Howl's Moving Castle Review

With many of the familiar ecological warnings and anti-war themes of his previous films, a predilection for ancient flying machines, magic, fantasy, and a young female protagonist of pureness of spirit coming to the rescue, there is a sense of familiarity about Hayao Miyazaki’s latest film, Howl’s Moving Castle. At the age of 63 however, Japan’s most celebrated and internationally famous animator shows that he still has something new and fresh to bring to traditional cel animation, expanding his exploration of those same themes more deeply and imaginatively.

Walking through the cobbled streets of an old, middle European town, Sophie Hatter, a young girl who works in a hat maker’s shop, encounters the mysterious and handsome wizard Howl. Escaping from formless black entities oozing out of the walls all around them, Sophie finds herself floating with the powerful magician over the town and her life is changed forever.

That brief association with Howl earns her the enmity of the wizard’s bitter adversary, the Witch of the Waste, who casts a spell on Sophie, turning her into an old lady who is unable to tell anyone about what has happened to her. Trying to find a way of breaking the spell, Granny Sophie leaves the town to go to the wasteland where witches and wizards wage a vast surreal war. Seeking shelter in the open country, she gains the assistance of a friendly scarecrow she has helped out, who finds her accommodation on Howl’s moving castle, a monstrous walking conglomeration of junk that houses the great wizard, his young assistant Markl and a fire demon called Calcifer, who provides the castle with the steam to keep it ambulatory.

Sophie offers to become the housekeeper for this strange group of magicians in their messy junk castle, which has multiple entrances through a magic door to shop fronts across the land, where they sell their spells to the ordinary populace. The ominous presence of the Witch of Waste’s minions remains a threat to them, as does the growing war that is gradually taking its toll on Howl. Sophie agrees to represent Howl at a meeting with the King and his chief magician Suliman to see if there is any way the senseless war can be ended.

Hayao Miyazaki’s latest film sees Studio Ghibli at the top of their form, expanding and developing their animation techniques as well as taking their storytelling methods to new levels. Relying for the most part on traditional cel animation, with only touches of CGI effects, nothing in the animation feels over-elaborate or unnecessary. Let loose in a magical world, the animators seem to have been given free reign to explore Miyazaki’s deeply insightful vision of Diana Wynne Jones’s story. The background designs are the typically detailed and colourful Ghibli designs – a necessarily well-rendered world for the characters to inhabit. The characters themselves though have been reduced to deceptively simplified designs that express more in the studied movements that are characteristic of Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli. Rather than have the typical flightiness of a young female protagonist this time, here the animators delight in showing the creaks and hobbles of an old lady - but since she is not really an old lady and seems to alternately age and grow young from scene to scene, they have their work cut out for them to capture in her changing form and movement the interior changes that are going on within her character. With similar attention applied to the beautiful hand-drawn animation of the changing forms of the Witch of the Waste and the lapping flames of Calcifer, the CGI effects of the Moving Castle are actually the least challenging and innovative aspects of the animation.

The attention to detail of movement is not however just an example of the proficiency and brilliance of Miyazaki and the Studio Ghibli animators, it has a real purpose, and it is in the exploration of this element that makes Howl’s Moving Castle one of the most progressive and innovative of all Miyazaki’s films. The traditional elements and themes from his previous films are there – showing nature in all its beauty as something magical, where humans, with their old-fashioned technology and flying machines can co-exist in a harmonious balance. But that equilibrium is under threat from ecological disaster from the pernicious affects of waste (personified here as a Witch and dark forms that ooze around houses and between cobblestones) and the devastation that war can wreak on such a delicate balance. This message has been explored in most of Miyazaki's films, to one degree or another, from Nausicaä and My Neighbour Totoro to Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away.

Howl’s Moving Castle however takes the rather obvious ecological warning of Miyazaki’s previous films and takes it further, showing the dehumanising affect it has on his characters, altering the balance of the good/evil duality that makes up everyone. It’s represented in Howl’s transformations into a dark, winged creature to take part in the wizard’s war, risking never being able to return to the true form of the person he once was after his prolonged encounter with the abyss of war. This is also reflected in each of the other characters, most of them, like Sophie, living under a spell where their true natures are hidden. Miyazaki goes further than this however and finds ways to graphically depict these complex and sometimes contradictory emotional states with abstract representations – from the early scene of Sophie’s initial falling in love and literally floating over the town with Howl, to the use of the flame to represent the heart, the spark sprites of inspiration and goodness, and the dark caves of Howl’s tortured psyche that appear to Sophie in a dream, littered with charms and protections to ward off the darkness of the soul. This is a masterful extension of Miyazaki’s artistry, reminiscent of the epilogue in Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira but taking it much further, and in a much more complex fashion than people literally metamorphosing into pigs in Porco Rosso and Spirited Away or the traditional fantasy depictions in the latter film of a young girl’s inner world.

