Howl's Moving Castle

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T-pini•n(DIFF:III): Hayao Miyazaki’s Howl’s Moving Castle—Lightning in an Urn

Jan 28, 2006 (Updated Oct 2, 2006)
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Pros:Breathtaking animation· magic Miyazaki scenes· engaging characters· family affirming anti-conflict themes

Cons:Some similarities to earlier Miyazaki films· frightening loud sounds· requires attention to follow

The Bottom Line: Miyazaki scores with another fairytale for ten-year-young kids & adults; similarities to previous work might disappoint some fans seeking new, groundbreaking work; that’s no excuse to miss this extraordinary experience

Plot Details: This opinion reveals minor details about the movie's plot.

Teetering on the brink of war against an unnamed foe, the king has ordered all-out support from his wizards & witches. Despite the royal head sorceress’s particular efforts to secure the help of star wizard Howl, he’s not showing up.

A man’s home is his castle. Howl’s home is a castle, a moving castle: it can rise & walk away on Howl’s whim. To make things difficult, Howl’s castle can transport him through dimensions as well as distances.

Maybe Howl has reasons for his dodginess. After all, the Witch of the Waste wants his heart. Her spies have been slinking from the Wastelands in search of his castle.

In a village where Howl’s castle has a portal, Sophie, at 18 the oldest of three sisters, is resigned to a life of toil in her stepmother’s millinery. On the way to visit a sister, she’s rescued from the harassment of a couple of bored guards by Howl.

Saving Sophie forces Howl out in the open. As minions of the Witch of the Waste begin to materialize, Howl has to pull something special out of his bag of tricks to escape and deposit Sophie safely at her sister’s.

Though Sophie tries to shrug off the incident, contact with Howl changes her life. The jealous Witch of the Waste shows up at the hat shop & curses Sophie, turning her into a 90 year old. Knowing no one will recognize her as an old hag, Sophie splits town in search of Howl, hoping he can somehow lift the curse.

Thus begins Hauro no ugoku shiro, the 2004 anime from Japan’s famed Studio Ghibli. Legendary animator Hayao Miyazaki loosely based his screenplay on British fantasy writer Diana Wynne Jones’s novel Howl’s Moving Castle (HMC). ‘Loosely’ is the operative word due to Miyazaki’s additions to & omissions from Jones’s tale. At a private viewing he arranged for her, while acknowledging some major detours from her plot, Jones exuded enthusiasm for the project.

Satisfying the writer of the source material is tough enough. Fulfilling the ardent expectation of fans is infinitely trickier. From his beanbag at the 2005 Dubai International Film Festival’s (DIFF) screening of HMC, this particular fan was occasionally found muttering, “Hey, just like Sen.”

Sen to Chihiro no kamikakushi (2001), of course, is Miyazaki’s Oscar-winning effort Spirited Away (SA), to date the highest grossing film in Japan’s box office. Not having read HMC, I can’t tell what remained largely intact from Jones, & what Miyazaki added or amended. But I can’t shake the sneaking suspicion that when adapting the story for screen, Miyazaki sometimes took the shortcut of shoehorning ideas from his prior projects into HMC.

E.g., the shadow creatures appearing at HMC’s start could’ve easily auditioned for SA. Howl has a second winged form, like Haku’s flying dragon form, & both develop problems turning back to human. The bouncing scarecrow’s similar to Zeniba’s ambulatory lamp in SA. The homing ring Howl gives Sophie recalls the animated Goonies-cum-Raider’s of the Lost Ark Castle in the Sky’s (CS) aetherium crystal. Howl rescues Sophie at HMC’s outset—Haku saves Sen, Prince Ashitaka saves his village, Porco rescues the kids, Nausicaä saves Lord Yupa during the first acts of the relevant films. . .

Listing more parallels I see between HMC & Miyazaki’s previous worlds would snore you & risks leading you astray. HMC has new magic & (for Miyazaki) a new type of character: during most of HMC, the heroine’s a nonagenarian, 75-85 years older than his usual lead babes. But yes, she’s sprinkled with Miyazaki’s trademark blend of sugar, cinnamon & chirizu, & she tackles obstacles by tapping a hidden inner resolve, finding friendship, loyalty & love on the way.

