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August, 2005 : Review:

Howl's Moving Castle by Hayao Miyazaki

[Howl's Moving Castle, dir. Hayao Miyazaki, 2005.]

Howl's Moving Castle, the latest animated movie by Hayao Miyazaki, is an excellent introduction to the work of this Academy Award-winning director, but fans of the book on which the movie is based will likely be disappointed unless they check their expectations at the door.

The story is about a young woman named Sophie who is cursed by a witch so that her body becomes that of a ninety-year-old woman. After fleeing her mother's house to avoid being seen by her family, Sophie sets out to catch the mobile residence of the wizard Howl, a flamboyant despoiler of young women. As a sudden crone she feels safe from his alleged appetites, so she installs herself as castle-cleaner in the hope of finding a way to break the curse, with or without Howl's help.

The movie is a visual delight, conjured forth in the beautiful hand-drawn style for which Miyazaki is famous. The beginning is airy and light, a wedding cake for the eyes, revealing a steam age setting where the air is crowded with cigar-shaped ornithopters bearing messengers and pleasure-seekers, while gallant soldiers court pretty maids and a steam-powered car chuffs down the cobblestone street below. But the European-styled kingdoms, true to their nineteenth century form, bluster their way toward warfare, and the war, when it comes, is savage, frightening, and pointless, bringing darkness. At one memorable point, techno-magical heavy bombers escorted by strange flying demons drop loads of bombs onto the cute and charming city, where the cobblestone streets erupt in flames and flying shrapnel.

The mixture of steam technology and magic gives the movie a steampunk feel, as does the introduction of World War II-style aerial bombardment into such a bright and tidy land. These elements (steam and magic; flight, technological and magical; antiwar sentiments) are all close to Miyazaki's heart, showing up in his seven other movies at Ghibli Studios. Not least, in Sophie we find another form of the Miyazaki heroine, a plucky girl who rises to the challenges presented by outrageous misfortune in each of his films.

With regard to the central characters, the movie is true to the book or even improves upon it. The character of Sophie is most faithful to the text. The witch's curse shakes Sophie from her too-timid existence: even as she is burdened by the aches and pains of old age, she is also emboldened to speak out with the assumed conviction of elderly wisdom, to act as a grandmother when she is not yet a mother. Playing the role of an old woman frees her from the role of being a dutiful daughter, allowing her to bloom in unexpected ways.

Howl, the heart-stealing wizard, is adequately translated from the text. Depicted as flashy and semi-androgynous in the way of a rock star like David Bowie, his extroverted, colorful nature makes him the opposite of pre-cursed Sophie. Yet we learn that Howl is playing a number of different roles himself, as well as suffering a curse of his own.

The character of the moving castle itself has no analog in the novel—it is pure Miyazaki, a whimsical chimera of biological-seeming mechanical and architectural elements: a drawbridge mouth, factory smokestacks like spines or plumes, turrets that look like eyes, and massive robotic chicken-legs, with which it walks around the countryside. This silent yet expressive character is a steampunk version of Baba Yaga's hut and validates the story's title more fully than the novel does.

But there are major differences between the movie and the book, mainly in the world of the setting and in the plot.

Diana Wynne Jones' book (of the same title, published in 1986) is not at all a steampunk novel; it is nearly the opposite: a realistic-seeming world that follows fairytale rules. For example, Sophie is the eldest of three sisters, and since in fairytales nothing good ever comes to the eldest, her culture sees her as doomed. Sophie agrees, and to avoid making matters worse for herself she lives a quiet, mousey life of hard work, low self-esteem, and lower expectations. That is to say, she was cursed by her birth-order long before the witch transformed her.

Rather than the wing-flapping flying machines, the novel features a more traditional fairytale artifact, the seven-league boots. Sophie must use these boots to quickly get from one place to another, yet she does not know exactly how to use them, which makes for a charming and exciting episode.

The novel's plot is convoluted in the way that fairytales often are, but it is not a satire or a parody; it is a rigorous playing-out of fairytale logic. Miyazaki's movie is not “about” fairytales in the way the book is, so Miyazaki's version is Sophie-centric, highly streamlined, and somewhat sketchy toward the edges.

Miyazaki's film is set in a solidly British steampunky fantasy world without the slightest trace of Japan about it. This may in fact be its greatest strength, since American audiences might have been put off by the Asian elements of Miyazaki's movies: the recent Princess Mononoke (1997) and the Academy Award-winning Spirited Away (2001) are set in Japan, which raises all sorts of cultural barriers for the uninitiated. These two Japanocentric films came out precisely at the moment when Disney was bringing Miyazaki movies to American theaters. In contrast, Howl's Moving Castle is readily accessible to the mainstream audience, yet at the same time it is not at all a generic fantasy: it is a work of originality and beauty that will win over viewers of all ages.

Copyright © 2005, Michael Andre-Driussi. All Rights Reserved.

