~ by Rebecca Fisher
A humorous British author and a saturnine Japanese director may seem like a bizarre combination, but they are the creative team that lies behind Howl’s Moving Castle. Diana Wynne Jones’s book was inspired by a host of fairy tales, her own immobility after an operation, and a young school boy’s suggestion that she write a story about a moving castle. Filled with inventive charm and subversive twists on familiar fairy tales, the book is surprisingly complex, with plenty of hidden identities and secret agendas strewn throughout.
It’s obvious that much of the imaginative force apparent in the book would appeal to a film-maker like Hayao Miyazaki: the talkative fire-demon, a scarecrow that hops about by itself, and of course, the massive, mobile castle with its single door that leads to a number of locations with the twist of a dial. But Miyazaki has his own distinctive style, one that gets infused with Diana Wynne Jones’s wry charm, resulting in an enjoyable, but rather confusing film.
Set in 19th century England (though one with a heavy steampunk vibe), a young girl called Sophie works in a hat shop – shy, lonely and restless. Her country is at war with its neighbours, and as she goes about her daily business the bombast and bustle of troops heading out to battle fills the streets. It’s when she bumps into an overly-friendly soldier that things get a little hairy, but thankfully a tall and handsome stranger comes to her rescue.
Sophie’s relief is short-lived when she realizes that the man is none other than Howl, the great wizard who is said to be heartless and who preys on attractive young woman. Luckily for her (or so she thinks), she’s not at all beautiful.
Her adventure over, she returns to the hat shop and is about to close up when an unexpected customer enters. Ignoring Sophie’s protestations, the mysterious woman identifies herself as the Witch of the Waste and puts Sophie under a curse. In a matter of seconds, Sophie has aged fifty years and is now trapped inside the body of an old woman.
She can see only one choice available to her: go in search of Howl’s Moving Castle in the hopes that he’ll know a way to break the curse she’s under. Looking and sounding like an old woman, she can’t imagine that he’ll pose any threat to her.
Up until this point, the film has followed the book more or less faithfully, but once Sophie is installed in Howl’s castle as his new cleaning lady, Miyazaki starts adding some of his own ideas.
As is apparent from his previous films, Miyazaki loves flying machines and a consistent anti-war rhetoric, neither of which existed in the book but which are packed into almost every scene of Howl’s Moving Castle. About halfway through the movie Miyazaki abandons Diana Wynne Jones’s story entirely, focusing more on Howl’s struggle to stop the war and Sophie’s attempts to save Howl from the dark magic that threatens to overpower him.
As I’ve said before, the original novel is surprisingly complex for what is ostensibly a children’s book, with plenty of twists and turns. Among other changes (Michael goes from a young man to a little boy called Markl; the Wizard Suliman goes from a man to a woman), Miyazaki leaves out some of the book’s best bits, such as the importance of John Donne’s poem or Howl’s journey into modern-day Wales to visit his family.
But the real problem is that it feels like two films have been uncomfortably merged into one. The beginning is an adaptation of Diana Wynne Jones’s book, and the end is Miyazaki’s completely original story.
As such, the film leaves quite a lot of things unexplained, such as why the Witch of the Waste even curses Sophie in the first place! (In the book it’s because she confuses her with a person who doesn’t even exist in the film). As with the book, it can be difficult to keep track of what’s happening and why. Unlike the book, clear solutions aren’t forthcoming by its conclusion.
As with many of Miyazaki’s female protagonists, Sophie is resourceful and kind, but also a lot shyer than you might expect from the typical Studio Ghibli film. The twist is that once in the body of an old woman, Sophie loses her inhibitions and finds a new lease on life, no longer cowed by those around her and more ready to stand up for herself.
It’s rare to find any film that depicts an old woman as its protagonist, but the animation that captures Sophie is wonderfully nuanced. As the spell begins to weaken, she begins to subconsciously move like a young girl again – only with more poise and confidence. Likewise, the two actresses that lend Sophie their voices, Jean Simmons and Emily Mortimer, often mimic each other as Sophie’s age fluctuates from old to young.
In regards to the English dub, I always felt that Christian Bale was a rather odd choice for Howl, simply because his manly voice is a rather bad fit for Howl’s vanity and effeminate appearance, and though Billy Crystal is very funny as Calcifer, his American accent is very distinctive in an English setting (I kept hearing Mike from Monsters INC).
But of course it’s the castle itself that exists as the film’s main character: a clanking, creaking, hissing, squeaking pile of towers and chambers and hallways that stands unsteadily on four clawed feet. Whereas Diana Wynne Jones envisioned the castle as a high and narrow tower that rolled along by magic, Miyazaki portrays it more like a steampunk version of Baba Yaga’s house, complete with chicken legs, roaming the rugged countryside.
Howl’s Moving Castle is a mixed bag. As always, the animation is beautifully rendered, with several incredible scenes involving falling stars and magical battles. It’s the storyline that’s difficult to penetrate, for everyone seems to have shifting motivations and hidden agendas, with the plot veering down different tangents nearly every minute or so. This was my fourth time watching the film, and I’m still at a loss to explain some of what goes down in the last fifteen minutes.
But sometimes a story isn’t the be-all, end-all of a film, especially one as beautiful as this. The characters are engaging and likeable, and Miyazaki takes the time to explore the way Sophie copes with being a young woman in an old woman’s body. Perhaps my favourite moment is when she and Markl share a picnic on the edges of a lake, and Sophie remarks that when you’re old “all you want to do is stare at the scenery.”
Next Time: The Secret World of Arrietty
This will be the last instalment in what was originally called Miyazaki May, but which has now stretched over June and well into July as “Big Worlds On Small Screens Features Miyazaki”. Though there are plenty of Miyazaki films that I haven’t yet reviewed, it’s time to finish up with The Secret World of Arrietty, another film based on a novel by a British author, but one that’s handled with a lot less convolution.
About The Reviewer:
To read Rebecca’s detailed introduction of both herself and the series, as well as preceding reviews, click on: