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Based on the extremely popular {and HILARIOUS} fantasy novel written by Diana Wynne Jones in 1986, Howl’s Moving Castle garnered praise from film critics world wide as one of Hayao Miyazaki’s most colorful and enjoyable animated films. It was nominated for an Academy Award in 2006 as best animated film and has since won numerous other awards including the Osella Award for Technical Achievement at the 61st  Venice Film Festival. Film Critic Peter Travers  praised it stating, “There’s a word for the kind of comic, dramatic, romantic, transporting visions Miyazaki achieves in Howl’s: bliss.” Despite all the wonderful things said about it, there were many people who see this film as Miyazaki’s weakest work.

This was the second Hayao Miyazaki film I ever watched. It is because of it that I became interested in his other works. In fact I would often tell people, if they asked, that it was my absolute favorite film. It seems strange that I am only writing my review for it now. I guess I have put it off because of doubts I had about its genuine mastery {I blame Roger Ebert for that}. Recently however I watched it again, paying special attention to its animation and story, and bought the art book, which contains myriads of original story boards and concept sketches. In it, I came across a reflection written by the supervising animator Kitaro Kosaka, who said something I will never forget:

Although I was impressed by his approach to characters, what really amazed me was his incredible talent as a filmmaker. This film differs from his previous films insofar as the story assumes the perspective of the characters. We did our best to delete an explicit omniscient point of view or explanatory scenes. That’s part of the film’s appeal. The story is packed with stimulating scenes, and watching the story unfold is an enthralling experience for both adults and children. I really thought, ‘This is amazing.’

Despite deep criticisms against it, I took a step back and examined it from an untainted perspective. I recalled the feelings I had when I watched it for the first time when I was seventeen. Starry-eyed and taken aback I had thought to myself “This is magic.” To my relief, I still believe it.

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The story begins in a quaint hat shop where Sophie Hatter works as one of the seamstresses. As the other girls giggle about May Day they spot Howl’s castle moving through the hills. Uninterested, Sophie leaves separately from the others and embarks into town to meet her sister Lettie. However, when she moves to escape the crowds she is stopped by two soldiers who try to bully her into having a drink with them. Suddenly an elegantly dressed blond man steps beside her and playfully removes the soldiers, before assuming the role as her escort. While walking with him, they are pursued by top hatted blob men {Yes blob men} who work for the witch of the waste. They evade them as Howl thrusts them into the air and magically walks her to the top balcony of Lettie’s bakery. This encounter, catches the attention of the witch of the waste, who visits Sophie in her hat shop and changes her into an old woman, who can’t tell anyone she is cursed. From there she leaves her dull life and becomes a cleaning lady in Howl’s castle.

I would rather not spoil this movie for anyone who hasn’t had the privilege of watching it. The plot, though its seems vague in the beginning, takes on a new clarity by the end of the film. In order to fully grasp its story, it is necessary to carefully watch each of the characters because it is told solely from their perspective. There are no long monologues or dramatic discoveries, rather it is as though we are plunged headfirst into their memories. Because the film was organized this way, the character’s physical and psychological changes seem so natural and flow so easily it is hard to even notice they happen. By the end of the film, they are completely different people, not because we finally understand them but because they really have changed exponentially either out of their love for another person or by dramatic events that force them to switch sides.

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Knowing the overall film making process, especially for animated films, completely changes your perspective of Howl’s Moving Castle. This is especially true in the conception of the film’s most dynamic character, the moving castle. Before, I had simply been fascinated by the mysterious way the castle moved. In fact, the first time I saw it I was torn between two conflicting questions: “What on earth is that thing?” and “How did they do it (meaning how did they make it move so intricately)?” Now, it is as if the puzzle pieces have finally come together. In order to make the castle’s incredible movements possible, animators relied on CG effects which effectively put together all the painted pieces of the castle and brought it to life. For even those who don’t like this movie, it is impossible to not stand in awe of such a beautiful animated achievement. They used similar tactics in scenes like the black hole that spread underneath Sophie as she looked on at a younger Howl, and in sweeping background movements as the characters ran or when they were in moving vehicles.

