Entertaining, challenging and terrifying, Howl’s Moving Castle may not be the perfect film ever released, but it’s just one of the best of the year.
Entertaining, challenging and terrifying, Howl’s Moving Castle may not be the perfect film ever to hit, but it’s just one of the best of the year. The film opens with the eponymous fortress of the title parting from the Mist of Waste in an easy, yet stunning introduction. The rook doesn’t do anything in this opening sequence but moves, but boy, it attacks! A complex conglomerate of different elements working collectively in a frenzy of kinetic energy, this fortress is almost Rube Goldbergian in its complexity, setting the stage properly for a rich tale of magic to come. This castle belongs to the self-absorbed howl witch, who wanders Waste in its fortress in vain hopes of avoiding involvement in her country’s long war with neighboring countries.
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During one of his short forays right into the metropolis, Howl pauses to save a young woman named Sophie from the unwanted attention of a pair of Amorus soldiers. This, sadly, brings Sophie into the eyes of the vengeful witch from Wastewater, which turns Sophie right into a girl ninety years earlier out of grief for Howl. Determined to break the curse, Sophie limps into the Waste hoping to find a witch or witch prepared to bring her back to her previous age. She finds herself hired as a housekeeper for Howl and his pig-pen from the fort and then, as they say, the fun really begins.
Miyazaki infuses a film with two widespread main themes into his other films: condemnation of the futility of war, and religion in the transformative energy of love. The ongoing fighting – although not defined in the narrative – continues to grow and gradually draws even Howl into the fray, despite his best efforts. The winged airship fleet battles high above the ground, and their bombardment of the cities is so decisive and graphic that they call for mind scenes from Miyazaki collaborator Isao Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies. The form-changing witches who had started fighting earlier in the conflict had lost all traces of their humanity, turned strange, flew like a toad, and Howl himself risked shedding himself into the terrifying fowl-of-prey form. It was Sophi who intervened, saving Howl from his desperate self-destruction, and their emotions with each other grew despite the obvious difference in age. It was a state that would be acquainted with anyone who had seen Miyazaki’s previous attempts, but even so the director managed to pull him off for the most part.
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The struggle, undefined, lacks the substance that makes the conflicts in Nausicaä of the Valley of the Winds, the Castle in the Sky or Princess Mononoke so effective. There was a lot of flash and bang, sure, but not the real meaning behind the carnage. When Madam Suliman recognizes the futility of the conflict and brings her immense power into the game to try to end it, she suddenly turns into the biggest villain of the pieces – in retrospect – to perpetuate the struggle for a long time.
However, as the film moves like this, it is not with some significant drawbacks. Most vexing is the truth that while every magical being that Sophie meets admits she’s under a spell, not one of them makes an effort to help free her. And despite this lack of assists, because the film imposed on the curse seems to lose its energy over Sophie at random intervals, an increase that escapes the character’s attention and cannot be explained by the film.
There are many working on this film. Howl’s inhabited world might easily be an analogue of early 20th century Austria or the various European imperial states, fertile with pomps and circumstances. The steampunk confection of tech and magic is a dizzy mix, and the stability engulfing it feels solid and precise.