Screened as part of NZIFF 2005
Spectacular, stormy, mobile, murky, lovely, and in love with the everyday, Howl’s Moving Castle, the latest film by the great Japanese animator Miyazaki Hayao, is that very rare thing, a story with an old lady as its heroine.
Sophie is 18 and working in her mother’s millinery shop. She thinks her life is passing her by. Then, one evening, the shop is visited by an unpleasant, cursing customer and Sophie wakes up the following day to find that, indeed, her life has passed her by, and she’s been transformed into a 90-year-old. So what does Old Sophie do? She runs away from home to seek her fortune!
Sophie ends up keeping house for the beautiful and heartless wizard Howl. Howl’s castle is a giant conglomeration of soot-stained masonry, gingerbread cottages, cogs, wheels and crankshafts, which thunders, clanks and fumes its way through the storm battered and mist-wracked mountains of a country that seems to incorporate Welsh fishing villages, Japanese marshlands and the land around Alsace. As this country descends into war, with towns burning, and blitzed by giant floating dreadnoughts, Howl loses himself in the fiery darkness sometimes to be found on the other side of the castle’s kitchen door. Sophie tries to maintain order. She cooks and cleans, and cares for the family she’s found – one depressed, tantrum-throwing wizard; a talking fire; a little wizard’s apprentice; an eerie, but gallant, hopping scarecrow; a fat, breathless dog; and a senile witch who still has an eye for nice young men.
This film is a happy marriage of two fine imaginers of magic. Novelist Diana Wynne Jones’ feeling for fable is complemented by Miyazaki’s delight in detail. The film’s characters are under enchantments, and the enchantments feel true. Especially that of its heroine, who seems to be troubled by a unique form of Body Dysmorphic Disorder and, in the final third of the film, changes on a sliding scale from radiant youth, to a robust middle age, to rickety but feisty old age, depending on how well she’s coping with the demands made of her courage and compassion. Sophie’s time in the moving castle teaches her to stay still, hold fast and be firm in her purpose of making some reciprocal demands of life – like love.
This spectacular, funny, beautiful film is also strange, mysterious and abrupt in its resolution. Like a very vivid dream it defies reason and is perhaps best compared to one of the stars that falls into the marsh near Howl’s childhood home – a thing to be caught and taken in, where it will set fire to your heart. — Elizabeth Knox