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Howl's Moving Castle Special Edition (Japan Version - English Subtitles)
Hisaishi Joe | Tatsuya Gashuin | Miwa Akihiro | Miyazaki Hayao
Howl's Moving Castle Special Edition (Japan Version - English Subtitles)
You would have expected the release of a new Miyazaki film to generate more attention than Howl's Moving Castle did when it came to western shores. Sure, the man may not yet be a household name round these parts but his previous feature did win an Oscar and you'd think that fact alone would have gotten Howl's a much wider and better publicized release than what it actually received. But when the film released it was without the unanimous acclaim that welcomed Spirited Away. Yes, the critics agreed that the animation was stunning - which it absolutely is, the level of detail and richness of the design is absolutely incredible - but many felt that the script was lacking, that it felt a little disjointed.

But here's the thing with Miyazaki films: they are almost always more than they appear. Like no other filmmaker, Miyazaki's films - with the arguable exception of Porco Rosso, which seems comparatively bland and uninspired - reward multiple viewings. Elements that may have appeared lacking, confused or missing on first viewing make far more sense the second time around, when it often becomes clear that it's not the film that is lacking but the viewer's expectations that are skewed. The just released Hong Kong DVD of the film makes it abundantly clear that this is the case with Howl's Moving Castle.

The story begins with Sophie, a nineteen-year-old girl living in a steam powered, Victorian era European city, working in the hat shop founded by her dead father. Her mother and sister have moved on but Sophie continues with her father's work because ""he would've wanted it that way."" A chance encounter with the famous and feared wizard Howl draws the attention and ire of the jealous Witch of the Wastes who curses Sophie, instantly aging her from nineteen to ninety. Sophie then sets off into the wastes herself, in search of a witch or wizard who can break her curse, befriending a magical turnip headed scarecrow before taking up with Howl himself as cleaning lady for his fantastic - and fantastically filthy - castle.

With its emphasis on magic and the fantastic, along with the early chase sequences, it is only natural to approach Howl's Moving Castle as a fantasy adventure film and there is a strong element of that to it. Thanks to the scenes depicting the war between Sophie's country and a neighboring kingdom it is also perfectly reasonable to go looking for political allegory. These are both familiar territories for Miyazaki and while both are certainly present it is vitally important that the audience understand that these elements are, to Miyazaki, interesting but secondary. Howl's Moving Castle is really, at it's core, a (ha, ha) coming of age story. In fact, you can make an argument that it is four coming of age stories with the growth of Howl and Sophie reflected, to a lesser degree, in developments with the Witch and the Howl's fire demon Calcifer. It is also a film very concerned with the importance and nature of family, another of Miyazaki's recurring themes.

The central story tracks the development of Howl and Sophie, young people who are polar opposites in many ways. Sophie has been forced to age prematurely, living a life driven by duty rather than passion. Howl on the other hand has lived his life as a perennial child, partly do to the easy life his power affords him, partly as a result of a deal he made to gain and bolster his powers as a child. Through Howl's influence Sophie learns to follow her passions, to pursue herself as well as serving others. Through Sophie, Howl learns commitment and responsibility. Both are made whole by the other.

On a technical level Howl stands rather comfortably as Miyazaki's finest work. The scope and scale of things is dazzling, the magic that is uniquely Miyazaki fully in effect. He bolsters his trademark visual style with subtle CG effects to bring the titular castle to life, filling it with a personality so strong that it becomes a character all its own. The now expected flying sequences are flawless, and Howl's magic is by turns charming, frightening and tragic. Plus the film is stocked with memorable characters with fire demon Calcifer providing a handful of classic moments. The man makes a stick with a turnip on it a powerful, emotive character and that really tells you all you need to know. If Miyazaki can make a turnip generate emotions there is no limit to what else he may accomplish.

Howl's Moving Castle still feels too fresh to really place in the context of Miyazaki's broader canon. In theme it is a fusion of My Neighbor Totoro and Spirited Away. In terms of overall quality my hunch is that it will eventually settle somewhere in Miyazaki's top three, certainly no lower than fourth, jostling for position with the aforementioned pair and Princess Mononoke. Howl's Moving Castle once again demonstrates Miyazaki's unique gift to make films simple, universal and magical enough to appeal to the smallest children while also layering in such a depth of theme and meaning to reward the most demanding adult viewer's repeated viewings. A brilliant film, well presented and highly recommended.

