Hayao Miyazaki is one of the more creative and fascinating directors working today. His animated movies stand as the best Studio Ghibli have to offer – stunning visual masterpieces with so much imagination, it’s easy to see why he’s considered the Walt Disney of the East. It did however, take almost two decades for the Western world to notice – despite classics such as My Neighbour Totoro and Princess Mononoke, it wasn’t until the Oscar-winning 2001 movie Spirited Away that Miyazaki broke into public consciousness. The follow-up film however, Howl’s Moving Castle, despite being a huge critical success, was maligned by a lot of fans, who considered it to be the down-turn in Miyazaki’s career; a film which tried to do too much and so failed at doing anything. This isn’t exactly true. It’s a flawed movie in some ways yes, but Howl also stands as one of most interesting experiences in the Studio Ghibli cannon, and it’s a movie in dire need of a reappraisal. There’s a lot to love in Howl’s Moving Castle and it deserves a lot of praise.The plot focuses on Sophie – a young and quiet girl who works in hat shop and is generally something of a wallflower. Walking home from work one day, Sophie runs into some overly flirtatious soldiers who get a bit close for comfort and is subsequently rescued from their advances by the wizard Howl – an act which draws the jealous attention of Howl’s ex-lover The Witch of the Waste, who in turn, curses Sophie to old age. Finding herself in an ancient body, Sophie sets out to the vast wastes beyond her town to find a cure and ends up running into Howl’s literal moving castle, where she meets Calcifer, a fire-demon who promises to break Sophie’s curse if she’ll break his and Howl’s. As Sophie and Howl work on their curses and begin to fall in love, their country falls into a terrible war which threatens to doom them all. What’s first striking with Howl’s Moving Castle are it’s visuals. This is a truly beautiful movie, with every single shot art-worthy – from the sweeping, sunset oranges of the wastes, to the detailed mid-European architecture of the cities and the numerous surreal transformations throughout. Studio Ghibli movies always look great but Howl stands as the prettiest; it’s a movie which demands rewatching simply to take in all the visuals on offer. The art style works wonderfully, with unique character designs and fantastically unusual work on the almost-alien military crafts – there are so many visual treats in this movie; a fire monster frying eggs whilst being fed the shells, stars exploding and running over water, the complex, almost organic motion of Howl’s castle as it strolls through green fields. The visuals are all helped by the musical score – classically-inspired piano pieces with so much emotion, moving from elation to sorrow and impeding doom – the combination of such brilliant visuals and music make for an utterly absorbing movie, something to completely sink into.But then, all Miyazaki movies are beautiful and possess striking scores. At the time of the movie’s release, audiences were more interested in the story. This was the first time Miyazaki had adapted someone else’s work – Diana Wynne Jones’s fairy-tale Welsh novel – and audiences didn’t know where he would go with the material. The film strays far from the book, changing the narrative drastically around the half-way point, with an added war sub-plot which doesn’t quite work. The issue with Howl‘s narrative – and the reason people weren’t too keen on it upon release – is that there’s a lot of different stories going on here and a lot of different thematic ideas; love story, anti-war protest, fairy-tale throwback – and there are some who feel that with so many stories, nothing is given a chance to breathe, meaning that the film seems to spend a lot time going nowhere, yet paradoxically, also seems to end far too quickly. A lot of audiences simply didn’t get Howl’s Moving Castle, whilst strangely, fans disliked it for it’s more traditional Miyazaki elements – the war mainly, which doesn’t quite gel with the romantic plot, and was added really to provide a sense of scale and tension which the movie could have come across in other ways – fans perhaps wanted to see Miyazaki move out of his comfort zone more than he did.Yet whilst the war doesn’t quite fit, the sheer randomness of the narrative is refreshing; structurally, there’s very little like this in the West, and it’s clear some of the issues audiences have with Howl relate to it’s cultural differences. Japan simply tells stories differently, and the act structure and plot (already overly complicated by the