We took the month of October off for Halloween purposes, but we’re back with the final three films by Hayao Miyazaki. If you’d like a refresher course, you can read my previous Miyazaki Masterclass essays right here.
After his Oscar win with the magical Spirited Away, Miyazaki took a bit of a break. He’d made eight films in his nearly 3 decade career and produced many more with his company Studio Ghibli. His films all possessed a magical, fairy tale aspect, but his last two movies, Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away had been deeply personal, much darker than his previous work, and emotionally taxing. He could have stopped making films and his legacy still would have been secured, and celebrated. But he wasn’t quite finished yet. For his ninth film, Miyazaki would return to familiar ground with castles and magicians and curses and flying, but from a different point of view. With the exception of his first film, which was a continuation of an existing television anime and popular manga, only one of his films, Kiki’s Delivery Service, was based on material not created by Miyazaki himself. For this film, 2004’s Howl’s Moving Castle, he would adapt a book that wasn’t even Japanese.
Howl’s Moving Castle is based on a 1986 British fantasy novel by author Diana Wynn Jones, the first in her trilogy of books featuring the eponymous wizard Howl, a powerful, mercurial, and vain man who lives in, you guessed it, a castle that moves around and can turn into a giant bird. The book is all about enchantments and curses and demons and things, all very common in English fantasy and favorite topics for Miyazaki given his previous films. But Miyazaki, of course, brings his own tendencies and point of view to the story, which actually makes it something of an anomaly for the director; it’s at once definitely a Miyazaki film and completely not a Miyazaki film.
Like all of the master’s work, Howl’s Moving Castle doesn’t spend too long telling the audience about the world we’ve entered, we just enter it and the story begins and he will show us what’s necessary and not explain what isn’t. He allows the visuals set the stage for the kind of story we’re watching and the first few scenes set up the overall gist. It’s amazing that his movies, for as vivid and complex as the worlds he creates are, he doesn’t spend any more time than is necessary on what everything is. While some visionaries build their worlds through constant naming and explaining of things, Miyazaki doesn’t feel the need to do so.
The story centers on a shy young hatter named Sophie who is pretty but doesn’t think herself so. One afternoon, she is cornered by guards on her way to meet her sister, and she encounters the powerful wizard Howl who takes her up into the sky to get away from the guards. Afterward, the Witch of the Waste, who is hopelessly in love with the aloof and self-absorbed Howl, comes into the hat shop who curses poor Sophie to be a 90 year old woman who cannot speak of her curse to anyone. Sophie decides to leave town and seek a cure for the curse on her own, eventually ending up in the Wastes. She meets a living scarecrow, another cursed individual, who escorts her to Howl’s castle, which looks rather piecemeal and walks around on mechanical chicken legs. Getting inside, Sophie meets Calcifer, the fire demon who Howl has bound to the castle and who powers the whole thing, and Markl, Howl’s young apprentice. Through cleverness, Sophie sets herself up as the castle’s new maid.
Howl proves himself to be a very strange master. He comes and goes at random, overusing his magic at times like a junkie on a bender, and he’s impossibly vain and considers himself the most beautiful man alive. Despite all these traits, Sophie can tell he’s basically a good-hearted person who is afraid to engage in the world and thus hides from it, despite his immense power. A war is brewing between two neighboring countries, and two of Howl’s magician aliases get summoned to join the kingdom in the war effort. Howl has made a pact to show himself, but he’s afraid to do so, so he sends Sophie in his place, posing as his elderly mother. On the way, Sophie meets the Witch of the Waste who has also been summoned. They both are called before the King’s royal magic adviser Madame Suliman, who immediately knows Sophie isn’t Howl’s mother, and is in fact in love with him, and who makes the Witch of the Waste as old and ugly as she really is, seemingly just for fun. Howl arrives and says he wants nothing to do with the war, but that doesn’t sit well with Suliman, who wants Howl’s power. The Witch of the Waste joins Howl and Sophie as they make their escape and begin their life on the run from the war and its factions of airships.
This is certainly one of Miyazaki’s most visually dynamic films, owning in no small part to the visual technology present in by this time. The colors really pop and the palate is much more diverse than even Spirited Away had been, with its largely red tone. Miyazaki hasn’t lost his eye for action nor his love of the detail of flight and traveling through the air. The wide array of strange creatures and characters also feel right at home in Miyazaki’s oeuvre, namely Turnip Head the scarecrow, Calcifer the fire-demon, and Howl in his monster-bird form. He’s also able to input cool looking airships, not unlike the ones he created all the way back 20 years earlier for Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind.
The strange thing is that ultimately Howl’s Moving Castle feels a bit uneven and, while still very, very good, is lesser Miyazaki. There’s a lot less of the director’s personality in this one, despite having all of the elements I’ve already listed. It seems almost like Miyazaki by numbers from a narrative standpoint. By now, we’ve already seen several of his films with elements like a villain who doesn’t stay a villain, a strong young girl protagonist, and strange magical beings. There’s nothing here that wasn’t present in Spirited Away but, because this was based on an existing work, it lacks any of the social commentary or all-out wonderment of his more recent films. Again, it’s still a much better movie than most animated features, but when comparing it to others in Miyazaki’s body of work, it doesn’t shine quite as brightly.
Howl’s Moving Castle was an enormous international hit, making nearly ten times its budget back worldwide and earning Miyazaki another Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature, though he would lose to Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit. There would be another four year gap between films with his follow-up to Howl’s and it would be a return for Miyazaki to the more childlike point of view of My Neighbor Totoro and its focus on everyday family drama mixing with a magical world. It also has the dubious honor of being the only Hayao Miyazaki movie I don’t love. More on that next week, when Ponyo, Miyazaki’s penultimate film, will be discussed.