[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.