In celebration of Japanese animation legend Hayao Miyazaki’s 80th birthday yesterday (January 5th), I finally got a chance to watch Howl’s Moving Castle (2004), his tenth film as director and follow-up to the universally-acclaimed, Oscar-winning Spirited Away (2001). As a fan of all of Miyazaki’s (and by extension his Studio Ghibli’s) films, I’ve always considered Spirited Away to be the most overrated of the bunch and seeing Howl’s Moving Castle at last confirmed that suspicion. Equally rooted in the gravitas and fierce protest of Princess Mononoke (1997) and the whimsy and delightful side characters of Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989), Howl showcases Miyazaki at the height of his powers. Here in 2004 he has transcended his origins as a high-quality children’s entertainer with a big heart (not that there’s anything wrong with that but his regression to it in Spirited Away is still somewhat regrettable) to become a serious activist-filmmaker. Unlike the earlier Mononoke, which presented a more nuanced picture of a war between humans and spirits with “good people on both sides”, Howl roundly and unequivocally condemns all forms of aggression.
Equal parts YA steampunk dystopia and allegorical high fantasy, Howl’s Moving Castle gives an outsider perspective on the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, though the novel on which it was based came out in 1986. The Japanese point of view on this act of aggression is perhaps unique in the world, and its divided loyalties are reflected in the film’s main character, the reclusive wizard Howl; Miyazaki would have seen these divided loyalties develop in real time over the course of his life: born in Japan in 1941, he was entering adulthood as his country’s military alliance with the United States was coming under its harshest criticism for dragging Japan into numerous conflicts during the Cold War. In the film, Howl has cultivated wizarding personas with both warring kingdoms and refuses to fight for either when they demand it, sabotaging the efforts of both sides while protecting innocent lives. Allegorically speaking, this is unfortunately more of a wish-fulfillment fantasy as reactionary elements in the Japanese Diet during the 1960s were able to (sometimes physically) remove opposition to the military alliance and keep Japan embroiled in US Imperialism for the second half of the twentieth century. Standing in for Japan, Howl’s use of violence to oppose violence ends up nearly turning him into the worst monster of all; only love, of course, is able to save him.
Films with astounding visuals have been a Miyazaki/Studio Ghibli trademark from the beginning, and Howl’s Moving Castle is no exception. Stories abound of Miyazaki hand-painting, or at least hand-checking, every frame of each of his films (at exactly two hours, Howl would have about 172,000 frames); the legendary care this master takes is evident throughout, especially in the movement and design of the wizard’s castle and several impressive sequences of Howl himself transforming partially or fully into a monstrous bird. The film’s score is also deserving of special mention here, another masterstroke from frequent Miyazaki collaborator Joe Hisaishi. It struck me during this viewing (having seen several other Miyazaki films scored by Hisaishi) that Hisaishi’s composition overall had the triumphant, epically melodic feel of a John Williams score but with none of the latter’s overbearing pomposity. A haunting solo trumpet melody counterpoints a watershed moment in the film’s final act, perfectly accomplishing the task of film music: enhancing a shot without overshadowing it.
Perhaps the only real flaw of Howl’s Moving Castle is also its most predictable, a romantic subplot in which Sophie, its strong female protagonist (another Miyazaki staple), falls for the brooding, emotionally unavailable, selfish Howl, destabilizing but not completely undermining the feminist appeal of the film. Sophie’s journey or, more accurately, tumble down this particular rabbit hole is full of lessons for its young target audience, as she learns to be her authentic self by embracing the old and ugly appearance she is cursed with and learns to be forthright in pressing the other denizens of Howl’s moving castle (a mouthy fire demon voiced by Billy Crystal and an apprentice magician voiced by a young Josh Hutcherson) into service cleaning and maintaining their home. Perhaps it would have been better for Sophie and Howl to go their separate ways in the end.
Howl’s Moving Castle is currently streaming on HBO Max in its English-dubbed form only.