Safely Surreal

A review of Hayao Miyazaki's Howl's Moving Castle

Hayao Miyazaki makes that rare kind of animated movie that both children and adults love. Considered one of the greatest writer-directors in Japanese cinema and one of the finest animators ever, Miyazaki is the subject of much critical buzz, not only for his Academy-Award winning Spirited Away but for the recent English language debut of his latest film, Howl’s Moving Castle.

Like Brad Bird, writer and director of The Incredibles and The Iron Giant, Miyazaki refuses to simply charm or humor his audience’s parents, but he also refuses to forget that animated films are primarily directed at children. Miyazaki takes this commitment one step further than Bird, however. His imagery is remarkable for its distinct vividness, its quiet humor, and its seemingly impossible ability to blend subconscious imagery in a way that fascinates rather than frightens.

The opening frames of Howl’s Moving Castle feature only a deep gray mist and the sounds of mechanized whines and clicks. After what seems like an eternity for a kids’ movie, a sloppy, clunky mess of a castle literally walks out of the fog, its misplaced bricks and windows perched atop four chicken legs. The image feels completely surreal and yet utterly in keeping with the film’s childlike logic: if a castle is going to move, it might as well walk, right? Before we get a good look at it though, airplanes come flying in and the castle steps right back into the mist. The message is clear: there are secrets here that only people who believe in walking castles can understand.

Animation is the perfect form to tell these secrets, and children are their ideal audience. In Miyazaki’s films, people are always changing from one thing to another, kids are always standing up to evil witches, and people deathly afraid of falling just keep learning how to fly. These are stories that adults may find beautiful but only kids can truly understand; they have imaginary friends, after all, because they haven’t yet learned that their imagination is only partially real. Luckily, neither has Miyazaki, and while we are watching his films, neither have we.

The story of Howl’s Moving Castle is simple enough. Howl, a dashing and strong young wizard saves the shy but self-possessed Sophie from some soldiers during the war that’s ravaging their country. She quickly falls in love with him, but is then cursed by her bitter and much older rival, the Witch of the Waste, aging Sophie from 20 to 90 and also rendering her unable to discuss anything about the curse. She wanders into the wasteland beyond town, eventually finding the moving castle, where the old woman gets a job as the cleaning lady. For Sophie, the nice thing about being old is that she’s no longer scared of anything. As a result, she easily befriends the fire demon who powers the house, the young wizard apprenticed to Howl, and even Howl himself, whom she loves with both an old woman’s maternalism and a young girls’ passion.

Both Sophie and Sen, the main character of Spirited Away, are plucky young women remarkable both for their stubbornness and their earnest desire to forgive. Nearly everyone offends Sophie at first, but, having developed the patience of an old woman, she quietly accepts the faults of others, inviting them all, even the Wicked Witch of the Waste, into the ever-growing family that lives in the castle that walks. She cannot forgive, however, the war that is gradually destroying all the land and for which Howl turns himself into a fierce bird-of-prey every night. Why the war is being fought and against whom is never really clear—perhaps as a parallel to the senselessness of war in general.

When some bad wizards try to break into the castle while Howl is away, a child in the audience yelled at the screen, “Close the door!” I felt this same panic, though I knew Sophie would close it in time. Children at their most innocent are able to fear and trust simultaneously, just as Sophie is able to trust Howl as they walk through the air after they first meet. It is the mark of Miyazaki’s talent that he captures this innocence we all search for as we face the world: we are both afraid of falling and yet nearly always able to fly.

Like Grimms’ fairy tales or ancient myth, Miyazaki’s films do follow certain patterns–there are good guys and bad, a journey to be made, friends to be found and relied upon. But unlike the lazy, cookie-cutting writing kids’ movies usually wind up with, Miyazaki does not stop there. It is the small choices these characters make along their way, who to forgive, who to trust, where to go when you do not know what to do, that are the unpredictable, authentic representation of every child’s journey to adulthood. Who would expect Howl to suddenly throw a temper-tantrum because his hair has been dyed the wrong color, and who would then expect his despair to cause his body to slowly melt to slime and the forces of darkness to be summoned to the house? Well, nobody really, yet we all sort of suspect that Sophie will take care of it. And she does. Just as we know before we even see it that Howl recognizes Sophie for who she is, that he can fix Sophie’s curse, and that they will be in love. We even know the war just has to end. In Miyazaki’s world, it’s getting there that’s scary, even if it’s also beautiful. Sounds a lot like growing up.