Howl’s Moving Castle (Hauru No Ugoku Shiro) Review

It’s not everyday that you get the chance to sit down and watch the World Premiere of the latest opus from legendary director and head of Japanese animation house Studio Ghibli, Hayao Miyazaki. Especially not in the company of the film’s producer Toshio Suzuki (Ghost in the Shell 2, Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke), as well as Spike Lee, Scarlett Johansson and various other celebrities. On the 5th of September at the Venice film festival, which is held every year on the Venetian island of Lido, I was lucky enough to do just that. Since I’m living and working an hour from the city, I booked tickets last week and took the journey via train and boat to the festival site.

A billboard outside the cinema with the Italian title.

I knew as soon as I arrived that this was no ordinary screening; the queues were massive and there were signs everywhere making it clear that recording equipment (including mobile phones and digital cameras) were not allowed inside the ‘sala’ (screening room). After waiting a while, the crushed throng of people began to move forward as they let a handful in at a time, allowing them to check everyone’s bags. I was stopped by an exasperated woman who demanded I give her the battery to my camera, even after explaining that it can only take around five minutes of video and I wasn’t about to photograph every scene! After placating her somewhat by taking out the battery and putting it in my back pocket, I was allowed to enter the cinema.

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Screening Conditions / Toshio Suzuki signing tickets
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As soon as I stepped through the door I spotted a small crowd of people standing excitedly about. They were huddled around Toshio Suzuki, who had just stepped off the red carpet and was about to enter the Sala. After taking a few pictures (battery quickly replaced!) Mr Suzuki was kind enough to sign my ticket. Then it was time for the film to begin…

I’ll say it right now; Miyazaki and co have done it again! Howl’s Moving Castle is an absolutely fantastic film and a stunning example of the best that animation can offer as a medium. My girlfriend and I sat transfixed for the entire two hours, never once bored or wishing the film would hurry to its conclusion. I’m going to be honest and say that, even after this one viewing, Howl’s Moving Castle has surpassed Laputa as my favourite Ghibli film (the only one I’m yet to see from them is Porco Rosso). Evidently we weren’t alone in our adoration for the film and as the credits rolled it received a standing ovation, which lasted several minutes.

Howl’s Moving Castle is based on a children’s book of the same name, written by British author Diana Wynne Jones, which has been adapted into a screenplay by Miyazaki himself. Having not read the book (something I plan to correct ASAP) I had no preconceptions of what to expect and, of course, no idea what changes Studio Ghibli had made to the story and characters. Suffice to say if the book is anywhere near as good as the film the legions of fans will be very happy indeed. I really don’t want to spoil the film too much for anyone, so I’ll just briefly introduce the story to give you an idea of the basic plot.

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Poster #1 (Click to enlarge)
The film begins as we are introduced to Sophie, the eldest of three daughters, who works as a hat maker in her family shop, seemingly resigned to her simple life. One day, there are reports of a strange moving castle on the outskirts of the town. It is said the castle belongs to the “evil wizard Howl” who eats the hearts of young girls. Sophie appears unfazed as she jokes, “I’ll be ok; since I’m sure he only eats the hearts of beautiful girls”. Later that day, on her way to visit someone, she takes a detour to avoid a march by hundreds of troops apparently on their way to war. As she walks down a narrow alley she is stopped in her path by a pair of lecherous soldiers. Just before things turn nasty, Sophie is rescued by a stranger who tells her they must walk faster as he is being followed. While they run down the narrow passageways, black shapes ooze out of the cracks in the walls and floor and begin to pursue them. Suddenly the stranger launches into the air, pulling Sophie with him, away from their pursuers. After leaving her on a balcony he flies off to intercept them and promises to meet her later.

