Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)

First published by EyeforFilm

Moving targets are always the hardest to hit – and so it is that, like the chicken-legged tower at its core that strides through space, leaps through time and shifts its shape according to the whimsical will of its master, Howl’s Moving Castle is an animated construction that defies easy categorisation.

Taking as his starting point the 1986 fantasy novel by Diana Wynne Jones, Hayao Miyazaki has crafted a surrealistic fairytale that represents anime at its very finest – lightning paced, visually stunning, feverishly creative and overrun by a logic all its own, where each scene glides fluidly into the next, yet it is nigh on impossible to see how anything besides pure magic could get the whole thing to fit together.

Following the disappearance of its prince, an unnamed European kingdom is on the brink of war, while on its outskirts there wanders a mobile castle, owned by Howl, a wizard rumoured to steal the hearts of pretty young girls. Sophie, an industrious and somewhat dowdy milliner, has a brief encounter with Howl in (and over) the city’s streets and is then transformed by the Witch of the Waste into an old woman.

Fleeing her home, Sophie helps a scarecrow with a turnip’s head to find its feet and he, in turn, guides her to Howl’s castle, where she ensconces herself as cleaning woman, becoming part of a makeshift family that includes the fire-demon Calcifer, Howl’s young assistant Markl, the scarecrow, and Howl himself, a vain, boyish pacifist as mercurial and elusive as his home. Yet everyone, it seems, is under one spell or another and no one is quite who they seem. With the king’s sorceress Madam Suliman after Howl’s strength for the war effort and the Witch of the Waste after Howl’s heart for herself, nothing will ever be the same again.

Born mid-war in 1941 and son to the man responsible for designing the bullets used in Japan’s Zero fighter planes, Miyazaki has long been a fervent opponent of militarism – Japanese, or otherwise – even famously boycotting the Oscar ceremony, at which he was honoured for Spirited Away (2001), because of his objection to the US-led invasion of Iraq. The Marxist animator’s anti-war stance forms a thematic strand evident in many of his films, from Nausicaa Of The Valley Of The Wind (1984), through Laputa Castle In The Sky (1986) to Porco Rosso (1992) and Princess Mononoke (1997) and, in his latest, Howl’s Moving Castle, war is seen as a blunt instrument used in the inscrutably Machiavellian games of those with too much power for their own, or anyone else’s, good.

The hulking steam-powered battleships and demonic planes that wreak such destruction in the film may be retro-futurist monstrosities straight out of Jules Verne, but there is a strikingly contemporary ring to the complaint made by one central character that the problem with magic bombs is their tendency to hit civilian houses. There is always, it seems, room for today’s realities in Miyazaki’s otherwise timeless fantasies.

Perhaps unsurprisingly for a children’s film made by a 63-year-old man, Howl’s Moving Castle is full of reflections on the relationship between youth and age. Although Sophie’s gender and adolescent status makes her seem a typical Miyazaki protagonist, she is already so alienated from her own youth and beauty that her physical transformation into an old woman requires little corresponding change in her character. Howl is her exact opposite, an adult Peter Pan who refuses to grow up and stop fleeing his problems, while the Witch of the Waste uses magic to make herself seem younger (if not prettier) and when stripped of her powers becomes a wrinkled crone, who babbles as though in second childhood. It might be added that few other films, or indeed filmmakers, would dare take a scene in which two elderly women struggle to climb a staircase and turn it into an extravagant and memorable set piece.

If animation were a medium limited only by the power of imagination, then Howl’s Moving Castle would seem to have no limits at all. It will be viewed with admiration, awe and not a little puzzlement for decades to come.

© Anton Bitel