Title: Howl’s Moving Castle
Genre: Animation, Adventure, Family
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Screenwriters: Hayao Miyazaki
Starring: Chieko Baishô, Takuya Kimura, Tatsuya Gashûin
The visual magic of Hayao Miyazaki is the next thing to death and taxes, but I wouldn’t recommend betting heavily on the stories he tells. Early in his career — My Neighbor Totoro notwithstanding — he seemed satisfied with solid if offbeat plots, self-contained stories that required little elaboration. He earned his fan base with films like Kiki’s Delivery Service and Castle in the Sky, which are as straightforward as they are enchanting. But with Princess Mononoke six years ago, Miyazaki announced a new direction: a mystical, dreamlike, less accessible one, with stories that leave crucial blanks to be filled in, and plot events that defy easy explanation.
This is a value-neutral development, though it signals a move toward the more challenging, which is an automatic positive for many. But for Miyazaki, it has thus far gone one of two ways: he has either come up with abstract, enchanting masterpieces, or with visually sumptuous but puzzling and muddled epics. Spirited Away falls into the former category; Princess Mononoke and his latest, Howl’s Moving Castle, are squarely in the latter.
This is a good film, certainly: intriguing and ceaselessly beautiful. As is the norm for Miyazaki’s work, every frame is a stunning work of art; the flow of images on the screen is uncannily relaxing, and occasionally awe-inspiring. The animation is deceptively advanced; at first glance it looks like the sort of fairly basic cel animation we saw from Disney as early as Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, but a closer look reveals that the work here is meticulous and completely state-of-the-art, from the impossibly detailed backgrounds to the gorgeous use of depth and perspective. After about 20 leisurely minutes, full of Miyazaki’s trademark silences and meaningful inaction, I swore that I could watch this movie forever, or at least several times over.
That impression persisted for some time, as Miyazaki began to unveil a universe full of wizards, magicians and kings, where a color-coded switch can make a single door a portal to four different places (or is it universes? dimensions?), with one of the colors ominously being black, where a Witch of the Waste can turn a little girl into an old woman and where a conceited wizard named Howl can take her in as a “cleaning lady” without batting an eye. It’s a nonchalant and matter-of-fact bit of world-building, with details revealed to us not through expository narration but step-by-step as we follow along with the story. For a while it was puzzling, mysterious, challenging, as we tried to piece together what we were given into some sort of semblance of a whole, even if that wound up being merely the realization that this is a world we can never fully grasp.
But eventually — and alas, sooner than later — the house of cards begins to shake and tumble, and the story reveals itself as being narratively hollow, if thematically rich. Plot developments start to seem random and convenient, inserted more to facilitate Miyazaki’s imagery than to actually reconcile with the rest of the film. Some of the unexplained remains enchanting — I loved the apparently (but not really) arbitrary way that the protagonist’s age seems to fluctuate as the movie progresses — but much of it becomes frustrating and unsatisfying. We never do find out exactly who are the unidentified warmongers plaguing the kingdom (though we have our suspicions), and that’s fine, but instead of being an object of mystery, it simply runs together with all the other unelucidated elements — the rules of the magic that seems to rule this world, for example. Perhaps it is my as an audience member that I expect a movie universe to tie in cognitively as well as aesthetically, but Howl’s Moving Castle began to grate.
In direct contrast to this frustrating vagueness are the several unexpectedly Disneyfied elements of the movie. Perhaps the most significant element of this is the baffling addition of a wisecracking sidekick, though it comes in the fitfully unusual form of a “fire demon.” Voiced in the dubbed version by Billy Crystal, he yells, taunts, jokes and complains, counteracting the generally placid mood of the rest of the film. It must be said that he does eventually play a vital role in the plot (though he does so in an arbitrary way), so he is not there merely for the purpose of comic relief; still, I was not expecting his presence. Miyazaki has done cute before, but I don’t think he’s ever grappled with the cloyingly sarcastic.
The other odd feature of the film is the ending, which comes in an abrupt flurry of cheery exposition. It’s rushed and utterly bewildering, as if Miyazaki was given a strict running time limit and suddenly realized he was just two minutes shy. But by that time, what began as a calm, unspeakably gorgeous meditation had become a conglomaration of unresolvable plot elements. It’s still beautiful, still inventive and worth watching, but as a follow-up to Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle disappoints.