About Michael Andre-Driussi

Michael Andre-Driussi has been studying anime for several years. His articles on sf anime in general have appeared in NYRSF. His main claim to fame, however, is Lexicon Urthus, a dictionary for the New Sun, now in its long awaited Second Edition.


Aug 1, 21:51 by IROSF
This thread for discussion of the film, or Michael Andre-Driussi's review of it.

For the review itself, click here.
Aug 2, 08:46 by Lezlie Kinyon
Dear Eds.,

I truly dislike reviews that insist upon cliches like "steampunk" -- "Howl's Moving Castle" was a lovely fantasy on film utilizing a traditional "alternate world" setting that includes folk- and fairy tale elements - a convention well explored within the genre of fantasy fiction. It followed the conventions and traditions already laid down in the genre, and, therefore, has little need of invented labels to be pasted upon it.

... and, so did Diana Wynne Jones' youth-reader novel! If Michael Andre-Driussi had some sort of clue concerning the genre, he would know that and this note would not be here. His precious verbiage attempts to be clever and hip, but is, in fact, silly.

Miyazaki's film has little to do with the book, and is, rather, a testament to the towering egos of filmmakers who canít write a story to save their lives, and so, usurp other peoples'. It's visually pretty, and if you haven't a clue concerning the original, you'll like it, if you do, it'll do little more than piss you off. I hope Miyazaki paid the author *really* well, because all the film needed was a few song-and-dance numbers to become a Disney-esque parody of a good story well written. Pretty much like his previous offerings in that. American audiences aren't put off by "Asian" element, as the reviewer claims (that is a questionable statement on so many levels); they are put off by this sort of tripe.

L.K. (teacher of fantasy & SF)
Aug 2, 12:37 by Bluejack
FWIW, and I had no role in purchasing this review -- didn't even read it until after publication -- I think Andre-Driussi's review is fair to both Jones' novel and the film. He has clearly experienced the story both ways and makes it clear from the outset that one is not like the other. Personally, I don't feel that your attacks on poor Michael are warranted.

But that's the joy of a forum! Democracy in action!
Aug 2, 13:46 by Mike Manzer
I have loved Miyazaki's work since I watched Nausicaa as a kid and am really looking forward to seeing this movie when I get a chance. I have to disagree with Lezlie on Miyazaki's merits - in my opinion, he is one of the very few filmmakers out there today who actually understands fantasy well and, so, is able to produce powerful visual statements that stay in the mind long after the pictures have faded from the screen, things that rattle around in our deep unconscious and make connections our rational mind sometimes gets and sometimes doesn't: the No-Face character in Spirited Away or the Spirit of the Forest in Princess Mononoke, for example. And he does it with interesting, 3-dimensional characters (just think of the ruler of Iron Town in Mononoke, for example - can't remember her name).

On the other hand, I'm not sure I agree with Mr. Andre-Driussi's assertion that American audiences are put off by the Asiatic elements in his previous works. It's possible. But one of the attractions of fantasy for many people, I think, is the ability to go into a totally different, exotic world. I would think the cultural differences would only help that exotic feeling that people look for.

Anyway, just my two cents. I was glad to see a review of the movie, especially by someone who seems to know a thing or two about the filmmaker and his wonderful, wonderful works.

Mike M
Aug 2, 14:28 by Geri Sullivan
Maybe it's just that I did do a good enough job of checking my expectations at the door, but here's one recent reader of the book who is still marveling at how "true" the movie felt to the world Diana Wynne Jones created with the book, yet what a completely different story it told. I'm happy with both; each stands well on its own merits. The only problem comes in when trying to overlay one upon the other, because the don't correlate -- on plot, on character, on relationships...they just don't map to one another by any factual measure.

While I disagee with the reviewer about the correlations and improvements on the characters, I think he did an excellet job of discussing the key themes of the movie, and that he did justice to the creators of both works.

Within the movie, I was disappointed with the portrayal of Calcifer. He was just too cutesy, too cartoony, in comparison to the other main characters.
Aug 3, 17:21 by Michael Andre-Driussi
A few notes from the reviewer.

Miyazaki has directed eight movies for his company, Ghibli Studios:

Nausicaa of the Valley of the Winds (1984) post-apocalyptic/European setting
Castle in the Sky (1986) steampunk/European setting
My Neighbor Totoro (1988) set in 1950s Japan
Kiki's Delivery Service (1989) based on novel by Eiko Kadono; European setting (alternate 1950s)
Porco Rosso (1992) European setting (alternate 1920s)
Princess Mononoke (1997) set in medieval Japan
Spirited Away (2001) set in 1990s Japan
Howl's Moving Castle (2004) based on novel by DWJ; steampunk/European setting

Half of the movies are set in Japan. I think that the ones with a European setting are easier for mainstream American audiences viewing Miyazaki's work for the first time. "Kiki" would have been the best place to start, but a strong argument can be made for "Totoro."

