This article was originally published to SSP Thinks Film by Sam Sewell-Peterson.
Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Screenwriter: Hayao Miyazaki
Starring: Chieko Baishô, Takuya Kimura, Ryûnosuke Kamiki, Tatsuya Gashûin, Akihiro Miwa
Environmentalism, war and peace, pride and corruption, coming of age and redemption – it can only be a fairytale from acclaimed Japanese animation director Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli.
Sophie Hatter (Chieko Baishô) leads an unremarkable and tedious life – a hatter by trade (as well as by name), she spends day after day turning out fashionable headwear to keep her late father’s business limping on. Her life changes when she is unwittingly swept up in the affairs of the mysterious wizard Howl (Takuya Kimura) and thus attracts attention from the sinister Witch of the Waste (Akihiro Miwa) who is determined to gain Howl’s power for her own. The Witch pays Sophie a visit at her shop and puts a curse on her – Sophie ages drastically in moments and is unable to tell anyone what has been done to her. So, scared and confused, she flees her home town and ventures forth into the wilderness, finding her way into Howl’s castle – in reality a bizarre walking pile of assorted architecture, landscape features and junk made sentient by a fire demon named Calcifer (Tatsuya Gashûin). It is there that Sophie employs herself as the wizard’s housekeeper.
Howl himself returns home frequently, but regularly disappears again without explanation, leaving Sophie and Howl’s apprentice Markl (Ryûnosuke Kamiki) to their own devices. Howl is, in fact, observing a horrifying war that has suddenly broken out, and though he wields incredible magic power, he is reluctant to join without something concrete to fight for. The fire demon Calcifer has his own plans, too, as he offers to help Sophie escape her curse if she, in turn, will find a way to free him from Howl’s service.
The great thing about Howl’s Moving Castle is that we are given the time to appreciate the beauty of every single frame of animation – Miyazaki is in no hurry to tell this story, much to our benefit. The animation moves from stunningly rendered dreamy landscapes to the uncanny and weirdly captivating movements of the castle itself, and many an apocalyptic battlefield panorama.
Sophie is an extremely likeable protagonist. It’s nigh-on impossible not to empathise with her magical entrapment, and Chieko Baishô’s ability to convincingly portray the character in both her young and old forms is a true testament to her versatility as a voice actress. Over time she overcomes her demons and finds newfound confidence in herself – she matures internally as well as externally, and in essence her curse finally sets her free.
Howl is far less engaging (at least at first) – he appears arrogant, selfish and cowardly, and even his boyish charm can’t endear him to you. But once his backstory is fleshed out, you can’t help but to feel pity for him, as he’s just a lost soul. The villains, quite typically for a Miyazaki film, aren’t really very evil, rather they have lost their way and are in need of redemption. The real battle, for all the characters, is within themselves.
Miyazaki’s regular collaborator, Joe Hisaishi, scores the film, and the soundtrack is simple yet effective – he can bring a tear to your eye with a couple of well placed notes without fail. The score sounds a lot like a lullaby, and whilst it may have the power to send young children to sleep, it stirs entirely other emotions in adults – it causes you to reminisce, to remember happier times when the world was so much simpler.
Howl’s Moving Castle is three quarters of a perfect movie. The last half hour or so admittedly disappoints ever so slightly and loses some of the overall magic. The story, while never completely watertight, is entertaining for most of the film, but drifts into nonsensical in the last act, and the final revelations about Howl’s past are a little underwhelming, though ultimately necessary to complete his character.
Everything in this film is incredibly imaginatively visualised and, refreshingly, the weirder elements aren’t over-explained. Howl can just turn into a giant bird to fight… because. The wizard becomes steadily more bestial and leaks dark gloop when he’s depressed because both are good visuals for a tortured inner soul manifesting on the outside. Miyazaki simply asks that you embrace the madness – just go with it. If you’re prepared to do that, then Howl’s Moving Castle will be a captivating, surreal and truly special viewing experience.