Poetry in motion: Miyazaki's 'Castle' proceeds beautifully

by Caroline McKenzie | 6/30/05 5:00am

When one thinks of an auteur of the cinema, a couple names pop to mind: Truffaut, Bergman, Bresson, Tarkovsky to name a few. Looking to Japan, one might name Ozu and Kurosawa as the definitive auteurs of the Japanese cinema, but to stop the list there is to criminally overlook perhaps the most popular filmmaker of contemporary Japan: Hayao Miyazaki. Miyazaki focuses on the adolescent as much as Ozu focused on the family, and is as enamored with flight as Tarkovsky was with water. And as Miyazaki acts as the head animator on all of his films, one can quite literally see his touch on every frame of every motion picture.

Miyazaki's latest animated feature film, "Howl's Moving Castle," has just arrived on American shores, following on the heels of his Academy-Award winning "Spirited Away." But for those American audiences uninitiated to the works of Miyazaki, it should be mentioned that to pigeonhole a Miyazaki film simply as "anime" seems unfair. Surely his work is by definition Japanese animation, but it's devoid of buxom women in school-girl outfits, interstellar violence, and Pokballs. Where televised anime has mecha, Miyazaki has impossibly imagined creations of flight and motion; where anime often has serial plot formulas, Miyazaki has tales of extreme fantasy punctuated by lyricism, spirituality and warmth.

And "Howl's Moving Castle" delivers on all of Miyazaki's promises. Adapted from a children's novel by British author Diana Wynne Jones, "Howl's Moving Castle" tells a tale of fantasy, love and growing up. Sophie is a shy young woman who is overly consumed by her work in a hat shop. She accidentally runs into Howl, a mysterious young wizard who lives in a (ta-da!) moving castle in the forest, as he is attempting to escape from the henchman of the Witch of the Waste. The obese and ugly witch, envious of how Howl takes to Sophie, places a curse on the young girl that transforms her into a 90-year-old woman. Sophie is forced to leave her home, and thus travels out to the forest of witches and wizards where she, after being befriended by a bewitched and lively scarecrow whom she names Turnip-head, gains employment as a housekeeper aboard the famous moving castle.

Although aging has perhaps put a damper on Sophie's looks, it certainly does wonders for her spirit. Her spunk grows daily (along with her love for Howl) as she lives with Howl's young assistant, Markl, and the fire demon who keeps the castle moving, Calcifer. Howl proves to be childish and rather inept at taking responsibility, and also serves to highlight the film's pacifistic message by refusing to fight in either side of the war that is burgeoning on the story's edges. But the war is tearing the childish Howl apart, and Sophie must figure out how to save him, as well as reverse the curse that holds her capture in her grandmotherly frame.

If all of this sounds rather bewilderingly bizarre, well it is. The story sometimes is thin (and it is unclear as to why Sophie has a tendency to regain her youth during the night), but the brilliance of the film is that you float through it like a dream. The story itself almost takes a backseat to the characters and the settings, which are an awe-striking display of Miyazaki's astounding creativity. Sophie, who comes from a long line of Miyazaki's strong female characters, finds precedent not in the fierce Mononoke or the bratty Chihiro, but perhaps in Sheeta from "Castle in the Sky," who has an equal measure of timidity and wonder, with a fire of potential being stoked within her throughout the narrative not unlike Sophie. Sophie's transformation into an elderly woman not only provides a catalyst for her character's ability to come out of her shell, but also adds strange depth to her love for Howl.

Markl provides a wonderfully amusing antithesis to Sophie as a child who pretends to be an aged and wizened wizard when sent to do Howl's errands (when he quips and complains while Sophie buys the groceries its hard to tell whether he's just childish or a grumpy old man). Calcifer gets the gag lines of the film, even though its hard to imagine a fire providing that much of a source of laughs. The periphery characters of Turnip-head and the dog have attitude and spunk, and manage to convey both without being endowed with the powers of voice.

Furthermore, the animation is amazingly beautiful. The fact that the moving castle -- which resembles something more akin to a vertical metal scrapyard impossibly suspended on chicken's legs -- actually walks, each varied section shaking on its hinges, is a wonder to behold on the big screen. Furthermore, when Howl summons Calcifer's powers to transform the interior of the castle, the fluidity and skills with which Miyazaki's team creates the transition is a treat for the eyes and just shy of the masterful skill with which the forests came back to life in "Princess Mononoke."

This being said, one could easily complain about the script at the end of the film, or at least the English translation thereof. The Anglicization of the script for "Howl" seems to create opportunities for platitudes about love towards the end of the film that seem incongruous with the lyricism of the images and can hopefully only be ascribed to the dubbing.

That being said, the dub is not fantastic to begin with. Although Christian Bale's growl seems far more suited behind the faade of Howl than it does behind the Batmask, Billy Crystal is far too discernible as the voice behind Calcifer, almost overtaking the character in bloated celebrity. Furthermore it is beyond explanation why young Sophie is given a startlingly pronounced English accent amongst mostly Americans (her elderly voice is, though, superbly commanded by Jean Simmons, who's accent is milder and seemingly natural).

But fortunately the sound track never impedes upon the images, which proceed in a parade of majesty and color. There's something about "Howl's Moving Castle" that is so otherworldly as to amaze us, but so close to home that we can relate to characters that live in a house that walks on stilts. It's hard to pinpoint just what it is, but a ride on Miyazaki's moving castle is a ride not to be missed.