Miyazaki Marathon #9Howl’s Moving Castle'Noke's Review
Howl’s may have the worst actual dialogue of the marathon. While I appreciate characters stating the rules of the world, the way Miyazaki does it, but here it goes too far. Characters obviously stating motivations and problems and emotions and such, it gets to be incredibly annoying. This is somewhat apparent in some of his films, like Nausicaa, but there it made sense, and there wasn’t really that much of it. Here, it can be very annoying.
But, what I also came to realise watching this movie is that it doesn’t matter. Because, while this movie also puts emphasis on plot (not that much on dialogue), Howl’s Moving Castle is a movie of images. It is about the colours, the emotion and the magic and every that makes Miyazaki’s images so compelling, all distilled into these moments of magic. Because Howl’s is a story of magic, pure and simple, of the old fashioned variety, the Merlin the magician/Gandalf the white variety. But it’s never THAT simple.
You know the story. If you don’t….well you should. A woman gets cursed with old age, and she happens to find her way out into the wastes, which are the deserted plains outside of the city, the homes of witches and wizards, all of whom have bad connotations form the people of the town. It’s almost as if Miyazaki picks the exact same beginning as all those Hollywood productions about people struck with curses, of ugliness or being a hunchback or of old age, and then proceeds to take the story in a completely different direction then before. Because, what he does is he integrates the Grandma Sophie character into the group of people in the castle, and the community there, and he creates this figure of Howl, the magician without a heart and steadily disintegrating at the face of this giant, metaphorical war. And then this conflict, and the conflict of the war invading on these people just trying to get by, is so much more important and bigger then the struggles of Sophie’s age, that that becomes the primary struggle. We forget that Sophie has a spell on her by the end, and as Sophie jumps from being older to being younger, and the spell is broken, I was still absolutely engaged by the film because that plot-line doesn’t matter anymore.
So, what about the images? The clash of colours, large and subtle, the way the reds of burning fires and the blues of oceans and of those magical creatures running across the water, or the lumbering castle stumbling across the landscape, even the simple image of Howl and Sophie touching hands, even for a moment, is given so much pathos. Howl’s really is a dance of colour, from the one man who portrays colour on screen better then anyone else (Sorry Wong Kar-Wai. You’re still number 2). When Sophie says “When you’re old, all you want to do is look at the scenery.” When the scenery is this good, that’s all I want to do too. And Miyazaki uses these images to create a story, and to push the story forward. It is not the dialogue pushing these characters towards their goals, it’s the imagery. And that may be why people don’t respond to this film as much. They are looking for the attachment that every single other Hollywood film has, of dialogue and of subtext within dialogue, which was contained within his other works, to a small but satisfactory extent. Here, it’s nowhere to be found, and it doesn’t need to be. This is a work of another type of genius.
And this brings me (actually, it doesn’t, but it’s my review so screw convention!) to my favourite scene of Howl’s. There’s something so strangely magical about the scene where Sophie first meets Howl, and when they proceed to walk on air. I was trying to think about other peoples reactions to that moment, or more how other people WOULD react to that moment, and I was thinking there’d be two sort of reactions, either people thinking it’s cool and people wondering why this scene is any good(and Miyazaki fans, duh). But, for me, there’s something about the way Miyazaki captures the moment which feels as though, and he does this in all his work but most noticeably in this moment, is that this magic and mysticism, which is so wonderful and exciting, we are able to feel the sort of emotion that Sophie might be feeling in that moment, and it’s the idea that that magic is just beyond your reach in real life that it’s basically right there in front of you, you just have to see it, that’s fascinating. It’s basically the embodiment of one of the things I love about Miyazaki, and why this whole film is just pure magic. Where is it?
: It’s better then Spirited Away, just to be controversial.
This is one of one two films (the other being Spirited Away
) that I watched a second time for this marathon. For a long time you could see me original review of this movie on my filmspotter switchboard (I took it down a few months ago) - just kept there for the formatting for subsequent reviews. In that write up I gave the film an A- citing stunning visuals, three great characters, and beautiful artistry. For Spirited Away, repeat viewings made me love the film more, how about for this film...?
After seeing the entire cannon to this point Howls' plays as a best-of-show of sorts. There is a ton of self-referential elements to this film. We have the beautiful town like the one from Kiki's, cool flying "dragonfly" planes from Castle in the Sky, the fantastic war imagery from Naucissa, and the male lead plays almost note-for-note from the male lead from Spirited Away. And for me the elephant in the room is that the castle could have been called the "Howl's Walking Bathhouse" because of it's resemblance to the building in Spirited Away.
..and of course, once again it's a young girls coming of age story - a young girl gets swept up into a magical world, meets a boy, saves the day through her selflessness and has a transformation as a result of what she learned. I must admit about half way through the film, I'd started to grow tired of the trope, the themes and the visuals. As the plot got more convoluted the less interested I got. It was an effort to get through this second time.
Which brings me to an interesting discussion point. The order and timing of when you see a film and it's effect on your evaluation of it: Had I seen each of Miyazaki's films as they came out, over the span of two decades - Howl's Moving Castle would have been pretty awesome. I might have been giggling in my seat over all the callbacks - like fanboys watching JJ Abrams Star Trek
- and been totally swept away by the visuals and engrossed in the story. However, in my second viewing, since most of the new car smell was gone I was just too preoccupied with keeping up with the convoluted plot and the uneven editing.
Now, me being worn out on a director does not necessarily a bad film make. Let me talk about the positives and why I could still recommend this film, with reservations:
1) Every still of this film is an oil painting worthy of hanging in a museum
It's true. In fact it's safe to say this film contains the best animation of the entire filmography. I'll let the screencaps in this post do the talking for me.2) Two new great side characters
First, the fire and the scarecrow are both awesome! Very inspired and original characters. In the English dub (I watched this on IFC) has Billy Crystal doing the voice of Calcifer - and it works brilliantly as the sarcastic, oafish yet warmhearted (pun!) heart-beat of the castle. The scarecrow was so great - especially since you got no explanation of who he was and why he was following Sophie around. (I was really disappointed in the end where we learned more about his - wish that had been left ambiguous)3. Sophie
Of the filmography, Sophie, Chihiru and Kiki are my three favorite female leads (note: haven't seen Ponyo yet). Sophie might just eek out the other two, not sure. The film does a great job of tricking the audience into rooting for an old woman. An old woman in the film is usually depicted as as antagonist (ugly wicked witch) or a piece set design that bakes cookies. Here Sophie is witty, kind hearted, smart and very much the hero that saves the day - yet she still has all the aches and pains of an old woman. I will say there were points in the film where the rules of the universe were not exactly clear: is this an old woman with a young girl's mind? or does she have the wisdom of ages? And also, this old woman must have been caking on the oil of olay because she had nary a wrinkle compared to the other old woman in the story. But, this aside, I think it does work and it works very well.4) Joe Hisaishi's score
This guy is the best. He is easily one my favorite composers coming out this marathon - top 3 for me now with Thomas Newman and Clint Mansell
But overall, this film felt like just a ton of stuff thrown at the audience - some of it working magnificently and others just seemingly random. I would have been interested in seeing a tighter edit, a far more interesting brooding male lead, and a bit more originality in the visuals.
All the elements that make Miyazaki film great are here and here in buckets! But for me, this did not a great film make