HOWLS MOVING CASTLE
(Hauru no Ugoku Shiro)
Howl's Moving Castle was Hayao Miyazakis ninth film. It is probably not Miyazakis best film it is on the less great side but is still a more amazing film than almost any other animation directors best. It holds all the regular Miyazaki themes. There is the familiar character of the young girl who wins out through nothing other than her virtue and purity of heart a character we also see in Nausicaa, My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki and Spirited Away although here at least Miyazaki has her transformed into an old woman early in the piece. There is the constant fascination with eccentric and archaic flying machines that can be found in almost any Miyazaki film. And there is the recurrent theme of respect for nature Hayao Miyazakis films come filled with beautifully contemplative landscapes and frequently arrive at the realization that peace is found in a respect for and harmony with the natural environment.
Miyazaki adapts the film from Howl's Moving Castle (1986), a novel by British fantasy writer Diana Wynne-Jones. Miyazaki remains very faithful to the text of the novel, the only major changes being the addition of a war theme that takes over the latter half of the film and takes the story in different directions to the ones that Diana Wynne-Jones did. There is a sublime and uniquely original imagination to the film the eccentric image of the title moving castle, which looks like an ambulatory potbelly stove, anthropomorphised with a mouth and tongue, clockwork cogs and even ramshackle cottages hanging off its body; the door that opens into different parts of the world depending on which setting the dial is turned and each emerging out of a perfectly normal doorway where Howl advertises as a different magician; Howls bedroom, which is a marvel of dangling lenses, ornate jewellery and clockwork devices. Most of all, there is Hayao Miyazakis penchant for strange and offbeat non-human characters Turnip, the scarecrow that hops along on a single pole and, though revealing no expression, proves strangely deferential and loyal to Sophie, even in one delightful image hopping along holding a clothesline of washing after him; the terrier dog that plods through the film with thorough indifference; and especially the character of the fire demon Calcifer that powers the castle who gleefully feeds himself logs and lives in terror of the wood going out or Sophie throwing water over him.
Howl's Moving Castle delights, as all Hayao Miyazaki films do, in its small moments especially when most of the abovementioned characters are on screen. On the other hand, Howl's Moving Castle never quite climbs up there into the transcendentally beautiful heights of other Miyazaki films like My Neighbor Totoro, Princess Mononoke or Spirited Away. There is never a point where the climax of the film pulls back in a moment of breathtaking awe or a major confrontation, which is something that one almost expects of a Hayao Miyazaki film. If anything, the climax of the film here, involving Sophie somehow travelling back in time or into Howls memory, comes out as confusing. Nor do aspects of the wider canvas that Miyazaki casts seem fully satisfactory the war is left unresolved at the end of the film, even though it forms a major backdrop to the story, while the Witch of the Waste, though cast as the central adversary early on in the piece, is neutralised far too easily and the film continues on without an adequate antagonist. Maybe this is simply the fact that Howl's Moving Castle was not a project that Hayao Miyazaki was deeply involved in like his other films, rather one that he inherited from another director Mamoru Hosoda, whose only previous film was as co-director of Digimon: The Movie (2000) but later went onto make The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (2006), the amazing Summer Wars (2009) and the very Miyazaki-esque Wolf Children (2012) and The Boy and the Beast (2015) after Hosoda departed over creative differences.
Many of Hayao Miyazakis films take place in almost-alternate realities worlds that seem closely designed on parts of Europe or the Victorian era. Oddly, Howl's Moving Castle was the second anime film of 2004 to sit in a retro Victorian-era world of Steampunk, coming out two months after Katsuhiro Otomos Steamboy (2004). Here Miyazaki chooses an almost-familiar world that seems to be located in late 19th Century Prussia where a Dickensian Victorian cosiness and Teutonic military uniforms, trains and Steampunk machinery abruptly contrasts with casual use of magic. For a time, this makes you sit astounded, wondering what world the film is taking place in. Like Steamboy, the background of the world is filled with huge ironclad battleships and marvellous flying machines that could have been designed by Albert Robida. Both Howl's Moving Castle and Steamboy also have strong anti-war and pacifist themes indeed both films have protagonists caught up in the middle of two warring sides and concluding that war is a bad thing, no matter which side is fighting.
(Winner for Best Adapted Screenplay at this sites Best of 2004 Awards).