Jason: This spectacular film starts with a breathtaking image: a bizarre, shambolic steampunk castle strides from a deep fog on wonderful, metallic, spindly spidery legs. Gears spin riotously as the castle ambles into our sight for a tantalizingly brief moment before it wanders offscreen, all clockwork flywheels and ramshackle walls. With that, Howl’s Moving Castle begins with an enticing vision of pure magical intrigue, a brief glimpse of the imaginative realm that we are about to enter.
The world of Howl's Moving Castle is intriguing: a slightly familiar, slightly odd creation that has a powerful sense of place. Everything we view in this film has a unique design influenced by a deeply intriguing vision. Costumes have the feel of a mountainous Central European fiefdom, houses look like they come from a fever dream of idyllic pre-World War I bliss, and battleships and airships look like animals come to mechanical life. There are strange mystical creatures and living flames and all manner of fascinatingly odd beings. The screen practically pulses from all the ingenious ideas that the film presents.
Hayao Miyazaki creates a beguiling panoply in this movie, a place we desperately want to explore. From the very first moment we see the castle, we feel a desperate need to know more about the mesmerizing environment that Howl's castle moves through.
But the thing that we really want to explore is the most interesting world of all: the immense depths of the human heart. Sophie, the human girl at the center of this movie, is an ordinary adolescent thrown into extraordinary circumstances. We soon learn, however, that Sophie is not just any girl. She is a tremendously brave, immensely self-assured, young woman.
When the Witch of the Wastes turns Sophie into an old woman, Sophie doesn't do what the rest of us would do: freak the heck out and worry like crazy. Instead, Sophie takes action. She flings herself into the heart of a mysterious experience she knows nothing about, bounding into the middle of a war zone in order to aid the mysterious wizard Howl. In doing so, she grows younger rather than older. In taking a chance, Sophie opens up to change. She becomes a truly great person. And as a result, she finds real happiness.
Zack, as we discussed, this is the first time I've watched Howl's Moving Castle. I was beguiled and intrigued by this film, thoroughly engrossed in the majestic magic that Miyazaki creates. I know this isn't one of your favorite films by him, but I was bewitched by Howl, Sophie, Calcifer and the rest.
Zack: Right there is why it’s cool to read your reactions to these films—you are watching them just as pure movies without concern for the behind-the-scenes shenanigans and such.
I don’t dislike Howl's Moving Castle. In fact, it holds a special spot in my heart as the only Miyazaki flick I saw in its first-run theater release in Japan. But in my opinion it is one of the weakest of his movies.
Much of that is because Howl's Moving Castle is not a pure Miyazaki creation. In Japan, Miyazaki had already announced his retirement with the swansong Spirited Away. That would have been the perfect capstone to a brilliant career, and everyone was pretty happy with that. He wasn’t supposed to be making any other films. But when the scheduled director, Mamoru Hosoda, suddenly dropped out (Or was fired. Reports vary) Miyazaki took up the reins and continued the work in progress.
Aside from picking up another director’s project, Howl’s Moving Castle is also different from most Miyazaki flicks—it’s an adaptation of British author Diana Wynne Jones’ children’s book of the same name. That isn’t his first or only book adaptation, but still its two degrees of separation from Miyazaki.
And I think that disjointed nature shows. Miyazaki’s films are what they are because of his vision. He writes and directs, and his work is about as pure as filmmaking can get, with no interference from studio heads and producers. By contrast, Howl's Moving Castle seems like half a Miyazaki film to me. The beginning is almost a straight adaptation of the book, and that goes along for a while—until Miyazaki just threw the book across the room and made whatever film he wanted to make with the rest of it.
I think the transition point is pretty obvious—you start to see some of Miyazaki’s favorite themes like duality of spirit, transition from one form to another, as well as his pacifism—that alone marks a huge change in the film. The Iraq War broke out while Miyazaki was making this film and so he upped the war scenes and destruction in anger and protest. Some of Miyazaki’s creatures show up as well, all blubbery and formless.
There are excellent pieces to Howl’s Moving Castle—I desperately want one of those doors, and I love Sophie’s transition in and out of old age. But those excellent pieces don’t fit together as smoothly as they would were this pure Miyazaki from start to finish. That makes Howl’s Moving Castle one of the least re-watchable of his films. I am pretty much happy to re-watch any Miyazaki film, any time, but I might groan a tad if it is Howl’s Moving Castle. That one you can wait a few years in-between viewings.
Jason: That’s why it's such an interesting exercise to compare my impressions of this movie with yours, Zack. I’m a complete Miyazaki newbie while you’re a much more informed viewer than I am. Neither of us is right or wrong in our opinions because we come from such different perspectives.
I was fascinated by the vision on display in this film. Howl&
rsquo;s Moving Castle may not be a pure Miyazaki creation, but in my first (and second) viewing, that fact isn’t obvious on the screen. In fact, what's especially striking on this Blu-ray is the beauty and vastness of the world in which these people and creatures live.
The pervasive feeling of place is thrilling. My reaction to this film was a lot like my reaction when I first watched Star Wars: A New Hope all those years ago: Miyazaki’s visualization of this film is so intriguing, so resonant of a nearly infinite canvas for fascinating stories, that almost every frame seems filled with the implication that there is yet another potential story behind every character we glimpse and every building we see. The scenes at the festival at the beginning of the movie are a perfect example of that because the soldiers and citizens, shopkeepers and the politicians are incredibly well realized.
As a virgin viewer, I don't really care how much of this wonderful world came from the imaginations of Diana Wynne Jones or Hayao Miyazaki. All that stuff is a bunch of background noise for me. I was thoroughly engrossed in the settings of Howl’s. I wasn't in search of perspective. I was just looking to have a magical time with this DVD.