HMC’s plot skillfully balances drama & tension with lighter moments of warmth, humor & plain downtime. It also infuses mystery into the concoction by taking its time to reveal some characters’ backgrounds. Viewers will need to pay attention, specially to flashbacks, to catch some plot nuances. Short attention span-ners have been warned!

Miyazaki’s fairytale masterpieces, with complex motivations defying character cataloging into good/evil slots, usually offer subtle morals left for its viewers’ leisurely discovery. However, HMC’s anti-war message is often blunt. Wizards who shape shift to take part in the war will never turn back to human, the story warns. On seeing a badly damaged battleship, the query if it’s “the enemy’s or one of ours” is met with the Helleresque retort: “What difference does it make?”

Hisaishi Joe’s score adds to the tale’s emotional punch. American audiences may’ve encountered his music in Kitano Takeshi films. Hisaishi’s been with Miyazaki from Nausicaä (1984). It’s evolved into a symbiotic partnership: Hisaishi knows Miyazaki’s aims, & Miyazaki has confidence in his partner’s ideas.

The DIFF screened the English dub. Studio Ghibli fans may be justly wary of Disney’s ulterior aims in securing global (except Asia) video, DVD & movie distribution rights to most of the studio’s releases (specially given Mickey’s shamefully shoddy treatment of SA), but at least Disney’s dubbing decently. Disney attracts talent: Tim Curry, Kirsten Dunst, Susan Egan, Dakota Fanning, Janeane Garofalo, Mark Hamill, Phil Hartman, Michael Keaton, Anna Paquin, Patrick Stewart, David Ogden Stiers, & Uma Thurman have contributed to previous Ghibli films.

Not a list to be sneezed at. HMC adds bonafide legends Lauren Bacall (whose Witch of the Waste elicited late laughs from DIFF viewers) & Jean Simmons (who endows old Sophie with a slow-burning optimism). Emily Mortimer voices young Sophie ably, barring a few mistalks.

I feel Mononoke Hime (MH) has the best English VO ensemble (Claire Danes, Billy Crudup, Billy Bob Thornton, Minnie Driver) among Miyazaki films. Overall, HMC’s team doesn’t disappoint, though Christian Bale lacks the combo of enigma & petulance required to voice the Peter-Pannish Howl. The standout voices come from 12-year-old Josh Hutcherson (as Howl’s young, slightly impatient apprentice Merkl, who must occasionally act as an aged dwarf) & Billy Crystal. Crystal had a gas as his fire demon Calcifer grumbles, coaxes, urges, surges; I was at times reminded of his Princess Bride character (PB’s Cary Elwes & Mandy Patinkin have also done Ghibli VOs).

Normally, when watching foreign language films, I prefer subtitles to dub. But with Miyazaki features, I choose the dub first. I want to taste to the last drop the imaginational juices imbuing his stories & images. It’s yummy stuff!

Images like Howl’s castle, a creation straight out of Miyazaki’s mind. Springing on spindly legs, somehow it defeats gravity despite clearly inadequate wings. Teeming with turrets, towers & porticos, it’s a splendid contraption inside & out. Cogs click, gears grind, steam blows as it clatters through the countryside (the loud sounds set some infants in the audience bawling). Parents should prepare for their children’s demands to move into a similar house.

Pangs of envy could assail parents too. Next time they slam the front door on a salesman or Jehovah’s Witness, they’ll want a dimension selection spinner on the door. College students with blitzed dorm rooms will crave Howl’s moving spell.

In terms of story appeal, one can argue about HMC’s rank in the Miyazaki canon. Turning to the animation itself, I feel little scope for argument exists.

Since its inception, Studio Ghibli has continued to redefined animation quality—just compare Nausicaä’s dragonflies with their iridescent cousins in MH. Drawings have increased in detail: in an HMC outdoor scene, we can see the background mountain through Calcifer’s flame.

Miyazaki films have featured some intricate scenes that left me gaping. Some examples are SA’s Yubaba tidying up her chamber, MH’s forest spirit transforming, CS’s Laputa crumbling & Nausicaä’s Ohmu locomotion. Howl’s Matrix-like castle rearranging scene ranks up there with Miyazaki’s best visual sequences.

