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Howl's Moving Castle - (Hauru no ugoku shiro)

dir: Hayao Miyazaki
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Miyazaki is a hallowed name to those of us who’ve seen and loved his animated movies. He is often referred to as the Japanese Walt Disney, but I think that short changes his talent and what he’s accomplished over the span of his career.

At the very least, I can safely say that I don’t await new releases from the Disney empire with anywhere near the anticipation that I await releases from Studio Ghibli. I mean, what crazy person does? I can’t remember the last time Disney released an animated movie that didn’t make me cringe from beginning to end.

They long ago abandoned the idea of movies being about flights of fantasy, or thrilling kids and adults alike with compelling stories and entertaining characters. They decided everything had to represent marketing synergies, meaning if you couldn’t tie-in the Elton John or Billy Joel soundtrack with the Hungry Jack’s marketing and the showbag-quality merchandising, the story wasn’t worth telling. If you couldn’t get the right celebrities to provide the voices, why would you bother, shmendrick?

I don’t know what motivates Studio Ghibli or Miyazaki, but I’m pretty certain it’s not cross-promotional opportunities.

Miyazaki for once works with a story created by someone else (Diana Wynne Jones), but he makes it as fantastical and as transporting as he ever does. Howl’s Moving Castle is a blissful, beautiful film. I don’t know if kids will love it, but I think it’s one of his best yet.

The setting is similar to the one in the other recent “important” animated film, Steamboy by Katsuhiro Otomo, in that it looks like a steampunk England circa mid 1900s with advanced technology, but this is a far better realised story and film.

Sophie is a teenage girl who crosses path with a powerful wizard called Howl, who, quite surprisingly, travels around in a moving castle. As a result of this contact with him, his enemy, the Witch of the Waste, curses her with old age.

Ashamed of her condition, Sophie flees from her family and sets off to find a way to cure herself, I think. I can’t really remember where she was going. But I do remember that the Witch of the Waste puts a further proviso on her which prevents her from being able to tell people that she’s cursed or who cursed her.

Eventually she runs into the moving castle, and is taken inside, where she becomes Howl’s housekeeper. She meets a fire demon called Calcifer, who has entered into a pact with Howl to power the castle, its movement and some of Howl’s magic.

Howl himself is childish, capricious and extremely powerful. With war brewing in the land between the different kingdoms, and his services being called upon by the king, he is more interested in stopping both sides of the conflict. He cares not which side is fighting and for what, he cares more about knocking both of their warships out of the sky.

Sophie, whose age shifts as she interacts with Howl and falls in love with him, does her best to help everyone around her, including Howl’s young ward Markl, and in the end, even her enemies who’ve done her ill. In the end she is the only one that can help save Howl from himself, and protect the realm from destroying itself through petty but apocalyptic wars. As the king says at one point, through magic his palace is completely protected, but it’s the little people who’ll bear the brunt of it.

But what can you do, that’s the nature of war, he asserts. Bloody peasants, I felt like saying to the screen.

Madame Suliman, the king’s powerful sorcerer, who is also Howl’s former mentor, is determined to get Howl onside or neutralised if he’s not fighting on their side. She proves herself a complex antagonist worthy of Sun Tzu and Machiavelli.

All of this is told with the style, attention to detail and leisurely pace that Miyazaki is renowned for. It has a somewhat more conventional structure than most of his other films, but that’s not saying that much. The story structures he usually uses are nothing like what we’re used to in the West. It is still a significantly different experience than what you’d expect from an animated movie in 2005.

It’s almost anachronistic. It’s a different representation of the same idea behind the recent Wallace and Gromit movie which is done with Claymation. To a lot of people, perhaps a few stupid people as well, they’ll argue that there is no point doing the animation in these outdated, old school ways when you can do it all with computers these days.

Well, that’s just bloody rubbish, clearly. Computer generated imagery is used in both of the aforementioned films for different reasons anyway. But the essential point is whether they can entertain, tell their stories in the best manner possible, and look great whilst doing it. And I have to shake my head at the kind of fool that would say Miyazaki’s stuff looks anything less than sublime.

Howl’s Moving Castle, from beginning to end, with the exclusion of the animation for the fire demon Calcifer, just looks thoroughly and utterly beautiful. It perfectly encompasses the inspired expanses of the story, the fantastical madness of the ideas that they come up with, and finds the most gorgeous ways to represent everything that it needs to.

It remains a recognisably Miyazaki film, but Wynne-Jones deserves credit for the wonderful story. Sophie is a delightful character, with a curious ethic of hard work, whose kindness and compassion hold her in good stead with the strange world that she enters. Her good natured adaptability makes her transition to an old woman, which is what she is for the majority of the story, comical at first but ultimately sweet.

It’s a credit to the makers that they can create a film without boo-hiss villains, with an anti-war message, that is wildly inventive and genuinely funny, where they’re so good at what they do that they can make an entertaining character even out of a turnip-headed scarecrow.

Utterly sublime. But only for fans of Miyazaki’s stuff.

I’ve seen a lot of criticism online for this one, especially from fans saying it’s too much of a retread or that it’s incomprehensible and not as good as his recent stuff. I really can’t see it. If anything, I think it’s stronger than Spirited Away, and that’s saying a lot, since I loved Spirited Away.

Be warned, though. If you’ve never seen or liked one of Miyazaki’s films before, you’re probably going to find this an interminable crawl for 130 minutes. He really doesn’t like being rushed, and who can blame him.

8 hundred million people on this planet that wish they were as talented or as genius-like as Miyazaki is out of 10 hundred million

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“What a tacky little hat shop. I've never seen such tacky little hats. Yet you are by far the tackiest thing here.” – Witch of the Waste, Howl’s Moving Castle.

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