Japanese title: Hauru no Ugoku Shiro

Slated for the summer of 2004, and next in line for release by Studio Ghibli after The Cat Returns (Neko no Ongaeshi), Howl's Moving Castle will be directed by the master of Japanese animation himself, Hayao Miyazaki.

Miyazaki's decision to direct is recent, however. Originally, Mamoru Hosoda, best known for his work with Toei Animation doing Digimon, was hired. He would have been the first person to direct a Ghibli film who wasn't either Miyazaki, Takahata or another in-house employee. By December 2002, however, he had quit, having been unable to provide a concept for the movie that satisfied Studio Ghibli, and Miyazaki took the helm.

Miyazaki has attempted retirement several times before, as well as trying to delegate the major tasks involved in film production to others. Inevitably, however, his involvement with a film ends up being very hands-on. As much of a joy as it is for fans to learn that he will be directing, the process will likely be very taxing, perhaps pushing him to a permanent retirement. We'll have to see.

The story itself is based on a book of the same name written by British author Diana Wynne Jones. The heroine, Sophie, lives with her step-mother and two step-sisters after the death of her father. She remains at home while her step-sisters are sent off to secure their futures. This being a fantasy novel, the first goes to learn magic while the second takes an apprenticeship at a bakery. Neither, unfortunately, is satisfied with her lot, and they cast a spell to switch places. Sophie, upon discovering this, is silenced by an evil witch for reasons unbeknown to the reader. She winds up aboard the titular moving castle, run by the benevolent yet clumsy wizard Howl, and powered by the fire-demon Calcifer.

What I'm most eager to find out is what sort of demographic Miyazaki will be targeting with this movie. He has a habit of making each of his films with a particular age group in mind. Spirited Away, for example, was aimed at ten year-old girls. Naturally, that didn't prevent everyone else from enjoying it as well; all the same, his choice usually gives a distinctive tone to his work, and the story itself rarely provides any clues as to what it will be.

As far as I'm concerned, Hayao Miyazaki's films have only gotten better and more refined as time goes by. I'm looking forward to this one.

The inestimably valuable Nausicaa.net


Howl's Moving Castle (2004)

Movie fans everywhere rejoiced to hear that Japanese master animator Hayao Miyazaki was putting off retirement one more time to personally oversee the animation of the latest Studio Ghibli film, Howl's Moving Castle, based on the novel of the same name by noted British fantasy writer Diana Wynne Jones.

From the opening scene, the audience can have no doubt they are watching the work of one of the most brilliantly creative minds in the world today, as the indescribably wondrous moving castle shambles across the screen, cobbled together out of all manner of odd architectural elements, replete with smoking stacks, whirring gears, and spinning flywheels, and propelled by four robotic chicken legs as if Baba Yaga's house met the Industrial Revolution. To top it all off, the castle's various garrets, portholes, and cupolas bear a remarkable resemblance to a face, which shifts and shudders to reflect the mood of the characters. The moving castle is the film's most jawdroppingly imaginative creation, and indeed is surely one of the most wonderful contraptions ever to be projected upon a movie screen. Unfortunately, however, the rest of the movie has some trouble matching up.

As is usual for Miyazaki, the movie follows the story of a young heroine in a world almost like our own but suffused with subtle but pervasive strains of naturalistic, almost elemental magic. In this case, the twist is that young Sophie is drawn away from her ordinary life working in a hatter's shop by a witch's curse that turns her into a 90-year-old woman. Her quest to reverse the curse leads her to the wandering castle and its quirky inhabitants - the fire demon named "Calcifer" that powers it, the apparently friendly but mute animated scarecrow that follows it around, the boy apprentice Markyl who lives there, and of course, the castle's master, the dashing young wizard Howl, who has mighty powers but is troubled by personal demons.

The plot is complicated by trouble brewing on all sides. As the roving castle wanders through the mountains, two neighboring nations are jingoistically preparing for war with marching soldiers, cheering crowds, and mighty battleships drawn in the style of World War I imagery but which Miyazaki openly admits was inspired by the present-day Iraq War. Meanwhile, Howl is being chased by the maleficent and corpulent Witch of the Wastes and is being hounded by the governments of the two warring nations, who will stop at nothing to secure his magical services for their causes, even if they have to use force.

As always, Miyazaki's plot and pacing are idiosyncratic and unconventional. He clearly feels completely unconstrained by the storytelling conventions that less creative filmmakers fall back upon. The foremost example is Miyazaki's decision to tell a story about a heroine who acts and behaves like a 90-year-old for most of the film, and indeed, some of the film's most moving moments are the silent visual meditations on just how it feels to be really, really old, a condition for which Miyazaki shows a remarkable sensitivity and understanding. As the tale unfolds, Miyazaki crafts a delectable puzzle box of interlocking mysteries and loose ends, that gradually build tension and suspense that keep the viewers leaning forward for the next revelation.

But perhaps the puzzle box is too well crafted, because it is rather disappointing when all the loose ends are suddenly wrapped up into a tidy, simple solution over the course of about five minutes at the end of the film, in a break from Miyazaki's usual fondness for deeply ambiguous endings. While the story is always interesting, and has its share of memorable moments and meditations on social issues and the human condition, it never approaches the depth of some of Miyazaki's past masterpieces, such as Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, and Nausicaa. Moreover, while the movie delivers the expected feast of stunning visuals, other than the amazingly original moving castle, much of the other imagery will seem familiar to Miyazaki fans, especially the airships which seem to pop up in every other movie he makes.

