Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Thursday, September 11, 2014

Director Report Card: Hayao Miyazaki (2004)

9. Howl’s Moving Castle
Hauru no ugoku shiro

Some time ago, my older sister and her soon-to-be-husband lived in a home without a television. Instead of a TV, they had an entire room of shelves, lined with hundreds of science fiction and fantasy novels. In order to pass the time while spending long weekends there, I read many of those volumes. One title that always caught my attention yet I never got around to reading was “Howl’s Moving Castle” by Diana Wynne Jones. Years later, it was announced that Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli were making a film of the book. I knew nothing about the source material but the title was memorable enough that I recognized it. After seeing the film, it’s not surprising to see why the novel appealed to Miyazaki, as the story contained many of his favorite themes.

“Howl’s Moving Castle” is a full-blown fantasy revolving around wizards, witches, the demons they draw power from, and set in a fantasy world that resembles turn of the century Europe. Sophie, a young hat-maker, lives a town where rumors of a dashing wizard named Howl, and the moving castle he lives in, abound. By pure happenstance, she meets the handsome wizard, which incurs the wrath of Howl’s primary rival, the Witch of the Waste. Young Sophie is transformed into an old woman and seeks out Howl, hoping to find a cure. She’s quickly adopted into the wizard’s odd family of outcasts. The group has to survive as the countries around them march towards war.

Two of Miyazaki’s favorite character types are the spirit-filled young girl, just on the cusp of adulthood, and the tough elderly woman, determined and set-in-her-ways. “Howls’ Moving Castle” affords the director an oppretunity to include both of those personalities in the same character. Sophie comes from a family of beautiful, social women, including her stylish mother and newly married older sister. Because of this, she sees herself as plain and unexceptional, toiling away at her day job of making hats. Sophie is actually lovely, talented, and intelligent but is unwilling to acknowledge these facts about herself. When the Witch of the Waste curses her to become an old woman, Sophie maintains those personalities traits. She tracks down Howl’s castle and forcefully integrates herself into his household, giving herself the job of cleaning lady. What’s fascinating about Sophie’s curse is that its dependent entirely on her. While she sleeps, Sophie maintains her youthful appearance. When describing Howl’s positive qualities, she shifts from an old woman back to a young girl. In the second half of the film, her age is constantly morphing between the two extremes. The curse becomes a reflection of her own self-confidence. Sophie believes herself to be homely, so she looks like an old woman. Only after she learns to accept herself, with the help of Howl’s love, does she return to her original age again.

Howl is an equally interesting character. He fits the anime stereotype of the bishonen. He’s not only handsome but slightly androgynous, with wide eyes, a thin face, earrings, and shoulder-length hair. Howl is enough of a classic bishonen that he only superficially resembles the usual Ghibli character design. He also maintains the moodiness of the archetype. After Sophie cleans the bath room, moving the potions around, Howl accidentally dyes his blonde hair red. This has such an affect on him that he slumps into a depression, summoning shadow monsters into the room and producing a green slime over his skin. Yet Howl, in time, proves more complex than your average temperamental but good-looking bad boy. In exchange for his magical powers, he gave the fire-demon Calcifer his heart. This has caused his humanity to slowly erode, transforming Howl into an inhuman, bird-like monster when stressed. At night, he flies into the war zones but can’t bring himself to directly intervene. As his relationship with Sophie evolves, Howl’s humanity returns to him, forcing him to finally make a stand in the growing conflict.

The romance between Howl and Sophie is one of the most charming out of all of Studio Ghibli’s movies. The two are introduced when Howl walks up to Sophie on the street and lifts her up into the air, the two literally walking over the town. Though she can’t bring herself to admit it, she’s immediately smitten with the sorcerer. The girl’s co-workers talk about how Howl eats young girl’s heart, which they mean in a literal sense, but he takes Sophie’s heart in the strictly figurative sense. He accepts her into his home. His growing affection for the girl is evident when he takes glimpses of her as she sleeps. Howl’s declaration of love comes when he gifts Sophie with access to his secret hiding place, a beautiful valley field full of flowers and home to an isolated cabin where he spent his childhood. The emotional crux of the film is built around Howl and Sophie’s love for each other. The film wouldn’t work unless it earned that honest emotion.

As has become tradition, “Howl’s Moving Castle” features exquisitely detailed animation. The town, vehicles, clothing, and movement of the characters are all fantastic. One element stands above the rest. The titular moving castle is an amazing triumph of animation design. The castle is steampunk dream come true. Its belching smokestacks, clanking gears, and jittery spider-legs creates a kinship with similar clockwork devices in other Miyazaki films. The castle has multiple layers that are constantly overlapping and bumping into each other. A rough face is form by the different floors, two smoke stacks making eyes and the front of the castle forming a crude mouth. The shakiness of the design not only gives the castle a lived-in quality but also makes it seem like it could fall apart at any minute. When it does fall apart in the last act, a smaller version of the castle, sleeker and faster but no less home-made, crawls out of the wreckage. Amusingly, even after falling apart, the castle keeps on moving, even when its just a floor, a wheel, a belt, and a pair of wobbly legs.

The castle moves in more then one way. The film’s approach to magic, overall, is interesting. It’s less flying fireballs and mixing potions and more intuitive. One of the few classical magic spells Howl performs has him carrying his fire-demon into a magic circle, causing the interior of the castle to shift around his whims. But maybe my favorite element is a magical door inside the castle. A multicolored circle is connected to the doorknob. By turning the knob, the circle rotates to a new color. Each color corresponds to a different location. By changing the settings, the characters can step through the door to a different store front. This allows Howl to pose as different alchemist in different towns, maintaining his reputation and creating steady streams of income. It’s a clever idea and deployed fantastically.