Myazaki-san designed the castle himself and has a knack for creating magical elements in his films in ways that other animators and designers couldn’t possibly do themselves. Who else would have conceived such a perplexing character as the moving castle?

It isn’t strange for essentially non-living buildings or places to become main characters in such stories. For example, in The Hunchback of Notre Dame though the cathedral technically can’t be considered a living, breathing thing it is referred to as a real person (specifically a motherly figure). Often the mood of the cathedral directly reflected those of the characters or intense events such as the execution of the gypsy Esmeralda when it hovered over the pyre angrily, red and menacing because of the fires.

Though such a viewpoint is not as dramatic in Howl’s Moving Castle there are still times where it seems like the almost amphibious castle has a life of its own. Naturally, this is because it has a lifelike structure. It moves on four clawed legs and even has a mouth and eyes.

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As in all Miyazaki-san’s films, his other characters are as simple as they are complex. Never in any of his works will you ever see copy cut-out’s or unoriginal stereotypes. Describing and understanding the characters is almost impossible even after one sees the movie many times. As I have said in my other reviews of his movies, this is because he doesn’t create characters. It is almost as if he is telling stories about real people.

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Sophie in the beginning comes across as detached, sullen and shy, overshadowed by her flamboyant mother and pretty younger sister Lettie. This makes her in no way cruel or unlikable. It is actually quite interesting to see how much she opened up and relaxed when it was only expected that she was plain and un-extraordinary. If anything, Howl’s Moving Castle is a testament that a person’s self-perception not only changes how others see them but who they become. In other words, because she believed that she was plain, boring and of little merit it reflected on how she and others saw and treated her.

What is intriguing is how much she changed when she no longer focused solely on herself. I know this sounds corny, but it is because she fell in love with Howl that she overcame her curse. This was a curse that she had put on herself. The author Catherynne M. Valente put it the best in her book The Girl Who Soared Over Fairyland and Cut the Moon in Two (2013). In quoting the Undercamel from Pluto, her pawless yeti stated, “What others call you, you become. It’s a terrible magic that everyone can do -so do it. Call yourself what you wish to become.” No one really talked about how or when she suddenly became young again. It simply happened and her closest friends accepted the change as if she had only switched outfits. Perhaps this was because they had seen beyond her physical appearance at the person hidden deep inside her.

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Of all the characters, Howl is the one who changes the most subtlety. His soft, nonchalant personality doesn’t dramatically change. Unlike in Jones’ original novel, he is never considered by anyone to really be evil or terrible. Yes it is said in passing, but it isn’t taken seriously. Because the audience first sees him as Sophie’s mysterious, gallant rescuer he is portrayed as the exact opposite. His motives don’t come across as selfish or laden with ulterior motives, rather the best way to describe him is easygoing or carefree. He lives within the bounds of what is convenient and detaches himself from anything troublesome. Like Sophie, it is obvious that he is too focused on himself and the way he looks. He also masks himself to escape from his problems, except he does it through fancy, bright  styles rather than dowdy cloths. It isn’t until the fateful (and side splitting) bathroom disaster when his world comes crumbling down {basically his hair turned orange instead of the usual beautiful blond color he liked and he threw a tantrum}.

Afterwards, the facade is gone and he lets his barrier down. The past terrified him both because of the mistakes he had made with people like Suliman and the Witch of the Waste and also the fateful decision he had made in his youth. Yet, I think that while watching Sophie he finally let go of his fear. He even told Sophie “I am tired of running away Sophie, and now I finally have something I want to protect. It’s you.” In his own way I think that he is an admirable person. He fought against the cruel war and obviously cared about people. All in all, I think of all of Miyazaki-san’s heroes he is the most simple and unassuming.

I wanted to mention the other characters briefly, though they aren’t as important to the main story-line. The main “villian” is obviously the Witch of the Waste. In this film however the witch isn’t killed or banished, rather she loses her magic and becomes a part of their family.Naturally, because American audiences have absorbed stereotypical villian vs. heroe movies for so long it is expected that there be a flashy battle where good triumphs over evil.  Miyazaki-san doesn’t create movies with this mentality. The supervising animator Akihiko Yamashita put it this way:

… if I had directed Howl’s Moving Castle, I think it would have been a war between wizards where Howl would ward off the Witch of the Waste. But Miyazaki wasn’t interested in portraying the witch as evil. His open-minded approach was very inspiring.