I reveled in this movie so much I couldn’t wait to rewatch it five days later – and five days later, I discovered more to love about it.
Zack: That world you talk about—that perfectly realized world—is part of Miyazaki’s genius. He generally has two kinds of films; those set squarely in Japan (My Neighbor Totoro, Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, etc…) and those set in this non-specific Europe (Laputa, Kiki’s Delivery Service, Porco Rosso, etc …). There’s this phrase in Japanese that translates as “Paris of my Dreams.” It refers to an image of a real place that, although based on reality, is so idealized that it can never truly exist. And that’s where he sets his films.
It’s like Plato’s cave theory, that somewhere there are “perfect” versions of everything—a perfect house, a perfect dog, a perfect Sazerac with all the ingredients perfectly balanced—and everything we encounter is just the filtered reflection. Miyazaki summons up this “perfect” Europe and this “perfect” Japan in his films.
Howl’s Moving Castle definitely has that perfection, but I think what you are responding to is your first glimpse of Miyazaki’s world. When you watch more, you will discover that ALL of his films have that magical quality. It’s his trademark. And it’s seductive—I want to live in Miyazaki’s world. And one of the joys of his films is I do get to live there every time I watch one of his films, at least for a little while.
The characters in Howl’s Moving Castle are less realized to me. I love Sophie. I love Calcifer. Those are the two that make the movie. I find Howl to be less interesting. He’s just kind of there because he needs to be there for the story to go forward, but nothing about him personally or his journey grips me. He has the typical Miyazaki duality, the two forms that play on Shinto beliefs in a “rough soul” and “gentle soul” in every person. But I just don’t find him appealing. Calcifer, on the other hand, is pure genius. A smart-talking fire god transformed into a stove and energy source—I loved that.
Oh, and one unrelated thing about Sophie—I love that every year at Sakura Con I see a woman who does an age-appropriate cosplay of Sophie. Miyazaki really created something special for his older fans to connect to.
Jason: What a great phrase, the "Paris of my Dreams." That's a charming, resonant idiom that accurately describes the magical panoplies that Miyazaki creates in his movies. Who doesn't want one of those amazing doors that opens to four different places?
That magnificent world is definitely seductive. It's interesting that you think that seductiveness is typical for Miyazaki’s movies. You're jaded about this particular creation because you've seen so many worlds that Miyazaki has fully realized. You're like the kid from Seattle who travels to Paris, is dazzled for the City of Lights for a little while but then soon realizes that the Paris of his dreams has its own complex problems.
I'm still in the dazzled phase of my journey in Miyazaki’s dreamscapes, and I'm quite thrilled to be living with that massive joy in my life. It's rare to be transported to a completely new, completely unexpected word – particularly when we get into middle age and believe we've had a huge number of experiences in our lives. That's why people enjoy traveling and why we treasure extremely imaginative sci-fi and fantasy movies.
And maybe a bit similar to how traveling is for most of us, I'm still enchanted by the people and beings I meet on my journey. I've already discussed how I adore Sophie. As the father of daughters, I think Sophie is a perfect role model for kids to keep in mind when they face seemingly insurmountable obstacles.
And yeah, I did enjoy the character of Howl as well. I can understand why you might not find him appealing – his narcissism, moodiness and occasional shallowness can sometimes be infuriating. But I thought he was also heroic and intriguing, a being with a long, deep and mysterious past that would be wonderful to explore.
You mention Plato, so I have to bring him up too (Isn’t that a rule? If it isn't, I now make it a rule for everything that we write together, Zack). Howl's Moving Castle was for me the very Platonic form of a fantasy adventure animated film.
Zack: Har har har. Slightly off-topic, but this weekend I took a visiting Japanese friend up to Leavenworth—Washington state’s recreated Bavarian village/cheesy tourist trap. When she got there she squeed and shouted “It’s just like being inside of a Miyzaki mo
(Oh, and a dark side to “Paris of my Dreams.” When you say that someone “realizes that the Paris of his dreams has its cracks and flaws and problems.”—this is an actual problem in Japan. There is something known as “Paris of my Dreams Syndrome,” a clinical depression that affects some Japanese people who go to Paris and realize it is just a large city like anywhere else, not a dream world.)
I’m not jaded—I love Miyazaki’s worlds and think it is just pure magic every time I step into one. But I still think what you are responding to is your first shot of that magic and not the movie itself, which is a lesser entry.
But a lesser Miyazaki flick is still better than 99% of all the films on the market, especially animated children’s films. Howl’s Moving Castle is just an A instead of an A+.
I want to see what you think when you dive into some of his really GREAT movies. Of course, you have already seen My Neighbor Totoro, which is one of his best, and possibly his most perfect film. But even though it is his most perfect, it isn’t my favorite. That would be Proco Rosso.
You have my Studio Ghibli boxset now, and that means you get to explore these worlds in any order you choose. You’ll find some you like more or less, although I’ll bet Howl’s Moving Castle will stick with you as one of your favorites. Because it was your first time seeing that “Paris of my Dreams” world—and that brought a little magic of your own to the party.
Zack Davisson is a freelance writer and life-long comics fan. He owned a comic shop in Seattle during the '90s, during which time he had the glorious (and unpaid) gig as pop-culture expert for NPR. He has lived in three countries, has degrees in Fine Art and Japanese Studies, and has been a contributing writer to magazines like Japanzine and Kansai Time-Out. He currently lives in Seattle, WA with his wife Miyuki. You can catch more of Zack's reviews on his blog Japan Reviewed or read his translations of Japanese ghost stories on Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai.