Monday, September 25, 2023

Howl's Moving Castle (Hayao Miyazaki, 2004)

Man in a high castle

Hayao Miyazaki's version of Diana Wynne Jones' Howl's Moving Castle  lurches out of mysterious fog right at the start of the film-- a gigantically mutated armored version of the Baba Yaga's chicken-leg house, complete with gun-turret eyes and brassplated tongue. The castle bristles with balconies and smokestacks and batwings (Fish fins? Chinese junk sails?); popped out of one side of its head is a little chapel tipped with crucifix; a brick tail (Anus? Rearward penis?) trails between balljointed legs ending in a door lit by a solitary lamp. It's like Miyazaki had spent a month brainstorming ideas for the castle's look got over a dozen good suggestions (Munchausen whale island, steampunk samurai, flying fortress cyborg) struggled to choose among them hit upon an inspired thought: why not use them all?

Like the castle the film is an encyclopedically monstrous patchwork compendium of his previous work-- the castle moves in the same sliding-plates manner developed for the Ohmu in Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind; clouds and airships loom over grassy hills as they do in Laputa Castle in the Sky; tarry spirits menace hero and heroine the way they did in Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away; a fire demon quips from his grate, much like the cat does in Kiki's Delivery Service. Even some of the aerial battleships recall in design and movement (metal fins or cilia rowing in the air) mechanized versions of some of the more bizarre creatures found in the thousand-page manga of Nausicaa.

What's new is Jones' intricately plotted story of a young girl cursed to be an old woman and the heartless wizard she meets; that and the sense that magic plays a common if occasionally complex fact of life in her world, much as technology does in ours. Miyazaki doesn't include all details; he picks and chooses. Jones' heroine Sophie is plucked whole from the novel, a girl so timid and brown she seems old long before she's cursed with an aging spell; Howl's knotty relationship with his fire demon Calcifer makes the translation intact-- remains, in fact, the heart of the film (in more ways than one) as it was the book.

Miyazaki downplays Sophie's sorcery-- she does talk to objects, but whether they obey her or not is not immediately apparent; when the Witch of the Waste turns her into a ninety-year-old the spell appears to strengthen or fade, but Jones implied as much (if aroused, elder book Sophie calls upon reservoirs of strength she never even suspected she had). The moments when her youth returns seem arbitrary, but I submit they happen when she doesn't feel old or resigned-- when she's at peace with herself (i.e. asleep or in a serene mood), or too worried about someone else (Howl) to exert her poor self-image.

Miyazaki's biggest change is altering the basis of conflict. It's still the twin story of Sophie coming out of her shell and of Howl assuming the mantle of responsibility and commitment (both crucial for young people becoming adults), but what drives the change isn't the Witch of the Waste (she's sidelined midway through) but the war that in Jones' novel merely loomed in the background. In Miyazaki's film the threatening crisis becomes fullblown conflict, and Miyazaki reserves his most spectacular effects for depicting its horrors, from smoldering battleships limping into harbor to night bombings that leave cities aglow like fields of roasting coals (the level of technology is advanced from 18th century in the novel (sailing ships, horse-drawn wagons) to around Second World War, the air raids evoking the London Blitz-- or the firebombing of Tokyo). Instead of a personal antagonist-- a former lover who insists that Howl recognize her claim on him (insisting, in effect, that he grow up)-- Miyazaki gives us a society caught in war fever, where young men and women are forced to choose between the 'responsibility' of fighting for their country-- giving in to the collective madness-- or the more 'immature' alternative of resistance. From the focused threat of a powerful witch Miyazaki shifts to the broader one of a near-fascist regime, desperately recruiting its warlocks and witches to act as monsters hurled against its enemies; shirkers like Howl are hunted down as enemies of the state.

There's a price to pay; Miyazaki has simplified plot twists, dropped or combined characters, lost along the way much of Jones' unique flavor (the way Sophie's point of view departs from or collides with reality; the way magic is cunningly introduced, either as a bit of trickery-- a handful of cayenne tossed in the air before a duel-- or as a line of poetry by John Donne) and understated humor (Howl with nonchalant dignity parading past Sophie in a blouse several hundred feet long). On the other hand he's made a film that speaks urgently to us, raising images of George Bush Jr.'s Iraq War in our minds.

As for the dub voices, it's a pleasure to hear Nolan's Batman (Christian Bale) speaking out as Howl (you here the entitled billionaire Bruce Wayne confidence in some of his line readings); the lovely Jean Simmons play older Sophie; fresh-faced fine-figured Emily Mortimer, she of delicate yet emphatic warble, matching Ms. Simmon's voice as a young girl. Critics didn't like Billy Crystal's Borscht Belt Calcifer, but I did; he goosed his lines the way a good comedian gooses his audience, hard and often. Lauren Bacall runs the gamut from decadent evil to senile childishness as the Witch of the Waste, Blythe Danner is all silky menace as the king's head sorceress, Suliman. 

A word on Sophie: in the novel she's the crochety soul of a young woman made visible flesh that gradually takes over Howl's household; in Miyazaki's film she's a sadder more solemn figure who when cursed suffers the aches and weaknesses of old age till circumstance force her to try harder, as neat a metaphor for the director's own sense of aging as anything he's done (Miyazaki was pleased enough with his work to call this his favorite, at the time of the film's release). Call her his latest incarnation of Nausicaa his warrior princess, only instead of sword and rifle Sophie wields mop and water bucket-- she wins the household and her employer over through sheer force of domesticity, swinging her dust broom high like a katana and knuckling powerful fire demons under with a heavy cast iron pan preparatory to frying breakfast (thick slab bacon, sunnyside up eggs, thick slices of bread). And they all do come to love Sophie: faced with opposition she points out her adversary's good points and seduces them with the spark of her spirit and a bit of sugar-- as Howl points out in the novel (less so on film) she may be a powerful witch after all. 

The ending is problematic--perhaps the first really obvious misstep in Miyazaki's career (skip this paragraph if you plan to see the film). Not talking about all the loose ends suddenly tied up (Jones' novel had a similarly rushed conclusion), but the way Miyazaki has the authorities end the war as if it were a silly game you can call off and not some collective insanity that requires radical therapy for everyone concerned-- the fever madness that creates war can't be casually dismissed like that. Miyazaki's ending has the unintended effect of almost trivializing the tremendous scenes of destruction and carnage he's worked so hard to create. Or-- second thought-- perhaps calling war off quickly is Miyazaki's point, that conflict can come from trivial causes, and if it started and stopped so easily once it can easily start again. 

I may be just saying the glass is half-full when it's half-empty, but the ending doesn't quite wipe out memory of those war scenes, and what it meant for Howl to be caught in the middle acting out his defiance. A wonderful film despite the flaws, full of indelible images-- of Sophie on her lonely stool, working on a hat; of Howl looking half-mad a creature driven to extremes, then looking down at the fallen star nested in his palms; of the castle itself, a rickety, clanking wonder that in terms of charm and sheer amount of bolted-down detail leaves Katsuhiro Otomo's bulkier Steam Castle in the dust. One of the best films of 2005, and easily the most complex most ambitious animated film in recent memory.

5/13/2006, reedited and expanded 9.25.23

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