And Miyazaki films have featured some flitting flourishes that left me gasping. I love HMC’s spectacular split-second sparkle of sun on running water. The beauty of sunlight glinting off the burnished copper skin of a high-altitude airship seen briefly through a gap in overcast skies beggars description—adequate adjectives simply aren’t available to do justice to the Miyazestic scene.

Sunlight flashing on airships last featured in Porco Rosso, and it’s this Miyazaki film for adults that’s closest to HMC’s themes. Also with an anti-war bent, a teen with the beacon of love sees through the hero’s shield of cynicism. Yes, it’s there in his other films, but maybe Miyazaki feels the message to seek beyond the superficial to find the actual person is worth repeating in our times.

It’s clear the appetite for Miyazaki dishes remains unabated: HMC broke the Japanese box office opening weekend record. Despite the few niggles I’ve mentioned, Howl’s Moving Castle will be another Miyazaki classic I’ll return to again and again. He’s living proof that lightning rarely does strike the same place multiple times; for over a quarter century now he’s been capturing lightning in his urn and releasing it slowly for our enjoyment.

The t-pini•n proper is over, the rest is just fan(atic) commentary. Please scroll to the links at the end.

I wonder how much lightning remains. Miyazaki passed his 65th winter during January 2006. If you’ve seen the SA DVD extras, then you know of his extremely involved directorial style. After MH, he lamented he could no longer maintain such a high level of involvement. Then, of course, he came out with SA.

Though Miyazaki wrote the screenplay for HMC, he agreed to direct only after the ideas of original directorial choice Mamoru Hosoda (of Digimon fame) failed to satisfy. Taking on the project potentially robbed Hayao Miyazaki fans of a tasty treat.

See, another fantasy writer agreed to let him adapt for an animation a world of her creation. Visually, I can see why this project excited Miyazaki. From the Gontish peaks to the labyrinthine tombs of Atuan, a world of powerful mages where humans & dragons are two sides of the same coin is obviously alluring to Miyazaki. Perhaps he relished the challenge of portraying the internal war between the hero’s ambition & aptitude.

But commitments to the HMC project forced Miyazaki to shunt Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea to the backburner, from where it has been sniped by his son Goro for his directorial debut, reportedly resulting in a father/son rift. Under the intense dual pressure of the falling-out with his father & the weight of expectations simply from being his famous father’s son, I wonder how Gedo Senki (Ged’s War Chronicle) will turn out. Goro’s pronouncement has been to judge him on the final product. Fair enough.

So where does that leave Hayao Miyazaki? If he’s in the adaptation mode, I would love to see him repay Neil Gaiman’s adaptation of MH for English viewers by animating Gaiman’s Stardust, but that’s unlikely with a live-action version in the offing. Of course, another novel magical world from him would be even more welcome. It may be time for Studio Ghibli’s longtime producer Suzuki to throw considerations of potential box office appeal to the winds & let Miyazaki work on the Boro the caterpillar concept (see Nausicaä DVD specials).

The question is, does Hayao Miyazaki have enough fairy dust left in his pouch, are there any sparks left in the urn for one last wave of the wand?

DIFF series
Baraka: nonverbal
Decent Factory: documentary
Howl's Moving Castle: anime
Lamhe: Hindi
Looking For Comedy in the Muslim World: comedy


Studio Ghibli fansite:
Disney HMC site:
Internet Movie Database:

t’s t-zers

Miyazaki epinions: Haven’t seen any Miyazaki? Hie thee thither! Your kids, both inner & outer, will thank you
Hotaru No Haka (Grave of the Fireflies): WARNING! Danger of reduction to tears! From Studio Ghibli’s Isao Takahata
The Point: a family-friendly musical animation with a point to make about diversity; Ringo Starr narrates!


Seen a movie that blew your socks away? Or one that just blew? Why not write and ring in the praises or warn the world about it? If you're a non-epinions member reading this, consider joining this community of movie reviewers just like you!

I hope you enjoyed the time you spent in getting to this point of my analysis. Without your comments, this epinion is unfinished.

12.15.05, 01.12-20.06, 01.24-8
Original version
Added links to other DIFF t-pini•ns

Recommend this product? Yes

Video Occasion: Fit for Friday Evening
Suitability For Children: Suitable for Children Age 9 - 12

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