Ghibli’s latest joint, THE SECRET WORLD OF ARRIETTY, is coming stateside soon. In anticipation of that, I figured it’d be fun to catch up on as many titles from the studio as I can, since I know my exposure’s woefully incomplete (to count, I’ve only watched PRINCESS MONONOKE, CASTLE OF CAGLIOSTRO, SPIRITED AWAY and GRAVE OF THE FIREFLIES.)
Well, I feel pretty stupid for missing out on this. No - - for consciously choosing not to see it.
See, while watching PRINCESS MONONOKE inside a cramped art house theater in ’98 was a mesmerizing experience - - truly one of the best I’ve ever had at the movies - - Miyazaki’s magic was rather brusquely shaken off when I saw SPIRITED AWAY. Whereas the former felt like being in an all-knowing magician's expert hands, the latter’s fantasia just dropped limply in the water for me. Dare I say, it was disenchanting enough that when this flick rolled around in ‘04, I decided I’d opt out.
Thankfully, one can never be “too late” for a movie. Thankfully.
HOWL’S MOVING CASTLE isn’t just another Ghibli gem; it’s quite possibly the best depiction of magic - - “true magic,” with its psycho-dramatic crisscross of symbols, sigils and doubling - - that I’ve ever seen on screen. It finds this hypnotic middle path, between the esotery of THE HOLY MOUNTAIN and the whimsy of THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF OZ, that makes HARRY POTTER's wizardry look like party tricks out of a mail-order magic kit. As he does in his best work, Miyazaki binds the wildest dreams here with a firm sense of authenticity.
The flick follows Sophie, a young lady indolently continuing her father’s hatting business, as she falls into a housekeeping job at the infamous wizard Howl’s titular castle after the grotesque “Witch of the Waste” curses her to premature old age. The spell also has a clause, of sorts, which forbids her from telling anybody about what’s happened to her. Thus, she can’t let on to the handsome Howl, nor to his plucky young apprentice, nor even to his pet demon Calcifer, that she’s anything other than a kindly (if unusually spry) old woman.
If Sophie’s wise and wizened beyond her years, then the ageless and possibly immortal Howl is certainly the opposite. It’s lightly touched upon that his development’s arrested in both body and spirit, and he seems like the sort of charming, talented man-child so typical to episodes of BEHIND THE MUSIC. To wit, the thrust of the plot has him dodging a king’s request for an appointment about an ongoing war. He even sends Sophie to go pose as his mother and face down his old mentor, because he isn’t man enough to say “No” for himself.
Howl seems like Morpheus from Neil Gaiman’s SANDMAN with more of a twinkle in his eye; or perhaps like LABYRINTH’s Goblin King, Jareth, in his early days. There’s even a clever gag - - very likely a jab at anime’s habit of Anglicizing Japanese characters' appearances - - where he accidentally turns his very Bowie-style blond 'do to a more natural jet black after Sophie's spring cleaning mixes up his shampoo.
One of the film's subtler “slights of hand” has Sophie’s age and appearance quietly shifting, hinting that these magi do actually perceive her as she really is and that, perhaps, her condition fluctuates according to inner maturation. It’s a brilliant metaphor to represent how, until the curse, she's been really living in her father’s time at the expense of her own. And the curse's inception really puts her into a sort of peril that’s actually far more visceral than the usual threat of violence. Honestly, it was unexpectedly upsetting to see this lively young girl be robbed of her youth in what’s essentially a snap of fingers.
Miyazaki truly has an under-appreciated talent to instill anxiety just as easily as wonder.
My gripe against KIKI’S DELIVERY SERVICE is that its plot's so thinly drawn, one can't help but entertain that its seemingly carefree fantasy is actually the escapist coping mechanism of someone working through some unseen real life trauma. HOWL’S similarly feels like a dream (or nightmare, at times) abstracting a girl's struggle with her responsibilities, her alternately advanced and stagnated maturity and, most of all, her boyfriend’s fickle nature.
You're almost expecting an OZ-style ending that reveals how this was all a dream while pulling back the curtain to reveal who Calcifer and the Witch of the Waste correspond to. Thankfully, there's no such cop out, but the notion does underline all the proceedings with a psychological symbolism deeper than that of most fantasies which simply dabble with this sort of magic.
Lest this review wax too rhapsodic, it’s worth noting that Miyazaki’s difficulty with tying up threads manifests a little. Sophie’s mother shows up a couple times (strangely unperturbed that her daughter’s been missing and that she’s magically turned into a crone) before ducking out of the movie and leaving her subplot rather idly unresolved. And I wasn't 100% clear about what exactly's going on in the climax when Sophie decides to wreck Howl’s castle while he's swooping around an air raid as a bird-man.
Well, I wasn’t 100% until I checked out the FAQ on the movie. After that, it was clearer.
Perhaps it’s a fumble of coherency that necessitates such “extracurricular” research, but I’ll give this the benefit of that old “You just need to watch it twice to really get it” excuse. Even as you only catch the gist of what’s going on, sometimes, the experience is still a worthwhile recreation of the dreamtime's swirl of emotions, anxieties, logic and "un-logic."
Whimsy comes second only to absurdist humor in respect to the proverbial varying of mileage. Just as with an Adult Swim show, you either like a particular stripe of fancy or you don’t. So I can't quite articulate why the magical hopping scarecrow who tags along with Sophie plays so much better than all the lil' little goblins in SPIRITED AWAY - - he just does. However, I can (and I'd say that I have, over the course of this review) articulate how HOWL'S MOVING CASTLE packs such substance under all its surrealism. It's simply mesmerizing.