war) are extremely disjointed and bizarre throughout. But really, this works. It is an unusual movie, moving from love story with elements of magical realism into vast, war-conspiracy with cities being blown to bits around our leads. The tone and themes are all over the place – one second its a deeply serious look at war, the next, a charming and uplifting tale of two people falling in love, but then there’ll be a comedic clean-up scene, or a lengthy pause to admire the scenery. It’s erratic., and the separate elements don’t always fit, but individually are so creative and colourful it’s hard not to love what you’re seeing. In this sense, it’s great to have a movie which doesn’t quite follow narrative conventions – Howl’s Moving Castle is memorable, ambitious and completely unpredictable.If the war elements stand out as misplaced, then it’s important to note how strong the central love story actually is. Essentially, when stripped away of all its diversions and side-plots, Howl is the tale of two people who fall in love, save themselves, and save the world. And that’s kind of beautiful. Howl is one of Miyazaki’s strongest characters – confident, charming and oddly sexy, at times complex and cool but prone to childish temper tantrums and cowardice. He’s a womaniser, occasionally lazy and cruel, but actually far kinder than he lets on, with an open-hatred of war and an antagonistic relationship with the government who condone it; he’s fascinating, and suavely played by Christian Bale in one of his finest roles. Bale manages to portray Howl in all his contradictions and complexities and really shines here. Howl becomes more monstrous throughout the movie, and it’s Sophie who saves him from becoming lost, in love story which calms him down and opens her up. Sophie begins the movie mousy and shy, and it’s really fitting that she becomes an old woman. Magic in Howl works on the psychological expectations of its characters; The Witch doesn’t curse Sophie to old age; Sophie feels old and frumpy and so the magic makes her so. As she becomes more confident through her love for Howl, Sophie’s age decreases – when she’s on a high she’s young, when she goes down she gets old – as magic in the movie is more dependant on emotional states and psychology than any real set rules, a reflection of the character’s mindsets. That’s fascinating to see. And the subtle animation as Sophie ages and gets younger is really something to see. Sophie’s also played by two great voice artists – Emily Mortimer is a nice young Sophie, mousy at the start, confident later, but the late Jean Simmons deserves most of the praise as the crabby, quirky and sometime sad old Sophie. It’s one of the most fun and loveable elderly performances, similar in tone to Edward Asner in Up, and a joy to take in. Howl and Sophie are great characters and it’s very compelling to watch them come closer in their brilliant Beauty and the Beast-esq tale. You really care for them by the ending, and their central love story stands as the highlight of the movie.The rest of the cast and characters are great too – Lauren Bacall’s Witch of the Waste is sultry, indulgent and husky – her voices screams excess, similar in style to Ursula in The Little Mermaid, and she initially makes for a great villain with lovely, bitchy comic timing. Billy Crystal is an odd choice as Calicifer though not as annoying as you’d expect and rather child-like and endearing in the role. Disney dubs Miyazaki movies in the West and Howlis one of their stronger efforts – very well cast, with writers who aren’t afraid to tweak the translation to make the story function better in English. The dialogue moves from comedic to serious and cleverly manoeuvres through the movie’s different tones, actually helping to hold things together. Purists will argue otherwise, but definitely watch Howl in English.
It’s difficult to talk about Howl’s Moving Castle since there’s so much going on in it and its so dependant on emotional response – there are some people who are extremely attached to this film. Certainly, it’s not Miyazaki’s weak point – the complicated plot, off-putting to some and with an odd war sideplot shoehorned in, does work in it’s unpredictability and ambition, and it’s nice to see a film so unusually put together. The visuals and music are stunning and Howl is worth watching for those alone, yet it also contains a brilliant love story and some great characters, and across the whole, is really a fascinating movie. Perhaps not quite Miyazaki’s purest, it’s one of his strongest, and those who didn’t like it the first time round really need to take a second look.