My first experience with the works of Hayao Miyazaki was with a film called Castle in the Sky, previously reviewed on this site. I was a very young child at the time, so I didn’t understand everything, I just liked the robots and the weird flying city.
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However, I had rewatched it a few years ago, and fell in love with Miyazaki’s work. So, I went to watch another movie, one whose title was similar to Castle in the Sky, named Howl’s Moving Castle. (I originally had mistaken the two, but the dates they were made cleared that up.)
The tone of the two movies is a little different. While Castle In the Sky has threads of a coming-of-age story, Howl’s Moving Castle does not. And while there is a romance in Castle in the Sky, the romance formed in Howl’s Moving Castle is much more mature and realized (and by mature, I do not mean mature in content. There are no steamy scenes seen, nor any of that kind of action even implied. I mean the romance is handled in a much more serious, and deeper, way than it is handled in Castle in the Sky.) Howl’s Moving Castle is also based off of a book by the same name, which it deviates from considerably, while Castle in the Sky is completely original from Miyazaki.
But above all else, Castle in the Sky is an adventure story. It may have hints of a fairy-tale settings, especially with the levitating castle, but other things (Such as the super-destructive robot-golems, and the sky pirates) place it in the category of an adventure movie.
Howl’s Moving Castle is a fairy tale.
That’s clear from the opening shot, where you look across the misty hills of the countryside, and see the gigantic, semi-alive castle walk past on its gigantic chicken-feet (giant metal chicken feet). That is the first sign, but the first hint occurs when the main characters, Sophie and Howl, finally meet.
Sophie, a hatter, is walking to the bakery after work while her town is having a military parade. Instead of fighting her way through the crowds of the parade, she decides to walk through the back alleys, and on her way, she is confronted by two soldiers, who are unpleasantly persistent in making advances on her. A few seconds after these guys confront her, the wizard Howl (though unnamed) appears by her side. With a few magical gestures, he sends the men on a stiff-limbed forced march away, and offers to escort Sophie.
However, things very quickly take a turn for the mysterious, as Howl informs her they’re being followed. It soon becomes obvious that their pursuers are no ordinary people, but strange, sorcerous blob-monsters that ooze out of the walls. Howl and Sophie’s brisk walk turns into a run through the alleys as more of these things pour after them. After they round a corner, more of these blobs appear in the way out, blocking their exit. And then, when all hope seems lost, and they’re about to be overwhelmed by the magical monsters…
…they leap. Howl grabs Sophie, and they soar into the air in one of the most wonder-inducing moments of the movie. They soar up, and then, slowly, they walk through the air, across a bustling city, over colorful crowds, before Howl sets her down on a balcony, before promising to draw the things away.
There is the wonder, the awe and mystery of magic shown, not as a form of arcane and esoteric science as many fantasy novels would show it (I myself can appreciate that style of magic) but as a thing of beauty and wonder, that makes your eyes go wide. That is one aspect of the fairy tale.
There is the darker aspect of fairy tales that must be remembered. For every Sleeping Beauty, there was her curse that put an entire kingdom to ensorcelled slumber, and a wicked fairy with all the powers of Hell at her disposal. For every Snow White, there was a poisoned apple, and a jealous queen who was suddenly no longer the ‘fairest of them all.’ For every Beauty and her Beast, there is the Beast’s curse, and the stubborn pride that earned him that curse. And Howl’s Moving Castle is no exception.
The curse is the hex placed on Sophie, turning her from a pretty, if slightly plain, young woman into a ninety-year-old crone, and the one who does it is the Witch of the Waste, an evil enchantress who targets Sophie after seeing her with Howl. Trying to hide from her family, so they don’t see the results of that curse (part of which prevents her from speaking of it), she flees, uncovering an animated scarecrow named Turnip Head, before stumbling upon the wizard Howl’s titular Moving Castle.
Within, she ends up meeting the ancillary characters, Howl’s apprentice named Marco, and a fire demon named Calcifer (He calls himself a ‘big scary fire demon,’ but he’s too cute). She bargains with Calcifer to break her curse if she can free him from the castle, which imprisons him.
Now, there were a few aspects of this movie that worked wonderfully. A subplot involves a war going on, between two rival kingdoms. Howl fights both sides, trying to end the war himself, risking his own life (and a fate worse than death) to do so. This doesn’t detract from the romantic arc that takes place, and ends up mixing in, where all the story arcs begin to intermingle in such a good way.
Another, that I had briefly touched upon, was the subject of the magic. This is pure fairy-tale sorcery, animated par excellence by Studio Ghibli. Some scenes that stood out involve ‘moving’ the Castle, where, after drawing a symbol in chalk on the ground, Howl casts a spell that causes the room to warp, throwing furniture into existence, reshaping the walls and ceiling until the room around them has changed completely. Another scene involves a battle between two magicians, with one summoning strange, shadowy apparitions that dance in oddly mesmerizing patterns.
The magic has that primal sense of wonder to it, but has its own rules, though not as well defined as the works of, say, Brandon Sanderson (who I have read quite a bit of). The lack of definition allows for a sense of wonder and open-ended possibility, the kind that permeates the fairy-tale wizard. One scene, where Sophie enters Howl’s bedroom, had shown him hoarding all these wondrous devices, and you were never offered an explanation as to what any of them did (except for one device, and then Howl only said it detected someone was looking for them). That only added to the mystery and wonder of the strange arts that Howl, and others, had mastered.
The final aspect I liked was the ending. There was a moment where you could have said, ‘They lived happily ever after,’ and you wouldn’t be wrong. But instead of being overly-saccharine and unrealistic, it is the natural end result of the story. A villain (as there are several) is redeemed. Love triumphs when all hope seems lost. And they lived happily ever after.
A quick note. This is considered one of the lesser Miyazaki films. I have a special liking to it, as my own stories often involve wizards and magic, and I understand that his other films, such as Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke are much better. I understand, but because of the visuals and the subject (wizards and magic) this remains one of my favorite films.
In short, definitely recommended for any Miyazaki fan, as with the rest of his works.