By Todd Brown -

Other Professional Review for this Title

Howl's Moving Castle is as charming, as astonishingly detailed, as wonderful and magical as anything Miyazaki has ever offered to date. More fairytale than mythology, the story is based on the work of Diana Wynne Jones, a British fantasy novelist of long and popular standing. Sophie Hatter has a quiet and perfectly satisfying life taking after her name as a hat-maker, that is until the day she meets both a handsome magician and the wicked Witch of the Waste in the same day and her life is turned around - or rather, fast-forwarded, from an 18-year-old girl into a 90-year-old woman's body. And the curse, in the best tradition of fairy tales of old, means that she can tell no one who she really is, or she will stay 90 until her life is through. As staid as Sophie's life is, she doesn't fancy missing most of it.

And like a fairy tale, this is of course where the real adventure begins. As Sophie makes for the only place she knows of that might be able to break the curse - the famous and mysterious magician Howl's moving castle - she starts to realize both the limitations and freedoms of her predicament. It is during this journey that some of the most touching, affecting aspects of this film are visible. Sophie's heart does not linger long on the loss of her beauty or youth - she never believed she had such things in the first place - but her inherent nature reveals something about youth's impressions of age through her sudden transformation. Unexpectedly, nothing works as it should, and everything is harder. What she wants to do is restricted to what she can do. Literally, old age has not crept up on Sophie, but settled down abruptly, and in that typical, gentle Miyazaki style, we see this deterioration of her outer strength in a way that only makes her inner strength - her practical yet generous nature - that much more apparent. She laughs at her own physical failings, taking her frailty in the kind of honest stride that shows age to be as much a thing of wonder as youth. And in the province that age has magically bestowed, she takes seriously only those things that are important - life, peace, compassion and love.

It's the broader themes that Miyazaki (and by extension Wynne Jones) touch upon in Howl's Moving Castle that take themselves seriously in this film. True to his auteuristic tendencies, the director is as concerned with social commentary, however fantastical, as he has always been, and the influence of the original content brings to the director's style conflict less grand and slightly more impersonal than in something like Princess Mononoke. The two sides of the war Sophie finds herself witness to upon arrival at Howl's castle are slightly more remote, almost lofty entities, symbolized in scenes of giant staircases and daring aerial battles. Wynne Jones was a child in the 1940s when her father evacuated his family from London on news of war, and that experience surely reflects in her work, because it certainly reflects in Howl, where the true empathy of the narrative lies with the nameless masses caught in the crossfire. Yes, Howl is a heroic character, although perhaps not conventionally so (the surprise involved in realizing that the hero is indeed having a hissy fit is just too delightful to mention!), and his true beauty lies in his innocence and gormless acceptance of Sophie for who she is and not who she appears to be. But Miyazaki's punch is at a more mundane level this time. The houses being bombed and the people being killed are almost insignificant against the greater forces clashing. Like Sophie, they are ordinary folk finding themselves struggling to make it through an extraordinary time. The understanding that this message engenders is as relevant in the real world as the fantasy First World War the story is set in.

With music by the inestimable Joe Hisaishi, and the vocal talents of SMAP popstar and TV heart-throb Takuya Kimura (2046, Beautiful Life) and Chieko Basho (Otoko wa Tsurai Yo) in the original language, and Jean Simmons, Christian Bale, Billy Crystal and Lauren Bacall in the upcoming Disney dub, this new Miyazaki offering was a hit before it even landed anywhere near a cinema screen. Critics' comments that Miyazaki films are still a little too Japanese, that his stories are too deep, his heroines too complex, to truly find a home in the hearts of mainstream Western audiences seem, in light of this film, something of a luddite reaction. Howl's Moving Castle is at its core a fairy tale, a coming-of-youth, rather than age, a wondrous adventure perfectly suited to Miyazaki's talents and above all, a love story in the most universal tradition. It is such things that speak to anyone's heart, Japanese or otherwise, such things that are the true secret to Miyazaki's magic.

9.5 Turns of the handle out of 10

by Deni Stoner -

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