Howl’s Moving Castle (Hayao Miyazaki, 2004, Japan) AKA Spirit in the Sky
A cheshire-grinning cat turns into a flying bus. A WW II Italian flyboy morphs into a crimson-coloured porcine aviator. The corpses of a herd of gigantic wart hog Gods pile upon each other like death camp victims. People who turn a casual glance the way of the works of the world’s greatest animator, Harao Miyazaki, often find things so far outside their ken that they are tempted to dismiss it all as the arbitrary hallucinatory emanations of an inscrutable animator. However, a deeper look will show that running through all, even the most surreal, of Miyazaki’s work is an abiding humanism as well as a deep-seated belief in the sanctity of life on this planet in all its forms. Howl’s Moving Castle does nothing to detract from this legacy, and while it may not be first rate Miyazaki—it’s cluttered narrative occasionally breaks the dreamy mood that is the animator’s signature—it is nonetheless a gorgeous, life-affirming piece whose anti-war message is particularly timely.
Typical of Miyazaki, the film is crafted around a female hero whose love dramatically alters the world around her. Sophie, a responsible young lady of 18 who runs her mother’s hat shop, sublimates her desires and dreams for familial duty. However, when she is whisked away by a wizard named Howl, whose place of residence is one of the film’s many delightful creations, she finds herself transformed in the most literal way, which proves quite a challenge to her growing feelings of affection for the suddenly much-younger wizard. The film’s love story is certainly not run of the mill, and has a certain superficial weirdness to it, given that Sophie, cursed with premature age by a mean-spirited Witch of the Waste (Lauren Bacall) is old enough to be the boy’s grandmother. However, it is as an aged crone that Sophie works hard to put Howl’s world in order, and provide him with the necessary guidance to achieve the sort of appreciation of life that she has found now that she is a much older woman. This unlikely romance contrasts the attractive but flaw-riddled young hero, who is uncertain, angry and predatory, with a love interest who is intelligent and loving, but covered in wrinkles. Just as Howl must accept and embrace HIS Truth, Sophie’s rediscovery of her youth has to be metaphorical before it can become real.
The film’s titular abode is a creation of the early industrial era, replete with churning pistons and belching steam, while boasting some sort of steroidal mammalian animating the mechanism. This ambulatory abode wanders the fog-riddled and vaguely Victorian/Edwardian countryside in an attempt to avoid detection by roaming air squadrons while simultaneously seeking out beautiful girls, whose hearts the owner apparently likes to consume. The war-time setting allows Miyazaki to make some quietly trenchant observations about using martial means to resolve conflicts, a timely topic in much the same way that environmental concerns inform Princess Mononoke and fears about neuclear power underlie the story in Nausicca, the Valley of the Wind.
To put Miyazaki’s adaptation Diane Wynne Jones’ novel into a familiar context, Sophie’s journey is reminiscent of Dorothy’s in The Wizard of Oz, right down to the scarecrow and dog companions, with some Alice in Wonderland surrealism stirred in for fun. However, it is in the attempt to juggle the details of the plot of Ms. Jone’s novel that Miyazaki sometimes hamstrings his natural impulse to make cinematic opium out of celluloid. While Howl's Moving Castle spends a bit too much time and energy attempting to create a recognizable, if intricate, narrative, Mayazaki's film is at its best when painting a portrait of a world of enchantment and romanticism, where true love trumps the world’s material and martial concerns.
Behind the story’s magical façade, there is some serious sermonizing going on. This is a place where wizards can betray their powers by selling them out those who wage war, and once done, can never return to their former selves. Ever-present is the primary importance of revering life, and respecting your power over this world, as well as a warning about the dangers inherent in taking it for granted. Once you give yourself over to such a death impulse, as many wizards in the film do, and subsume your self to the War Machine, there ain’t no turning back.
Those who wonder if Miyazaki’s convoluted, complex and ambiguous world, with its sometimes unpleasant heroes and always-redeemable villains, is accessible to children, I would argue that those who have read (or had read to them) Grimm’s Fairy Tales, or have been steeped in Miyazaki’s other films, will find little to concern them. Miyazaki’s essential hopefulness, his belief in the power of love to overcome all obstacles, his stout contention that we can save our world from the forces of disintegration through sacrifice and commitment, are things that most children have heard and seen before and will have little trouble buying into.
In order to reach a wider North American audience, the film, like Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke before it, has been dubbed, and other than the unfortunate casting of the irritating Billy Crystal as the pivotal fire demon Calcifer, the vocal work of the rest of the actors, including Jean Simmons and Emily Mortimer as Sophie, Lauren Bacall as the Witch of the Waste and Christian Bale as the troubled titular character, is uniformly commendable.
In his remarkably accessible work, The Re-enchantment of the World, Morris Berman argues that the only real hope for mankind is to realize that our world is not there merely to be exploited for our material benefit, but to be revered as a holy place, full of magic and divinity. I can’t help but feel that every film Miyazaki makes helps contribute in some small way to this growing realization, that his work is, in its own way, a small miracle that may lead one day to an even greater one, the salvation of a planet in crisis.