Adapted from a novel by Diana Wynn Jones, Howl’s Moving Castle is a lavish fantasy adventure from legendary animator Hayao Miyazaki. Set in that familiar Miyazaki-Land of idyllic alpine hills, storybook European cities and steampunk gadgetry, our young heroine Sophie (voiced by Chieko Baisho, famous in Japan for her role in the long-running Tora-San movies) finds her life turned upside down when she meets a handsome and mysterious wizard named Howl (J-pop boy band star Takuya Kimura). After helping him elude the “Blob Men”, Sophie falls victim to a wicked spell cast by the malevolent Witch of the Waste (celebrated female impersonator Akihiro Miwa), which transforms her into a ninety year old woman.
Embarking on an incredible odyssey to lift the curse, Sophie finds refuge in Howl’s magical moving castle, where she befriends his boy apprentice Markl (Ryunosuke Kamiki) and a grumbling fire demon called Calcifer (Tatsuya Gashuin). Later on a mysterious living scarecrow called Turnip and the magical dog Heen join their adventures, to create a most unusual family. A war rages between the feuding kingdoms of Kingsbury and Porthaven, caused by the disappearance of Crown Prince Justin and while lesser wizards have taken sides, Howl refuses to become a pawn of war. But having given his heart away in return for great power, Howl is slowly turning into a monster. His only hope rests with the undying love and support of Sophie.
Probably the most extravagant Studio Ghibli movie, Howl’s Moving Castle dazzles us with sights and wonders: the first glimpse of the titular techno-wizard wonder striding through the mists; skies full of crazy steampunk aircraft inspired by Jules Verne and obscure French SF novelist and illustrator Albert Robida; a menagerie of weird phantoms (some in straw hats or tailored suits!) and magical beings; glorious fairytale castles and storybook scenery; vast battleships whose cannons shoot demons to fight furious sky-duels with the monstrous, birdlike Howl. The end result is a sprawling fantasy romance that, despite being based on a novel, weaves story elements and images familiar from Miyazaki’s distinguished back catalogue.
If the abundance of zany ideas, kooky concepts and wild plot twists (e.g. the last minute revelation about Turnip) almost overwhelm the story, the film still boasts a heart-swelling romance born from one of its writer-director’s most affecting concepts. Originally this was to have been directed by Mamoru Hosuda (who made The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (2006) instead), until Miyazaki seized the reigns and reworked the film into a love letter to his wife. The metaphor of a girl suddenly turned into an old woman overnight evokes his feelings about dedicating years to animation, only to discover his wife changed before his eyes.
As Sophie re-enacts the various aspects of womanhood (mother, lover, daughter), Miyazaki continually offers glimpses of the feisty, resourceful young girl that resides underneath that wicked spell. The pluckier Sophie becomes, the younger she looks and lookout for the neat inversion of a similar scene in Laputa, when she loses her plaits as a symbol of regaining her youthful vigour. Sophie is contrasted with the dashing, yet boy-like and narcissistic Howl, a preening pop star wizard prone to tantrums that leave him oozing slime, turning into a monster or cocooning himself in an Arabian Nights-style boudoir full of toys.
Yet Howl is only outwardly self-centred and actually boasts great moral fortitude, refusing to partake in a pointless conflict - drawn from Miyazaki’s disgust over the Iraq war. His pacifist ideals are balanced by a need to protect the eccentric family that blossoms around him as the story develops in pleasingly offbeat directions, rejecting a conventional Hollywood structure in favour of something subtler and more insightful about human nature. For most filmmakers, love is blind. With Miyazaki, love allows people to see things as they really are: beneath a hideous monster lies a frightened little boy and inside a haggard old lady beats the heart of a courageous young heroine.