I have a certain amount of sympathy for Disney in distributing Miyazaki's work. At the time when they were hammering out their agreement, Miyazaki's recent films were "Totoro," "Kiki," and "Porco," which are all very kid-friendly movies (two of the three are also in a European setting). Once the agreement was in place, out came "Mononoke," Miyazaki's darkest and most violent movie to date. Disney could not exactly release this "Twilight of the Gods" picture under the Disney label, so they went the Miramax route. One might debate that the violence may have been more of a hurdle for American audiences (who tend to equate animation with kid-friendly fare), but that it is also set in medieval Japan is a further difficulty.

Only two of the movies are based upon the work of another. The majority (75%) were written by Miyazaki himself.

I happen to think that "Kiki" is a better adaptation of a work written by another, but then again, the book is very episodic and open-ended, which helps a lot. A big difference between book and movie is that book-Kiki is a cool teen (as seen by teen readership), whereas movie-Kiki is a coming of age heroine depicted by a sentimental man looking back on the trials of fleeting youth.

(It is interesting to me that the scene in Miyazaki's HMC where the scarecrow takes the washing line up high is just like a scene from the Kiki novel, an episode Miyazaki didn't use for his Kiki movie.)

DWJ's novel HMC is self-referencial to fairytales but not so far as to be parody in the style of The Princess Bride or Shrek. A balancing act between the Post-Modern and the pre-Modern.

(It is also a balancing act between the European source and the American idiom: there is a strong whiff of Oz in HMC, starting with the Witch of the Waste, the Scarecrow, and going on from there. Again, I think she handles the material well.)

It is one thing to have characters aware that "trolls live under bridges" or "genies grant three wishes," since these are part of the common culture within fairytales, and indeed, they give the stories the power to move the plot forward. IMO it is another thing entirely for a firstborn to say, "I'm doomed! I'd better play it safe based on what happened to all those other firstborns of fairytale." This threatens the entire fabric of fairytale! Granted, "triumph of the underdog" is a staple of fairytale, but still, Sophie is only an "underdog" by the reader-known rules which have somehow invaded the fairytale landscape. She is a victim of a metafictional institution.

(DWJ's novel is not "generic fantasy," by which I mean that it is neither the enjoyable-yet-entirely-off-the-shelf variety nor the fastfood variety she so completely skewers in The Tough Guide to Fantasy.)

Miyazaki's HMC seems to me to borrow some of the steampunk flavor of Pullman's The Golden Compass in painting Sophie's world. In DWJ's novel, the talk of war made me think in terms of medieval fighting: bows, horses, swords, and maybe crossbows (but I doubted that). In Miyazaki's movie the war arrives and we go from Victorian Era to late-World War Two city bombing in jiff time.

writer, editor, publisher, and Mr. Mom
Aug 5, 02:36 by Matthew Rees
I don't consider the term "steampunk" to be "precious", "hip" or "silly" -- IMO, it's every bit as valid for identifying a particular sub-genre of SF as the term "fairy-tale". Miyazaki's film contains several elements characteristic of what's commonly known as "steampunk", and therefore it's quite accurate to label it as such. Your beef seems to be more with the term itself than with its application to Miyazaki's film.

Btw, your comments are rather self-contradictory: is Miyazaki's version "a lovely fantasy on film" or "a Disney-esque parody of a good story well written"?

For the record, Howl's Moving Castle is one of my favorite books of all time (and DWJ is my favorite author). I enjoyed the film, though I would've enjoyed it more if it hadn't taken such liberties with the plot. It wasn't the "steampunk" elements that bothered me; it was the choice to virtually abandon the original storyline halfway through and turn it into an anti-war story with a horribly contrived ending (So they just decided to call off the war?). I can't say whether I would've liked it more, or less, had I never read the book.
Aug 6, 01:02 by Matthew Rees
Michael AD wrote:
DWJ's novel HMC is self-referencial to fairytales but not so far as to be parody in the style of The Princess Bride or Shrek. A balancing act between the Post-Modern and the pre-Modern.

Another work in similar vein is Patricia C. Wrede's Dealing With Dragons (and sequels).
Oct 3, 22:15 by Terry Grignon
Frankly I found Lezlie Kinyon's comment above offensive and small minded. Use of the word 'steampunk' is entirely valid in this case. It gives the reader, especially an educated science fiction fan who hasn't seen HMC, an idea of the flavour of the film in one word. Kinyon's remarks are typical of the dry, self-righteous criticism of academics.

And to call the incredibly talented Miyazaki a towering ego who canít write a story to save [his life]? Have you seen his other work at all?

Excellent review Michael.

And to LK? A teacher of fantasy & SF? I shudder for your students!
Oct 8, 01:13 by Michael Andre-Driussi
Thanks for posting, tgrignon! And thank you for your kind words.

This seems like an opportunity to mention Miyazaki's latest (2009) movie, "Ponyo." It is a return to the childhood fantasy mode, like "Totoro," and it seems to have performed very well in the US (the best Miyazaki movie to date, iirc). The artwork style is sketchy compared with his other work, but this translates into vibrant energy.

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