Though the Ghibli adaptation of Earthsea passed by Miyazaki’s hands (due to semi-retirement), he returned to his regular position at the studio soon enough, and the project was an adaptation of another Western novel, Howl’s Moving Castle. Although the author of Gedo Senki wasn’t entirely pleased with the faithfulness that Goro showed to the original, I don’t know if Miyazaki’s hypothetical version would have pleased her either. The strength of Miyazaki’s films come straight out of his boundless imagination, and I doubt he would get much satisfaction out of being chained to source material. Although the author of Howl’s Moving Castle seems more open to free adaptation than Le Guin, I’ve heard many complaints from fans that Miyazaki changed too much of the original. Since I’ve never read Howl’s Moving Castle, I can’t comment on the validity of that. In this case, I’m more interested in the quality of the film itself, rather than how well it echoes the book.
Howl’s Moving Castle stars Sophie, a young and relatively plain girl living in a clearly European-based town. One day, she finds herself crossing paths with Howl, a dashing young man who seems to take a liking to her. However, his interest in her draws the attention of the Witch of the Wastes, who goes after Sophie and puts a curse on her, hoping that Howl will lose interest. The curse seems to transform Sophie into an old woman, and she runs away, being unable to tell anyone else about it. This is where she comes across Howl’s Moving Castle, and declares herself the “cleaning lady” there. Eventually she becomes friendly with everyone in the castle, including Howl, a fire spirit named Calcifer, and a young boy named Markl who assists Howl. The core of the story revolves around Sophie growing to care for Howl while being forced to watch him risk his life to interfere in wars in the outside world.
I must admit that after my first viewing, I didn’t like it nearly as much as all of Miyazaki’s other films, and only after the second viewing could I appreciate it fully. I believe the primary reason for that was the character of Howl himself. To tell you the truth, I didn’t like him very much as a character, and considering a love story between Sophie and Howl is an integral part of the film, my reaction to the film as a whole was coloured by it. On my second viewing of the film, I think I was able to be a little more forgiving, and tried to see his character in its entirety instead of focusing on his negative traits. Howl has his weaknesses, but he is also generally kind and has good motives in the story. I can also see how Sophie and Howl have personalities which complement one another and perhaps balance the weaker traits of each. I’m still not entirely convinced….but it is no longer so much of an issue that it looms over the entire film.
Countering my ambivalence towards Howl is Sophie, who may be one of my favourite Miyazaki heroines. She is a very likable character, timid and soft-spoken, but strong-willed and courageous. After being turned into an old woman, rather than cry at her misfortunes and wallow in self-pity, she packs her bags and makes the best of a bad situation, occasionally commenting on her new found respect for aged bodies. When Howl returns to the castle for the first time and finds Sophie there, he asks for her identity. She tells him that she is the new cleaning lady. When asked who hired her, she replies with a smile, “I hired myself”. And when was the last time an elderly woman, cursed or not, was the star of a film? Even if keeping track of Howl’s mood swings can get a bit tiresome, Sophie remains a dependable anchor to the film.
The plot of Howl’s is a little more complex than Spirited Away, and as Miyazaki doesn’t like to linger on exposition, viewers who miss little details here and there may not completely grasp what is going on at certain points, particularly when the film reaches the climax. This is probably compounded by Miyazaki’s directorial style, which doesn’t always follow a linear path, and features many scenes that may not directly contribute to the plot. Furthermore, the resolution to the war which forms a backdrop to the story feels too clean and too sudden. Overall, I would probably agree that the narrative doesn’t feel as cohesive as his previous two films, but I also feel that a lot of critical reviews which use words like “convoluted” are greatly exaggerated.
By now you know that any Ghibli film’s artwork will be phenomenal, but special mention here goes to the wonderfully animated castle, which moves clumsily through the landscapes, its component parts moving and spinning while steam rises out of its sides. There’s also a great deal of visual variety in the film, from gorgeous landscapes to scenes of battle to colorful town and city streets. The opening of the film has Sophie taking a trip across town to visit her sister, and the depiction of the vaguely Victorian city is very vivid and enjoyable.
As for the music, it’s another excellent Hisaishi score. I appreciated how the main theme was incorporated more often into the score than in Spirited Away. I was a bit curious at the opening music, which resembles that of Spirited Away a little too closely, with rolled piano chords in the upper registers followed by a monophonic piano rendition of the main theme. Perhaps Miyazaki enjoyed Hisaishi’s opening for Spirited Away so much that he asked for something similar in this film.
While I think Howl’s is a great film, I can understand a lot of the complaints that people have about it, and I also still remain a little skeptical about Howl’s character. I don’t think it is among his best films. Perhaps this is due to the fact that it is an adaptation of a foreign novel – most of Miyazaki’s films are original stories (apart from Kiki, which he heavily modified). Nonetheless, it still contains plenty of Miyazaki’s typical charm and imagination, and apart from Howl, has a pretty uniformly great cast of characters. At the very least, it’s worth a viewing just to marvel at all the wonderful details of the moving castle itself.
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