“In the middle of a war, a young woman cursed into the body of an old woman falls in love with a childish wizard who lives in a walking castle.”
Directed by: Hayao Miyazaki, Rated: PG, 119 minutes
Just last weekend, I took my dad to a magic show. They staged it in an old brick repertory that still bore proudly its vertical strip of flashing bulbs. The old spirit of theater going haunted the place. Pale men and women whispered in eternal conversation on rococo paintings lining the wall. A tired ghost ripped your paper tickets at the door. Everything smelled of red velvet, old popcorn, and wood. When the magic show started, a squat man in a cape walked on stage and began telling flat jokes to the crowd without realizing that his microphone was off. The curtains opened and a woman fumbled a pigeon out of her coat. Some cards sputtered onto the stage and from the balcony, a faceless cough echoed through the room. The woman, who had been caught in her illusion, smiled apologetically, her face pale in the high lights. Murmurs began to chase through the crowd like black electricity as the magic show fell to shambles. I was relieved when the “Drill of Death” passed its climax and the sound of everyone standing washed over the squat man’s ending speech. Pouring out with the rest of the crowd, who were busily mocking the show, I felt old and jaded, even though I’d done nothing. It was the man on stage who was to blame. What we felt he was to blame for, who knew?
Most people, past a certain age, come to regard magic with a queasy mixture of pity and regret. The fine sea of faith we enjoy as children, peopled by bright scaled beings and sunken stones, sort of dries up by the time you’re twelve and you’re left looking at a puddle. It’s a painful event, taking a child to a magic show – at least for me. A part of me wants to join in the ridicule of what unfolds so clumsily upon stage. Magic leaves a bitter taste in my mouth because I can’t help noticing the frays on the magician’s cuffs, the tricks packaged up his sleeve and it makes me question who is to blame for disproving the show, the man on stage, or me. Once in a great while, though, I’ll come across a rare puddle of magic that refuses to evaporate beneath the heat of cynicism. For that reason, I hold a special place in my heart for Miyazaki’s films, and specifically for Howl’s Moving Castle.
Howl’s Moving Castle opens with a magnificent shot of clouds drawing back over a high mountain pasture where a shepherd pauses to wave at a castle, looming out of the mist. It walks by. This should tell you everything you need to know about this film. We then meet Sophie, a practical counterpoint to this walking magic. She’s a rather subdued young woman more interested in working than pursuing the social life that her mother and her sister clearly outshine her in. She refuses to partake in activities she assumes she’s already lost at – in essence, she’s already the age the curse will turn her into shortly. By chance – so we think – she runs into the local legend, Howl, who owns the castle that strolled through the opening shot. The Witch of the Wastes, another local legend, finds and curses Sophie, transforming her into an old woman and forbidding her to reveal her plight, out of jealousy that Howl took her on a date. This spell unwinds Sophie’s very regimented life, as Sophie, unsure of how to continue living in the town, ventures out into the wastes. By chance she meets a sentient scarecrow whom she dubs Turnip-head and Turnip-head leads Sophie to Howl’s Moving Castle, where she works as a cleaning lady. There she meets Markl, the wizard’s apprentice, Calcifer, the resident fire demon, and Howl himself again, who of course, cannot recognize her through the curse, though first Calcifer and later he suspects that Sophie is more than she seems. Meanwhile, a war begins its inevitable momentum when another nation discovers that their crown prince has gone missing in the lands that Sophie and Howl live in. The king orders all magicians and sorcerers to join in the battle. When Howl is summoned, he uses Sophie to declare his cowardice to his old teacher, Suliman. In the course of avoiding Suliman, and protecting Sophie, Howl enters into the war at the threat of his innocence. Sophie must brave the magic of Howl’s Castle in order to save his heart.
Before I give my opinion of this film, let me say that over the past week I’ve watched a lot of Miyazaki and so I’ve come to terms with some of my original impressions of his movies. For instance, I found that Princess Mononoke, which terrified me as a child, terrifies me even more now. It might take its place as my favorite Miyazaki movie. Within Laputa: Castle in the Sky, which once felt very fun and frivolous, I’ve discovered melancholy new vistas I never suspected. I realized the other day, with a little surprise, that now I identify more with the abandoned robots who tend the garden than the children with their high spirited adventures. My feelings about Spirited Away have never really changed, but only deepened.
Miyazaki has the rare gift of making movies like a house with multiple doors. You can watch them as children and reenter them years later from a completely different door, but the world he makes records the last place you stood, and your thoughts there, like the dust on a floor will remember old footprints. Of all his movies, my feelings have changed most about Princess Mononoke and Howl’s Moving Castle. Once, Howl’s Moving Castle was probably my favorite Miyazaki film. Now, older, while the holes in its plot have begun to aggravate me, I value this cracked relic of a movie because it contains a real magic that doesn’t quite work the way it should, but works nonetheless.
