-it-or-hate-it vocal turn), who is bound in the castle hearth by a spell. Calcifer and Sophie make a pact to help each other break their curses. And Sophie establishes herself as the old cleaning lady of the dusty castle.
Sophie's transformations in occupation and age are only two of the movie's many metamorphoses. Howl's young apprentice, Markl, transforms into a bearded old dwarf before providing spells and potions to Howl's mundane customers. Howl, a shapeshifter, transforms into a man-sized bird, among other shapes; and, because he's lost a vital part of himself, his character is warped. As Sophie accepts the role of the old crone she appears to be, she finds herself; and she transforms into younger selves when she is most true to herself. War transforms cities into Hell. Even the Witch of the Waste undergoes transformation. And, in the semiotic "language" of anime and manga (products of a black-haired nationality), an external change in hair-color indicates an internal transformation closer to, or further from, a character's essential nature.
The numerous transformations in Howl’s Moving Castle embody its theme of harmony. Miyazaki's characters human or otherwise are not evil. They are out of balance. If the human Howl stays in bird-shape for too long, he will remain a bird forever. The young Sophie is too shy and retiring; by becoming her extreme opposite in age, she gains balance in her character. The Witch of the Waste's love overbalances into jealousy. When the powerful put personal interests above duty, the imbalance brings the misery, death, and destruction of war.
Whether or not Miyazaki is influenced by the Taoist ideal of harmony, his movies emphasize the need for balance. (In this, Miyazaki most resembles an otherwise very different American fantasist, Ursula K. Le Guin). And in Miyazaki's movies, the characters' and worlds' problems arise when balance is lost, whether that imbalance is within an individual, among people, between nations, or between humankind and nature.
Miyazaki's theme of harmony manifests not only in the characters and plot of Howl’s Moving Castle, but in its pacing. The film moves at a deliberate tempo. By "deliberate," I do not mean slow, or monotonous. I mean that Miyazaki changes the pace in accordance with the needs of the story. And the pace varies far more than Western viewers, conditioned by tirelessly frantic American animation, will expect. Miyazaki pushes his plot to a dizzying velocity when the action requires it (the inattentive viewer will get lost as the narrative twists and tangles across space and time). But he isn't afraid to reduce Howl’s Moving Castle to a slow, contemplative speed. In a Miyazaki movie, each scene receives its proper weight, in harmonious balance with every other scene. Miyazaki's story-telling sense of balance is like no other director's.
Therefore, it's a surprise that Howl’s Moving Castle loses its balance at the end, wrapping up with a rushed and rather pat conclusion. This ending may disappoint newcomers to Miyazaki animation, and will dismay some Miyazaki devotees. Howl’s Moving Castle does not rank with Nausicaa, Castle in the Sky, My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki's Delivery Service, and Spirited Away, in the top tier of Miyazaki's work.
But Howl’s Moving Castle is still better than 99% of fantasy (filmed or printed), and you should still see it. Of course, if you're a Miyazaki fan, nothing I said would dissuade you from seeing it (and, heck, you've probably already seen it). If you're unfamiliar with Miyazaki (or anime), Howl’s Moving Castle will serve as a wonderful introduction to the versatile intelligence, splendid artwork, and fecund imagination of fantasy's greatest director and scriptwriter, Hayao Miyazaki.
Besides, you really need to see Howl's stupendous moving castle on the big screen.