That night, after returning home, Sophie is attacked by the Witch of the Waste who, after seeing the encounter with the stranger, casts a spell turning her into a 90-year-old woman. When she wakes a little while later Sophie is shocked upon seeing her aged reflection in the mirror. In the morning she decides there is no way she can stay around the shop, so she packs up a few belongings and some food and leaves the city. After ignoring warnings from locals about the witches and wizards that live in the wastelands, Sophie starts on her journey. It’s not long before a terrible storm starts up, but undaunted she struggles on. Suddenly, out of the gloom, the giant castle on mechanical legs crashes towards her. Sophie decides her only chance for escaping the storm is to climb aboard the castle, wizard or no, as she’s sure he won’t be interested in her “90-year-old heart”. Once inside we are introduced to Calcifer, a grumpy fire demon who, aside from providing warmth for the castle, also controls its movement. He tells Sophie that if she can find a way to free him from his duty of running the castle, he will in turn break the spell and return her to her proper age. In the morning she meets Markl, a small boy (with a brilliant disguise) who appears to be the wizard’s helper. As they start to make breakfast, the back door opens…Howl has returned!

And so begins the journey of Sophie. Will she be able to break the curse and return to her former self, why was she attacked by the Witch of the Waste and what is the mystery surrounding the wizard known as Howl?

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Poster #2 (Click to enlarge)
There are so many excellent sequences in Howl’s Moving Castle that I don’t even think I can pick a stand out moment. The animation is, of course, consistently astounding and makes subtle, but very clever, use of CGI. One such example is the reflection of the sun in rivers and streams as the castle makes its journey across the land, a nice touch which makes all the difference. The titular castle itself is a masterpiece, and reminded me of one of Terry Gilliam’s wildest animations crossed with some kind of crazy Victorian-era invention. Each part of the bizarre structure seems to move independently, and just watching the thing travel around is really a spectacle. Along the way we meet several interesting characters, my favourite of which has to be the fat, asthmatic dog Heen, who provides some moments of real comedy. One scene in particular had everyone in stitches as the small animal, unable to climb the tall steps, is given a helping hand by ‘Grandma’ Sophie. Calcifer the fire demon is also a funny creature with a love of broken egg shells, as well as an important secret! Other scenes include a fantastic flight through a fierce battle, as two warring sides fight over the ruins of burning cities far below, and a beautiful moment as the castle comes to rest on the shores of Star Lake. I have to say that the wizard Howl was an entirely different character than the one I was expecting, especially based on past Ghibli films. The source material could account for this, and I expect after reading the book, Miyazaki’s depiction of Howl will become clearer.

Thankfully, as per the festival rules, Howl’s Moving Castle was shown in its original Japanese language, with Italian and English subtitles (one was under the screen on an electronic board). The voice acting is top notch throughout the whole film, especially that of Howl, who is played by Takuya Kimuram (one of the stars of Wong Kar Wai’s upcoming 2046). The voices of the young and old Sophie are also excellent, and Chieko Baisho has done a sterling job of playing both ‘parts’. The sound effects are also superb, especially those of the bizarre castle. The cinema shook as the towering contraption stomped its way across the landscape, whilst all manner of engines and pistons could be heard working away. The music is also excellent, without being too overpowering, and there were only a couple of scenes where one particular melody became mildly irritating. The film ends with a song, in a similar fashion to Spirited Away, although I was unable to determine if it was the same artist providing the vocals.

My only criticism of the film would be that, if anything, the pace was a little too quick towards the end of the film and it almost felt as though the story was summed up in a rush. This, however, was probably due to me not wanting the film to finish, after having been absorbed into the fantastic world of Howl’s Moving Castle for two hours! Also there were a couple of other scenes which I felt could have done with a bit more explanation, although I can’t really discuss them here without spoiling the film.

In summary, I have to say that Miyazaki and all those at Studio Ghibli have outdone themselves with Howl’s Moving Castle. The story is fantastic and the characters and creatures that populate the world are as excellently crafted and fun to watch as ever. The voice acting, sound effects and music are almost perfect (wait until you hear Heen’s wheezing barks!) and best of all, aside from my slight issues with the last few minutes, the pacing of the film is completely spot on. Believe me when I say there’s not a dull moment in the entire film. In my opinion it is Miyazaki’s best yet and it proves he’s only getting better with age! My only worry now is that it’s going to be several months before I get to see this masterpiece of animation again…



out of 10

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