Reviews of Howl’s Moving Castle (1986) and related work

Howl’s Moving Castle (1986Text)

Diana Wynne Jones (writer).

Read in Swedish.

References here: “Mother of Invention” (2018).

text fiction

Howl’s Moving Castle (2004Moving picture, 119 minutes)

Suzuki Toshio (producer), Miyazaki Hayao (writer-director).

A plain young woman named Sophie questions her career choice of millinery, though it was her father’s trade. A large, irregular structure is spotted walking near her town, prompting gossip about the selfish wizard Howl and his hunt for pretty girls. A brief meeting later, a witch who wants Howl to herself curses Sophie to bring the beautiful wizard a message. The curse instantly ages Sophie into the body of 90-year-old, and a terrible war is brewing.

A baroque secondary-world fantasy on a technological level—including magic—reminiscent of WW1. A loose adaptation. The visual spectacle is greater than in any previous Miyazaki movie, amply aided by computers, but no other Miyazaki movie is instead centered so firmly on romance, up to and including kissing and constructing a family unit by non-biological means.

Environmentalism takes less than a back seat. The Nausicaä-esque human bird motif is tied to bestial belligerence and self-destruction: a fascinating reversal of symbolism indicating that Miyazaki is not becoming a caricature of himself with age. The utopian Alpine meadow is such a tame and economically marginal synthesis that it is less likely to inspire a love of nature than to mesh with old homilies on character, like this antithesis by Montaigne:

She has virtue as her goal, which is not set atop a steep, rugged, inaccessible mountain. Those who have approached virtue maintain, on the contrary, that she is established in a beautiful plain, fertile and flowering, from where—to be sure—she sees all things beneath her; but you can get there, if you know the way, by shady, grassy, sweetly flowering roads, pleasantly, by an easy, smooth slope like that of the celestial vaults.

The pageantry of more supernatural frivolity persists but there is greater Earthsea-like depth and coherence to magic here than in Spirited Away (2001) or Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989). The concluding nod to fairytale logic is a good joke, and it’s plausible to view the swift termination of the war as a symptom of a pre-nuclear European martial mentality like Montaigne’s, so it’s not all sunshine. The plot is hardly profound, but more serious than Jones’s original.

It’s a splendid parade of Miyazaki’s cheerful favourites, easily interpreted as a celebration in a very wide sense. Countless parallels can be drawn to his earlier movies. This is certainly not Ghibli’s best film, nor the one most relevant to real-world problems, but it is a glorious marriage of modern animation and the mind of a master.

References here: Ghibli movie titles, “I’ve Always Wanted to Create a Film About Which I Could Say, ‘I’m Just Glad I Was Born, so I Could Make This’” (2005), Mary and the Witch’s Flower (2017).

moving picture adaptation Ghibli animation Japanese production fiction