The biggest assets of “Howl’s Moving Castle” is its cast of characters. Though not as free-form as “Spirited Away,” the film has a loose plot. This creates a “hang-out” feel, where most of the joy of the film comes from the audience enjoying hanging out with the characters. Howl has gathered together an unusual collection of friends on his castle. Firstly is Calcifer, the fire demon that lives in the castle’s fire-pit. Animated as a living ball of flame, he is expressive, mouthy, and frequently sarcastic. His flames stretch and change depending on his mood and how much fire wood he has to live on. His life force is connected to both Howl’s and the castle’s, so should he ever run out of firewood, it could be problematic. Amusingly, he’s quite bitchy about his food source. Howl’s apprentice is a little kid named Markl. At first, the kid acts older then age, frequently wearing a magic robe that disguises him as an old man. As the story goes on, he forms a bond with Sophie and begins to treat her as an older sister. Two sweet moments has the young wizard playing with his pet dog in a newly acquired courtyard and tearfully telling Sophie he loves her while hugging her deeply. Also among Howl’s crew of misfits is Turnip Head, a friendly scarecrow that hops around on his pole. Despite his face being frozen in a smile and having no movable limps, Turnip Head is surprisingly expressive and endearing. His frantic hopping provides a lot of characterization.

At the story’s beginning, the film seems to be setting up the slovenly Witch of the Waste as its villain. The character, though dressed in a silk dress, a fancy hat, and expensive jewelry, is morbidly obese. Huge rolls of fat push up against her face. She travels in a small booth carried around by her “blob men,” animated globs of black ink that she controls. She has a rivalry with Howl, possibly based in a failed romantic connection but is generally unelaborated on. At the midpoint of the film, there’s a great sequence where Sophie goes to meet the queen of the land, posing as Howl’s mother. The Witch is also there. Both old women laboriously walk up the steep steps, the Witch’s becoming more shapeless with each footstep. Once inside, the kingdom’s magic adviser zaps the Witch with giant light bulbs, draining her power. Suddenly, Howl’s most feared enemy is reduced to a senile old woman, tiny and feeble. She has lucid moments that come and go but seems to be changed for the better. They started as enemy but the Witch is quickly accepted into the family. By the end, Sophie and Markl are referring to the old woman as “Grandma.” There’s a dog too, Heen, a small breed with stubby legs that communicates in wheezing barks. Though intended as a spy for the army, he sticks around as a cute animal sidekick.

As with many of Miyazaki’s films, “Howl’s Moving Castle” features a strong anti-war message. A military conflict between the two unnamed countries provides the main plot points for the film’s second half. Why the two countries are battling is never fully explained. This is an intentional move. The war is completely frivolous and no reasoning could justify such a destructive conflict. Their ramping military complexes seem completely self-serving. War planes, flapping on bird-like wings, drop giant fire bombs on innocent towns. When Howl finally involves himself in the war, it is to protect the people he cares about, not because he believes in either sides’ cause. It’s not subtle and not as well illustrated as some of the director’s older films but it makes its point nevertheless.

Despite its pacifistic undertones, “Howl’s Moving Castle” still features some interesting action sequences. The most notable moment has Howl defending Sophie and the Witch from his former mentor and current wizard for the government, Suliman. The way the magical conflict is carried out is unlike any other I’ve seen on-screen. The room disappears, a field of stars cropping up around the characters. Vague, human-like shapes made of sparkling starshine surround the captives, light flickering from their hands. Howl and Sophie escape just in time, which sadly cuts the sequence short. Miyazaki’s trademark flying scene comes soon after, with Sophie and the others escaping on one of the military’s flying vehicles.

Yet the film’s most visually impressive moments feature no action at all. My favorite is a dream-like sequence that has Sophie, unaware that she’s a young girl again, walking into Howl’s inner sanctum in the middle of the night. The dirt walls of the tunnel are decorate with children toys, unexplained remnants from Howl’s innocent days. There, she encounters the wizard at his most monstrous, where the two share a short dialogue before he flies away, leaving Sophie an old woman again. The scene might literally be a dream, it’s hard to say, but its implacable tone makes an impression on the viewer.

The last act features Howl flying among exploding airships, fighting off monsters, and ducking under bombs. Yet the story’s climax is strictly an emotional one instead of an action-packed one. The castle is destroyed, the Witch’s greed and obsession with Howl comes to a head, and Howl and Calcifer nearly die. The true conclusion happens when young Sophie talks the fire demon into returning Howl’s heart. The wizard is made whole again and the demon is freed. However, before the end credits roll, Calcifer returns and the moving castle is rebuilt. The war subplot is resolved off-screen, Turnip Head being revealed as a prince under a curse. Ultimately, the relationship between the characters are more important then the battles. Howl and Sophie kissing on the balcony of the new castle is more satisfying then any fight scene could be.

“Howl’s Moving Castle” might be the most underrated entry in Miyazaki’s career. It was greeted with a horde of critical praise, as you’d expect, but the glow has faded with time. The script has some of the same problems as “Spirited Away” and, no, it’s not as fresh or impressive as his earlier films. But there’s something to be said for a film full of lovable characters that are simply fun to be around. The animation is gorgeous, the music lovely, and the world memorable. The film’s limitless charm outweighs all of these successes. [Grade: B+]

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