“Studio Ghibli’s first world tour”: Hayao Miyazaki’s Howl’s Moving Castle (2004) – Blu-ray review
Superstar Miyazaki embarks on his first world tour, with all the highs (gob-smacking stadium arena spectacle) and lows (stodgy greatest hits setlist) that this entails.
Howl’s Moving Castle
(Hayao Miyazaki, 2004)
What happens when the best-kept secret in world cinema becomes common knowledge? Prior to Spirited Away, Hayao Miyazaki was relatively unknown to all but the most fervent followers of anime; even Japanese mega-hit Princess Mononoke hadn’t made a huge splash worldwide. Yet his 2001 classic served as a global launchpad, especially after it won the Oscar for Best Animated Film. Suddenly, there was huge demand for Studio Ghibli product, and John Lasseter oversaw a series of English-language dubs that made Miyazaki an overnight sensation several decades in the making.
That’s worth considering when watching Howl’s Moving Castle, the first film made by Miyazaki under the relentless glare of anticipation from outside his native Japan. The result feels custom-fitted to appeal to his new fanbase: the source material is international (Dianne Wynne Jones’ Welsh-set 1986 kids’ novel) and its sprawling cast of magic scarecrows, fire demons, blob guards, bird wizards and young girls cursed into becoming elderly crones is a primer in Miyazaki style. It’s exactly the film you’d make if everybody had suddenly become an expert in Totoro, Mononoke, Laputa and Nausicaa and wanted more of the same.
Inevitably, though, it’s a fairly indigestible stew. Whether something was lost in translation, or Miyazaki’s instincts were off, there is simultaneously too much and too little going on. At first, the sheer lack of exposition is perfect, a giddy nosedive into dream logic. Where is this crazy world, where airships wage war above picture-postcard Alpine landscapes and cuckoo clock towns? What is the nature of the war between Howl and the Witch of the Wastes, which causes innocent hatmaker Sophie to age a lifetime? And what’s the deal with the titular castle, a spindly-legged piece of bric-a-brac whose front door opens into multiple locations?
By the end of the film, the answer to those questions are answered, but without either narrative satisfaction or thematic insight. It’s as if Miyazaki felt duty-bound to provide explanations for his newfound Western distributors, but his heart wasn’t really in it – which is ironic, considering that stolen hearts are the key to the story. [Behind the scenes, that might be true; Miyazaki stepped in late after original director Mamoru Hosoda quit the project.] While the ‘what’ is all explained, pivotal information to understanding the ‘why’ is vague and sketchy. A simpler tale would better suit Miyazaki’s preference for character and world-building, and the complexity is baffling and frustrating.
The saving grace? Miyazaki’s preference for character and world-building. Winning Oscars and earning global respect hasn’t dented the director’s ambition. Far from it: he’s bursting to showcase what Ghibli can do. Steer clear of trying to figure out what’s going on, and Howl’s Moving Castle is enjoyably ‘out there.’ It’s a surreal comedy about one of cinema’s most dysfunctional families, in which bravery, and altruism, and love bring together a rag-tag army of characters who other directors would brand as freaks, but who Miyazaki treats with the care and attention of a doting father. Turnip, the magic scarecrow who never speaks or changes his facial expression, becomes adorable simply from his irrepressibly bouncy pogo-stick motion.
Better still, Sophie’s adventure plays out in such eye-popping vistas (especially in Blu-ray) that narrative is a distraction from Miyazaki’s richly textured visuals. Colours are wielded like memories: grass is the green of lazy days in the countryside; skies are the blue of warm summer afternoons. But even better are the backgrounds, with Howl’s castle a tactile labyrinth of cluttered tables and scuffed walls. The intricacy of Miyazaki’s compositions is so immersive that, whatever complaints about the story you may have, you leave the director’s world believing you’ve been temporarily transported into a hyperreal playground of the imagination.