Howl’s Moving Castle is one of Miyazaki’s most enthralling, beautiful, imaginative and colourful films. Only the precipitous capitulation of Suliman’s war machine at the end of the film feels rather unconvincing, bringing the film to a conclusion that is too rushed to have the necessary impact and do justice to the themes that have been raised, but otherwise this feature is further proof, if any were needed, that Miyazaki is the greatest living animator in the world today.

Howl’s Moving Castle

is released in Korea as a 2-disc Special Edition by Dai Won. The disc is in NTSC format and encoded for Region 3. English subtitles are included for the feature, but not for the extra features on Disc 2.

There is nothing that looks as impressive on DVD as a well-transferred animation feature. When it’s Miyazaki working on one of his most colourful and fluid creations, it’s even more so and thankfully the Korean Region 3 DVD release is fully up to presenting it as it ought to be displayed for home viewing. This is perfect – one of the best DVD transfers I have ever seen for a film. It’s flawless. Perfectly stable, showing no interlacing, banding or any of the kind of artefacts that often blight animation on DVD. A freeze-frame displays a stable, beautiful, clear, sharp and detailed drawing, fully rendered in eye-smacking colour with perfect balance and tone. There is not a mark to be seen, not a flicker, not a flaw.

The DVD presents the original Japanese soundtrack in a choice of Dolby Digital 6.1EX and Dolby Digital 2.0 mixes, as well as providing a Korean dub. The Dolby Digital 6.1EX mix is wonderful, perfectly balanced across all the speakers, allowing dialogue to remain clear and audible on the centre channel, while activity and expansive use of Joe Hisaishi’s typically appropriate and well-measured score fills the surround channels. This could only be bettered by a DTS mix, which I believe is available in the Korean Limited Edition Gift Set.

English subtitles are provided for the main feature and they are excellent. The font isn’t the smoothest, but it is appropriately sized and placed, relatively unobtrusive to the animation, translating the film well. Lyrics for the closing song are also translated, tucked up in the top left corner of the frame when it overlaps with dialogue.

Most of the extras are included on the second disc of the set and none of them have English subtitles. However, they are all standard features produced by Studio Ghibli and are designed to be accessible to everyone with the minimum of translation required for the most part.

Traditionally, they include the whole film presented through Miyazaki’s astonishingly beautiful and detailed Storyboards, shown here in multi-angle format with the film itself. The original soundtrack is provided for this feature in Japanese Dolby Digital 2.0, but only with optional Korean subtitles. Trailers (12:04) are presented in a reel format in letterboxed widescreen. They are mostly without dialogue and set to Hisaishi’s score. No subtitles are required either for the Music Video (4:21), which uses the closing the song from the film.

The questions in the Interview with Diana Wynne Jones (7:32) are in Japanese text, but her responses are obviously in English, and it is easy to work out what she is being asked. She obviously responds to how Miyazaki brought certain sequences to life and to the unique understanding the director had of the material. In an Interview with Peter Docter (7:20) from Pixar Studios, the director of the English dub of the film answers questions in the same format and shows a good appreciation for the film’s qualities. (I’d like to hear Christian Bale and Lauren Bacall on the English dub to see how it compares). A short featurette shows the various Japanese actors involved in the Japanese Voice Recording Sessions (3:56) – in Japanese with no English subtitles. Apart from the traditional Studio Ghibli Trailer Reel (13:17) (using more of the music score than dialogue from the films), the remainder of the features are Korean text-based, providing Profiles of the characters, and Biographies of Miyazaki, Wynne Jones and Hisaishi.

I know not everyone will agree, as each person has their own favourite Hayao Miyazaki film, but personally I think the director, while still remaining far ahead of anyone else in the field of traditional cel animation, has been treading water over his last couple features, not really expanding to any great extent beyond the themes and techniques established in Nausicaä and My Neighbour Totoro. Howl’s Moving Castle retains the magical charm of his early films that will appeal to children and adults alike, but his exploring of psychological states and representing them so effectively in animation represents a leap forward in a new direction for the Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli and consequently this is certainly the director’s best film since Kiki’s Delivery Service in 1989. The Korean DVD release contains a stunning Studio Ghibli-approved transfer of the film and the standard extra features. Unless you are keen to have an English dub, a Japanese DTS mix and really want those extras subtitled, this edition is going to be hard to improve on in the areas that count.

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