Is there a better animation director out there than Hayao Miyazaki? Could there be? It seems to me, for many reasons, that he's the best in the world at what he does. I will always jump at the chance to see one of his movies. Yet, even though I think I know what to expect, he still surprises me.
His latest picture is called Howl's Moving Castle , and it sports an amazing visual technique accompanied by a story of indescribable, childlike strangeness. The tale begins with a young woman named Sophie, working at a hat shop in an unnamed European-looking country that seems part old-fashioned turn-of-the-century and part futuristic. It's a world in which ordinary people mix freely with monsters and wizards, all of them menaced by the shadow of a meaningless war between two kingdoms, with huge airborne war machines raining bombs periodically on the cities and towns.
Sophie is transformed into an old woman by the spell of a crone called The Witch of the Waste, for reasons that--like much of the developments in this complex story--are not clear right away. In any case, she runs from her familiar home in fear and shame, only to find herself (through similarly convoluted means) in a castle run by a handsome young sorcerer named Howl. The castle is a big claptrap affair that moves about on spindly mechanical legs. Furthermore, the entrance opens into different countries and realms depending on the turn of a dial above the doorway. Howl has some sort of dark secret, and he also has a young apprentice named Markl, and a fire-spirit named Calcifer who helps protect the castle.
Sophie settles into being an old woman--she seems to like the personal freedom the age affords her, although she does her share of grumbling--and goes about cleaning up the castle and taking care of Howl. They are all plunged into perilous adventures involving a plot by a sorcerer queen to defeat Howl.
Believe me, the plot is so weird that I haven't even begun to explain it. There's also a bouncing scarecrow with the head of a turnip, and a dog that wheezes when it tries to bark. The tale doesn't have to make perfect sense, because it has the endlessly inventive quality of folklore. We've become accustomed to having everything explained for us in children's films (and in grown-up ones, too) but if you read The Brothers Grimm, or other fairy tales, you'll see that the characters and stories are often ambiguous and elemental, carrying the weight of unspoken symbolic meanings, and following a logic of dreams and the unconscious rather than the orderly progression of rational thought. This is how Miyazaki 's films feel, and it's a key to their power, even when the stories are adapted from other sources (this one's based on a British teen novel by Diana Wynne Jones).
The animation, with its hand-drawn look and mind-boggling depth of detail, is spectacular. There's so much visual splendor that at times it almost seems like overload. The ideas are remarkably adult, including a war theme that gets pretty scary. The war is abstract enough not to be horrifying (we don't see dead bodies) but the sense of powerlessness before the onslaught of the huge bombers is rather disturbing--this is not a film for toddlers.
There's also an emphasis on ordinary aspects of life, such as aging and housework, that is completely engaging. The fact that the heroine spends most of the picture as a little old lady certainly makes this story one-of-a-kind. Another interesting aspect is that everyone in the film is flawed and makes mistakes. The combination of the magical/fantasy elements with this sense of fallibility, and the attention to little everyday things, lends the film an oddly humorous tone, not the usual go-for-the-laugh strategy of the kiddie flick, but a seasoned humor born from the experience of effort, setbacks, and challenges that are sometimes (but not always) overcome. The picture takes emotions seriously, and it respects the ability of children to experience profound feelings of sadness and loss as well as joy.
The Disney stateside release features celebrities voicing the main characters. For the most part, this is fine, with Christian Bale doing fine as Howl, Jean Simmons impressive as the older Sophie, and Lauren Bacall a pure delight as The Witch of the Waste. The one exception is Billy Crystal as Calcifer--his familiar style and mannerisms kept yanking me out of the story, although at least the script doesn't indulge any self-referential shtick. Miyazaki never looks over the shoulders of kids to wink at adult viewers--all the audience is on the same level, and that's part of the sense of respect that I get from his movies.
Coming away from Howl's Moving Castle, I was struck by a sense of profligate richness, an overflow of invention that seems wild and untamed. It's a dazzling journey, and I think it's time to recognize Miyazaki as one of the world's major artists.
©2005 Chris Dashiell