From the beginning of the movie, I noticed a slow pace in character development. I told myself – remembering my earlier love of this film – that the subsequent movie would speed me along. However, the plot, with all of its ins and outs never takes us far from the beginning and only manages to confuse me for most of the movie. Most of the action hinges on superficial comical situations – the fact that Sophie is under a spell, a race between Sophie and the Witch of the Wastes up stairs, cleaning the castle, etc. The real conflict lies buried until the final half hour, where Howl has to finally give his heart to someone and fight a war for her, but by that point the themes are so muddied that I’m unsure why, for instance, Howl uses a magical black door to fight in the war apparently before he’s forced by Suliman to enter the ranks. I can only assume he’s taking a furtive peek at the future of his soul before he really decides to do anything. Or maybe he’s sabotaging either side because one side or the other, war presents the same savage face. It sounds plausible enough, however, the movie should answer these questions. A lot is left uncertain about Sophie too. In the movie, outright disturbing moments with her mother imply that at some point her mother cheated on her father to cause the rift between Sophie and the rest of her family. A sense of loyalty to him keeps Sophie working in the hatshop and has made her so afraid of love. However, instead of informing Sophie’s choice to fall in love with Howl, the backstories of the characters hang in a unrelated world that have little to do with the conflict. Maybe there’s a magical door to reach them. The climax of the movie feels random and juggled. The movie embodies the same indecision that cripples Howl.
It’s funny. When the film ended and I tried to dissect what exactly happens, I had a hard time in saying. Then I sat down and read the reviews of two other writers on the site, Nick and Ries, and they had similar problems describing the plots in their movies. Miyazaki does not make movies with linear plots. He makes worlds that characters must grow to inhabit and while sometimes this works, other times it does not. I admire this most about Miyazaki as a creator – the utter faith he has in his world and the resulting clarity with which we can see it. In this movie, perhaps more than in any other except for Princess Mononoke and perhaps Spirited Away the characters fit the scope of the world. In fact, the characters of Howl’s Moving Castle are so opulent and the magic so rich, that I think Miyazaki had a hard time focusing on their narrative arc.
When I watch the movie, I feel like I’m opening a chest spilling over with jewels. The characters in this film, which in his earlier films fit the muted colors and nearly seem to fade into the landscape, sprout from the reels like mushrooms. Sophie is frustrating and lovable, both cowardly in romance and brave in love. Howl fascinates us with his mask-like beauty, his darkly glimmering facets carven by the war, yet falls to pieces when he can’t be beautiful. He is no more mature than an arrogant child. The characters feel simultaneously durable and brittle and no character embodies this as well as Calcifer, a strangely benevolent demon who can move castles but becomes timid in the rain. The characters are so vivid, in fact, clutter the screen so much, they make the movie sag with their weight. Like the haphazard castle perched on its unlikely legs, these characters possess too tremendous a weight for such a flimsy plot. Miyazaki, in rendering the ramshackle fortress, might have animated the movie’s greatest metaphor for itself.
In Howl’s Moving Castle we also see Miyazaki at his flamboyant best, perhaps because the subject matter called him to be a magician with his characters. The story of Howl’s Moving Castle, unlike Spirited Away, Castle in the Sky, or Princess Mononoke, never sets itself in opposition to its own magic. For instance, in Spirited Away, Sen has to cross from the mundane into the spirit world and while the world of Princess Mononoke is grimly steeped in magic, its the kind of magic people fear and forbid. The magic of Howl’s Moving Castle is much more benign but unfamiliar. It feels rambunctious. Strangely threatening stars bloom around people like dandelions and begin to chant. Magicians are looked upon with rural scorn, friendly admiration, often the batted eyes of belles – but a part of the normal course of life. And since people are both afraid and impressed by magic, well magicians must be lonely and immature. It’s so simple, the brilliance is hard to see. I think this is the reason Miyazaki made this movie. It gave him a chance to steep himself in the magic that necessarily had to remain elusive in his other films. He takes delight in answering every question that might arise. For instance, how do you transport your gelatinous henchmen about town? Well, you keep them in a little copper stein, of course. You can grasp the magic in this film, though you might not want to – it’s as solid and unpredictable as a copper bar hit with lightening. The world smells of smoke. It glitters with flying embers and the walls flash with filigreed glass. It is his most physical and present world.
The black door that Howl uses to switch between locations in order to escape his responsibilities captures what I feel about the movie. Miyazaki has unintentionally let a plot go to seed, spellbound by magic so real it can be gripped, and characters so vivid they mischievously cut holes in the script. The film has moments that shine. The war, for instance, is disturbing and real to us. When fire pours over the train we see Sophie ride in one of the opening scenes, I felt a pin prick my heart for innocence lost. The plot is troublesome. But however misty the arc of this movie, its smoke drifting through a world seen with such conviction that I utterly believe the man on stage telling me of it, of a place he knows where lonely, childish sorcerers wander the wastes, or hide in dusty seaside towns. Bravo. Encore.
My Rating: 6.5 or three and a quarter Totoros out of five.