Howl’s Moving Castle

Movie Review
Hayao Miyazaki’s
Reviewed by Fran Bigman

Howl’s Moving Castle Defies Disney Logic

(Spring 2005 Issue)

Call it a spoiler, but I feel safe letting slip in my first sentence that Howl’s Moving Castle has a happy ending—of a sort.
Sophie, our heroine, is a plucky but serious teenage brunette who has a romantic run-in with the young wizard Howl. In a
jealous fit, the Witch of the Waste transforms her into a 90-year-old crone. Setting off in search of a way to break the curse,
Sophie attaches herself to Howl’s entourage as a cleaning woman and works her way into his life, ultimately managing to
find true love, end the colossal and pointless war that has tempted the wizard into destructive violence, and change back
into her old self. Except for the shock of white hair on her head.

This is proof that Hayao Miyazaki—known informally as the greatest animation director in the world today—hasn’t sold out
to Disney yet, although the dubbed version of Howl’s Moving Castle does feature some wince-inducing voice-overs by the
likes of Billy Crystal. At first, the movie’s too-perfect ending seems to come straight out of a Disneyfied fairy tale, with all
loose ends resolved and the characters set to live happily ever after. But Sophie’s white hair, which lingers as a reminder
of the old woman she once was, reminds us that in Miyazaki’s world, things are never that simple.

Reviewers of the film have gushed over the inventiveness of Miyazaki’s characters, from the gentle Totoro to the ghostly
No-Face of Spirited Away, his stunning art direction (the way he sends wind rustling through grass has to be seen to be
believed), and his anti-war, environmental consciousness, almost as explicit here as in previous movies like Nausicaa and
Princess Mononoke. Yet almost all have complained about the plot, calling it mystifying and magical at best and pointlessly
meandering at worst. You could call it dream logic for the way it blends a turn-of-the-century, vaguely European setting with
fantastical war machines right out of Jules Verne, the way it has its characters travel through two time periods and four
different worlds.

But even to use the word “logic” is misleading; the movie is deliciously inconsistent in a style only Miyazaki can pull off.
What are we to make of a wizard who rules over a moving castle but can’t even change his own hair color? On a larger
scale, characters drift in and out of the plot and our heroes forgive every villainous act in the movie so quickly they seem to
suffer from amnesia; as in Spirited Away, you have absolutely no idea what will happen next, and next to no idea how Howl
and Sophie—or your fellow movie-goers—are making it through this tangle of seemingly arbitrary events.

This defiance of typical movie logic is sometimes maddening, but it’s refreshingly honest in its denial of the comfort that
comes from an ending where evil is vanquished, the good guys win, and order is completely restored to the world. Miyazaki
himself has told interviewers that he doesn’t believe in villains, that the idea that you can blame a few people for evil acts is
ridiculous. In the current political climate, this is an embattled idea.

The beauty of Miyazaki’s movies, then, is the questions he raises, not the comfort he provides. The artist Takashi
Murakami, whose current exhibit Little Boy: The Arts of Japan’s Exploding Subculture at the Japan Society connects anime
to a streak of immaturity in contemporary Japanese culture, loves Miyazaki all the same. In the exhibition catalog,
Murakami calls Howl’s Moving Castle “the movie Japan needs now.” Howl’s Moving Castle deals, as he notes, with issues
like personal responsibility in a time of war, the need for community, and the joys and terrors of aging at a time when many
Japanese are against the war in Iraq but feel powerless to change government policy, when Japan’s traditionally strong
communities are showing signs of erosion in the forms of juvenile crime and shut-ins who refuse to leave their homes,
when the aging and shrinking of the Japanese population is a national obsession.

Spirited Away’s focus on one girl’s quest to rescue her parents from the pigsty made it a better and more enjoyable movie
than Howl’s Moving Castle in many ways – a more coherent plot, deeper emotional resonance, and a tighter resolution, to
name a few. Yet Miyazaki’s ambition in addressing these issues in his wonderfully dreamlike, oblique style—a style
resistant to the Manichean worldview of many other movies for both kids and adults—cannot be denied.

Howl’s Moving Castle is now playing only at Loews Lincoln Square at Broadway and 68th St; if you want to avoid the
dubbed version, I’ve heard rumors that the original will also be shown in a week or so.

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