Monday, December 1, 2008

Review - Howl's Moving Castle

Howl's Moving Castle
2006 Nebula Winner for Best Script
by Hayao Miyazaki, Cindy Davis Hewitt, and Donald H. Hewitt

I first encountered the films of Hayao Miyazaki in an unusual place: the video arcade. His first feature length movie had been dissected to make a laserdisk game called Cliffhanger and compared to other such games like Dragon's Lair and Space Ace the art was obviously superior. It wasn't until I became interested in Japanese animation a few years later that I realized who he was and sought out his movies. He's been called the Japanese Walt Disney but I find that handy shorthand used in newspaper articles a bit insulting: he's much better than Disney when it comes to feature length films.

I have to confess that I have not read Diane Wynne Jones's original novel since I suspect that at this point I am well outside of its target audience. Consequently I cannot comment on how faithful the film is to the book. All I can say is that as a movie it is spectacular.

Sofi is a young girl who is living a quiet life as a haberdasher when she has a brief encounter with the wizard Howl. Howl's rival the Witch of the East confronts her afterward and out of spite curses the girl to be an old woman who cannot tell anyone of the curse. Sofi finds herself in Howl's employ as a cleaning woman and they bond while dealing with things like the helpful fire demon that moves his steampunk castle from place to place and a war where the king is requiring all wizards to turn themselves to monsters in order to fight.

Much like many other Miyazaki films Howl's Moving Castle features a kind of fairy tale magic that carries with it a great deal of charm. Something strange and wonderous is always lurking around the corner. Unfortunately this extends to some aspects of the plot which are glossed over leaving the reason why events are occurring at some points unclear.

The movie is very fast paced. Perhaps a bit too fast paced since I would have appreciated more development of the relationship between Howl and Sofi since I have very little understanding of them at the end. They seem to end up together because they are together.

If there's one thing consistent in Miyazaki films it is the absolutely beautiful art direction. His films always have a water colored look to them that is different from just about any one else out there. Most animated films focus on bright, contrasting color palette but Howl's has a subdued look that appears more gentle. His eye for shot composition is also impressive; any single frame of that movie is a work of art.

It's interesting to note that Howl's Moving Castle is the only animated film that has been awarded a Hugo or Nebula. My interest in anime started from a lack of quality science fiction and fantasy movies or television shows and while some SF fans were willing to cross over there had been a significant number that ignored the development of a new SF medium. It is fitting that the only animated film to have bridged the gap is one of Miyazaki's.

Howl's Moving Castle is not my favorite Miyazaki movie (I couldn't pick a single favorite one if I tried) but it is an exceptional work by one of the last masters of traditional animation left in the world. Not only is it worth seeking out; if you haven't seen it then you need to make it a priority to watch this movie.