Tonight (or today, or tomorrow?, well: now) we shall discuss one of Miyazaki’s finest gems and his financially most successful movie to date: Howl’s Moving Castle. Other posts of Miyazaki March can be found by clicking THIS LINK, where you will find my discussion of other Hayao Miyazaki directed features. But now, my dears, let us focus on the Moving Castle of Mr. Magician Howl.
Howl’s Moving Castle followed right on the heels of arguably Studio Ghibli’s biggest critical success – and the one that propelled the Studio and in Miyazaki’s name to new heights. Hitting theaters after Spirited Away, there was a lot of pressure on Howl’s Moving Castle to repeat the success. And so it did. As of today, Howl’s Moving Castle ranks as the most successful Studio Ghibli feature internationally with regards to making bank. Which is rather surprising on the one hand – on the other hand, not so much.
The movie is, like several other Ghibli features, an adaptation, this time of a 1986 novel by Diana Wynne Jones, who approved of the film and thought it to be fantastic, even though she had no input in the films making, which differs significantly from the novel.
When people ask me for a Top 3 Miyazaki movie ranking I’d go with Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke and…yeah. My Top 3 is made up of four movies, because no. 3 is a tie between Porco Rosso and Howl’s Moving Castle. There are a lot of reasons why it could rather be Howl’s Moving Castle, but there are also very few, but very significant missteps that make it less stellar than it could be. Why Porco Rosso has so much going for it to deserve this tie-in is something I will cover in a later post.
That being said, besides Porco Rosso the Top 3 have one thing in common that distinguishes them from many of the other Miyazaki movies (not all, mind you): An epic scope. There is a grandeur to both scenery and stakes that makes these three stand out from the others. It lends them weight and meaning that transcends that of other beautiful movies like Totoro or Kiki’s Delivery Service, which are awesome and beautiful, but there is much less of an emotional ride waiting for us in them.
In that, Howl’s Moving Castle is different, and one of the most ambitious Miyazaki movies. There is war and magic battles, a great love story and the forging of an unlikely family. So many issues are covered, yet there is enough room to squeeze in action at every corner. But let us get to this in orderly fashion, cause orderly fashionistas we are.
I rewatched all the movies for Miyazaki march, and what I found striking about Howl’s Moving Castle is how it feels like a culmination of all the other Miyazaki movies and yet manages to take it a step further. The city that Sophie lives in feels a lot like Kikoro, the city that Kiki chooses for her witch training, right down to the narrow little streets and the presentation of masses of people. There is Porco Rosso in there with Sophie becoming something other than she actually is, an old lady when she is actually a woman in her twenties, but every now and then her appearance changes back and gives other characters glimpses on who is underneath there. There definitely is Nausicaä with the depiction of the flying war vessels and the depiction of the bombings. There are powerful witches and black blob creatures reminiscent of Spirited Away and though it might be a stretch, we can associate the moving castle with Totoro’s catbus. It feels like the folks at Studio Ghibli thought “hey, wouldn’t it be fun if in our next feature we just took elements of all our other features and glue them together with an all new story?”. And then they did just that.
I praise the animation of the discussed feature in basically any Miyazaki March post, but it was with Howl’s Moving Castle that it became really apparent what the difference was between some of the newer ones and others from the 80s and early 90s. There is a depth to the animation that wasn’t there before. Kiki and Porco Rosso, Castle in the Sky and the like are beautiful, but with what seems to be more CGI and also more willingness to experiment there is more depth to rooms and scenery all of a sudden. Distance and proportions seem more lifelike, as if the animation was edging towards 3D. The same holds true for Spirited Away and the most recent one, Arietty, but somehow it really caught my attention here, because even in the first few scenes within the hatter’s shop the rooms seem more dimensional and deeper than they did in features before.
And basically needless, but worth mentioning anyways: There is some magnificent imagery in Howl’s Moving Castle, from the Castle itself to the flying warships, the palace and the houses in Kingsbury. I really liked the star-headed rainbow creatures that Madame Suliman sends after them and that Howl had encountered as a kid. And then there are of course the scenes in the
Alps mountains, with beautiful lakes, snow-topped mountains and the fields of flowers. This is some serious high class animation. Gag on its extravaganza, children.
What I am really conflicted about is an aspect that works to Howl’s Moving Castle’s advantage most of the time, but destroys some of its impact at the very end. I have said it before, and I will say it again: Some things are better left unsaid. Or unexplained. Sure we know that Sophie was cursed and that’s why she inhabits the body of an old lady now, but it’s fine that we never get an explanation as to how it works that sometimes she does no longer. Because that is not only part of the mystery, there is the fun of figuring it out. Of guessing if it is her confidence, the love she feels, or the love she is given that turns her back into the young woman she is. Other elements don’t get an explanation either. Like Markl. What is he doing there? Who’s kid is he? Why does nobody ever ask these questions in the movie itself? But that’s alright. He’s there and rad. And more questions unanswered: Why is Heen so ridiculously awesome? Why do his feet look like that? What’s with the shape of the castle, why does it look like some monster-fish? All these things are fine without explanation. I dare you to make something up in the comments. It’s interesting to think about those things, and probably better than any sort of answer they could have come up with in-movie. But then, well, there are things that need an explanation and don’t get one. And boy, does that suck.
Talking about the ending of course. Well, to be honest, it starts before, because we talk about the war, actually. We never get an explanation why the war is happening. And up until the end it doesn’t really matter, since the point the movie is trying to drive home is that war is irrational anyways and there is no need for all this violence and cruelty. But then one mystery gets solved, surprisingly. The scarecrow is the neighboring country’s prince. Why he was a scarecrow and how the kiss rescued him when it wasn’t true love are really only the minor quibbles. The big mistake in all of this is that it implies that the war was fought because the prince was missing. That is a weak argument for a war and a much too simplified solution as to why governments send their troops to war. But he promises to go home and end it and oh wonder, Suliman sees everyone happy and united and says “call the minister of defense” and we’re led to think, alright now, she ends this war. She labels it even silly. So, this whole war happened because one king was without his son and Suliman just wanted to have a little fun with her magical terror-troupe? That is not only a lame-ass explanation, it is also one that sucks, because it doesn’t make any sense. It offers a solution that feels simple and cheap, partly because it is too rushed and forced (heck, we never knew about the prince, we get to see him for like 2 seconds, and then we’re supposed to care?) and the other part being that it diminishes the impact of the imagery shown before. So the war was maybe not so terrible after all since it really was just some quabble that can be called off like that. This ending is in my eyes the movie’s gravest mistake. It is the reason why Howl’s Moving Castle is not undoubtedly my Top Third (or even #1) favorite Miyazaki movie and it chops off some of the epicness that powers the rest of the narrative.
Oh, whine, whine, I know. I hate the ending with a passion, but even with that Howl’s Moving Castle is one of the best animation features out there and not only one of Miyazaki’s most ambitious, but also most thrilling and beautiful. I may hate a tiny little part of it, but I absolutely adoringly love the rest of it.