Howl's Moving Castle is certainly not Miyazaki's best film. Nevertheless, it is truly a tribute to his genius and the magnificence of his previous work that a film this good could be considered a disappointment. Compared to virtually any other animated feature by someone not named Hayao Miyazaki, it is breathtakingly beautiful film with a refreshingly original story and more emotional depth than five or ten lesser works, and is a pure delight to watch.


Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Screenplay: Hayao Miyazaki
Original Score: Joe Hisaishi

Voices (Hit-and-miss Disney English Dub):

Young Sophie - Emily Mortimer - so-so
Old Sophie - Jean Simmons - excellent
Howl - Christian Bale - does the job
Witch of the Wastes - Lauren Bacall - wonderful
Calcifer - Billy Crystal - his Catskills schtick is way off base for this film
Markyl - Josh Hutcherson - solid
Madam Suliman - Blythe Danner - reasonably good

In the land of Ingary, where such things as seven-league boots and cloaks of invisibility really exist, it is quite a misfortune to be born the eldest of three. Everyone knows you are the one who will fail first, and worst, if the three of you set out to seek your fortunes.

Sophie Hatter was the oldest of three sisters.

A children's/young adult fantasy novel by Diana Wynne Jones. One of my favorite of Jones' books, although not nearly as popular as her Chrestomanci books.

The story starts out shortly after the death of Sophie's father. Sophie's mother finds that she can't afford to keep all three of her daughters at home; she sends the youngest, Martha, out to apprentice to a respectable witch a few valleys over. The middle sister (the pretty one), is sent to apprentice at the local bakery. And Sophie, being the eldest, stays at home, apprentice to the hat shop where she had worked all her life. Sophie doesn't mind this, but she quickly becomes something of a shut-in, spending all of her time working on the hats, and spending more time talking to the hats than to other people. The hat business prospers, and Sophie's hats gain a reputation for being special -- so much so that they draw some unwanted attention.

At this time there are some evil witches and wizards running about in kingdom; most notably the Witch of the Waste and Wizard Howl (who eats young girls' hearts). One day the Witch of the Waste stops by the hat shop, apparently under the impression that Sophie has been bespelling the hats she sells. She declares Sophie's hats to be rubbish, but just in case, she also curses Sophie, turning her into and old woman, with the added burden of not being able to tell anyone what has happened to her.

Sophie decides that she must run away from home before her mother returns and finds her as an old hag. She packs up some provisions and heads for the hills. But when nightfall comes, she finds that she is nowhere near the next town, lost high in the hills, and is very tired and cold. Luckily(?), as she's trudging through the hills, she comes upon Howl's magic castle floating slowly across the moorland. It's dark and foreboding, but it's also billowing smoke, which means a warm fire inside. And Howl only eats the hearts of young girls, right? She decides to risk stopping in for the night.

As it turns out, Howl is not interested in eating Sophie's heart, and allows her to stay on as his housekeeper. Howl's fire demon, Calcifer, also wants her to stay -- he even promises that he'll lift the spell on her... when she breaks the spell binding him to Howl.

Sophie finds that living in Howl's castle isn't too bad; she likes Howl's apprentice, Michael, and Howl seems more self-centered and cowardly than dangerous. The castle has one door, but it opens to four different places, depending what color you set it to - the moving castle, a house in Kingsbury (the capital city), one in Porthaven, or a mysterious black force field that Howl forbids anyone from going through. Sophie also has access to seven-league boots and cloaks of disguise, which she uses to try and protect her sisters (at least one is in danger from Howl). Many adventures ensue.

More I will not say for fear of spoiling the story.

Howl's Moving Castle could qualify as comic fantasy, although comic on the same level as Harry Potter rather than the Discworld books. It's a good, fun read, but it's a little long, and there's a lot going on by the end of the book, so you'll need a good attention span. It's probably most appropriate for kids 12 years of age and up (and up and up). I highly recommend it.

First published in 1986 by Greenwillow books, although the most recent edition was published by Eos in 2001. The sequel, of sorts, to Howl's Moving Castle is Castle in the Air.

The Movie:

This section contains spoilers for both the book and the movie; the writeups above also cover the movie in considerably more detail, although without reference to the book. (To summarize without spoilers, the book is better.)

There are a number of differences between the book and the movie, perhaps the biggest being that while the book is set in a pre-industrial fairytale-type setting, the movie is in a Victorian steampunk setting. In the movie there is also a terrible war raging, with bombs dropping and monsters flying through the sky. The movie also cuts out the black door leading to an alternate universe (probably a good thing). Instead it leads to the past and future (a bad thing). Other major differences include that in the movie Howl regularly transforms into a giant flying feathered monster; Sophie has no magic; wizard Suliman also takes on the role of Mrs. Pentstemmon (Howl's old teacher), and is a woman, and is bad; the witch of the waste isn't particularly bad, in the end.

Aside from having changed a tremendous amount of the story, the movie isn't too bad. It is certainly a chintzy Disney anime film, but not a bad one. It would be easier for me to enjoy if I wasn't so attached to the book; a lot of the cool effects of the movie were lessened because my first thought was "well, that's not right!". And I do believe that much of what is in the movie is a step or two down from the book. I would not recommend going out of your way to see the movie (although I would recommend going out of your way to read the book).

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