His approach doesn’t surprise me because in all his movies I have only ever seen one true blue villain and that was Colonel Moskow from Laputa Castle in the Sky. I think this approach in film-making is needed. True, there are some stories that NEED villains like those in Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) or Pinocchio (1940) but other times, most of the time, it isn’t that easy or wise to label people as evil or good based only on what we see.

The other characters like Markl and Calcifer add a needed charm and buoyancy to the plot and contribute to the plot’s simple magic without being overbearing. They change too by the end of the film  but their’s comes more as a result of Howl and Sophie’s transformation.

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Howl and Sophie’s romance is definitely less dramatic than it is in the book. Jones’ original characters constantly yelled at each other and threw tantrums. At one point, Sophie in a jealous fit poisons a vase of flowers and then goes on a rampage outside of their mansion with a jug of weed killer. This love story is definitely more delicate.

Like Sophie’s transformation, their love story unfolded gracefully and developed almost like a flower opening after a rain shower. By the time Howl takes Sophie on their walk to his childhood cottage, it seems only natural when they walk arm in arm like young lovers through the fields of flowers. It is even less shocking when Howl cries, after Sophie harshly calls herself dull and only good for cleaning, “Sophie, Sophie you’re beautiful” and sadly watches as she shrivels back into an old woman. There is no reason to worry about their future or whether they will be together because they suit one another so naturally. They both have quiet personalities and aren’t forced to change for the other person. Rather, they change because of the other person without even realizing it themselves.

There hasn’t been nor will there ever be a film like this one. Personally, I think that of all his films it is the brightest and it flows with magic only imagined through dreams and childhood fantasies. Laden within this fantastic world are also subtle lessons against war, self esteem and like in many of his other films the power of true love. This kind of love isn’t very dramatic but it is powerful. Why? Because it is real. It is impossible to question its authenticity because it seems so natural and it happens so gradually. In other words, it develops and embeds itself rather than being foolishly grasped or thrust away while the characters are frantically running from yet towards each other.

I find it so strange that so few take animation seriously when it has become one of the most powerful storytelling arts. Only through animation could they have brilliantly told a story such as this one. That is the magic of Miyazaki-san’s true animated masterpieces. He opens for worldwide audiences a window into the spectacular without resorting to petty plots or moral challenging scenes. They are beautifully simplistic and unforgettable.

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I can’t go against the wonderful feeling I have had since I first watched it five or six years ago. This will forever stay one of my favorite films and I believe in its own way that it is a masterpiece. Take it as you will, but remember that sometimes the most brilliant of stories don’t need to shout or scream. Some just unfold like a dream.

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FAVORITE QUOTE:

Sophie: Please. Howl. I’m sure I could be of help to you. {PAUSE} Even though I’m not pretty. . . {PAUSE} and all I’m good at is cleaning. 

Howl: Sophie! Sophie you’re beautiful! 

{Sophie becomes an old woman again} 

Sophie: Well, the nice thing about being old is that you’ve got nothing left to lose. 

SECOND FAVORITE: {I couldn’t resist}

[Howl comes running out of the bathroom, screaming. His hair is now orange]

Howl: Sophie! You, you sabotaged me! Look! Look at what you’ve done to my hair! Look!

Old Sophie: What a pretty color.

Howl: It’s hideous! You completely ruined my magic potions in the bathroom!

Old Sophie: I just organized things, Howl. Nothing’s ruined.

Howl: Wrong! Wrong! I specifically ordered you not to get carried away!

[tragically]

Howl: Now I’m repulsive.

[slumps into a chair]

Howl: I can’t live like this.

[starts sobbing, head in hands]

Old Sophie: Come on, it’s not that bad.

[Howl’s hair changes color to purple, then black]

Old Sophie: You should look at it now, its shade is even better.

Howl: [inconsolable] I give up. I see not point in living if I can’t be beautiful.

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