Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)
Sophie is a teenaged hat-maker who angers (and is cursed by) the Witch of the Waste. Now an unrecognizable, very old woman, Sophie finds herself in Howl’s moving castle as she seeks a reversal of the curse. There is some kind of war going on, and although Howl refuses formal invitations to join one side or another, he is involved in an alter-ego form, attempting either to help one side or simply break up the hostilities. Yeah, the story is kind of fuzzy to me, and I’m not going to pretend I got it all.
Howl is some kind of wizard with an incredible vanity problem, at one point becoming depressed to the point of inactivity for some issue involving his hair. Somehow, Sophie (who could do a lot better, if you ask me) falls for him, and if you’ve seen a fair number of films directed by Hayao Miyazaki, you know that her love for him has great power. Like, world-saving power. There are also a wheezing dog, a turnip-headed scarecrow, and a talking fire demon with Billy Crystal’s voice (in the English dubbed release), and they are all appealing enough that the confusing story doesn’t really matter too much. I think I got enough of it at least to embrace the symbolism and develop a genuine fondness for the central character.
One thing I appreciate about Miyazaki’s stories is that they hold to a kind of inclusion that makes any living creature worth caring for. When Sophie takes on her old-woman appearance, her problem is never that she is an old woman, as if being an old woman is somehow undesirable. She is instead dismayed about not being herself, and at times she embraces all the pluses and minuses of being in an old woman’s body. If the director sometimes goes overboard with preachiness, at least his heavy-handed messages are backed up by a graceful, delicate realization of characters.
It seems I write about this whenever I write about Japanese animation, but the Japanese aesthetic that appreciates the beauty in the impermanence of a moment is my favorite thing about the genre, and Miyazaki’s films, by virtue of incredible animation, illustrate it better than anyone else’s. There are moments where we are asked to pause, to soak up a moment, and to appreciate it while it lasts. They are my favorite parts of his films, and there are enough of them in Howl’s Moving Castle to make up for any bizarre, unexplained behavior by its characters.
I have to say that I didn’t love this movie. I barely liked it, but I did like it for all the usual Miyazaki reasons, minus great storytelling.