Continuing Life Lessons from the Animation Maestro
Previous life lessons:
Part 1: LUPIN III — THE CASTLE OF CAGLIOSTRO
Part 2: NAUSICAÄ OF THE VALLEY OF THE WIND
Part 3: CASTLE IN THE SKY
Part 4: MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO
Part 5: KIKI’S DELIVERY SERVICE
Part 6: PORCO ROSSO
Part 7: PRINCESS MONONOKE
Part 8: SPIRITED AWAY
Welcome back to our continuing series on “Living With Miyazaki,” as we examine the lessons one can take from his films through their recurring motifs and varied approaches.
Now, Miyazaki sure as hell didn’t have what you “difficult 2nd album,” but his return to feature animation direction after his (initial? second?) retirement following the masterful Spirited Away is certainly an interesting case, and a usual choice for “least good Miyazaki movie*” among fans of his work. Based on Diana Wynne Jones’ novel of the same name, Howl’s Moving Castle wasn’t originally intended to be a Miyazaki joint at all. Initially, Mamoru Hosada (yes, that one) was tapped to direct, but ended up departing the project over creative differences regarding the adaptation. The resulting film is, to put it mildly, both very different from the original story as well as from the last time Miyazaki adapted a book about magic users. It’s also a film that possibly proves how good Miyazaki is when he’s not having to chase Plot, given how hard this film can run away from it.
(*which would still be a career highlight for most directors)
Set in a “gas lamp fantasy” version of WWI-era Europe, the heroine of our story encounters the titular Howl while being harassed by some soldiers on her way home from her late father’s hat shop. Getting unwittingly embroiled in a feud between the purportedly nefarious wizard Howl and the equally infamous Witch of the Wastes, Sophie receives a witch’s curse that turns her into an old woman and forbids her from speaking of the spell. She sets out into the wastes to find Howl’s legendary moving castle, and inserts herself into the wizard’s messy life as the new cleaning lady through a bargain with the fire demon Calcifer, who powers the castle.
I’m going to be unusually upfront about the lesson of this film, which is “don’t let yourself get pulled in too many directions at once.” Not only was this project not Miyazaki’s first choice for a “comeback” project, but he steadfastly avoids major plot points of the book and doggedly refuses to spell out explicit “rules” for the world or characters (like how Sophie actually is a witch, who’s special ability is specifically “speaking life into things” and shaping the world with her words). But whether by chance or choice, this conflict cascades through the characters of the film as well. Sophie is torn between her desire to work in the hat shop out of obligation to her father and the yearning to do literally anything else anywhere else. Howl is a selfish coward who’s terrible at commitment, but who also can’t help acting against his own best interests when he sees people in need. Calcifer wants to be free of Howl but loves his castle, and Markl is a child who literally masquerades as an old man to cover for his boss who’s supposed to be his teacher.
The film folds this neatly into want vs. need arcs, but is also constantly detouring so hard into Miyazaki’s penchant for luxuriating in process and detail (God-tier Ghibli food here) and in characters’ stolen moments of stillness that it relegates central plot points to a literal handful of lines of hand-wavy dialogue. While this gives the impression of being locked into Sophie’s point-of-view as an interestingly limited lens, the resulting messiness is far less artfully deliberate than the usual “stumbling into story by accident” meandering-but-still-pacy films Miyazaki’s more known for. However, it does coalesce into genuine banger of a finale that underlines the followup to the earlier-stated lesson.
If you do let yourself get pulled in too many directions, it’s never too late to find your true north.
The reveal that Sophie’s curse is subject to her unconscious whim, and the way the film spools out exactly how it gets broken, really massages this point nicely. Sophie talks like an “old maid” almost on introduction, having resigned herself to being spinster-bound and even remarking that her newly-aged body finally matched her clothes. But the more she acts out of empathy than obligation, the more fragile age’s hold on her becomes until it’s hold is only as deep as the color of her hair, and it pairs nicely with the punctuation that the supposedly literally heartless Howl is the absolute biggest softie. Swerving hard from the original ending of the book (which features a diversion into modern-day Whales – no really, read it, it rules), Miyazaki steers hard into his “fuck war, love wins, fairy tale rules for everyone, flying forever bitches” lane. And it’s kinda like watching Speed reboot the Mach 5 in the final lap of the Grand Prix, because we get to see the characters find their truth even as the movie itself finds the best version of itself.
Howl’s Moving Castle is a movie where the sheer stubbornness of being kind (which the film firmly differentiates from “being nice” in how willing Sophie is to verbally kick Howl’s ass) can literally overpower curses and end wars. It’s a film about people who have screwed up being the versions of themselves they thought they were, and need the right mirror to see who they could choose to be. It’s a movie that insists we’re only the sum of our faults when we stop learning from them. It’s also a piece of technical craftsmanship that is still astounding even nearly two decades later, with some of the most sumptuos 2D animation this side of a latter-day Makoto Shinkai joint and some of the best musical work that the now-familiar Joe Hisaishi has ever done (which is saying a lot).
It’s not perfect, but that’s part of its beauty as well.
Next time, we travel under the sea to the re-imaging of the famous mermaid-starring fairy tale with Ponyo.