Hauru no Ugoku Shiro

Tagged: Film

Japanese animated film (2004; vt Howl's Moving Castle). Studio Ghibli. Based on the novel Howl's Moving Castle (1986) by Diana Wynne Jones. Directed and written by Hayao Miyazaki. Voice cast includes Chieko Baisho, Tatsuya Gashuin, Ryūnosuke Kamiki, Takuya Kimura and Akihiro Miwa. 119 minutes. Colour.

When staid young hatmaker Sophie (Baisho) meets the kindly but vain young wizard Howl (Kimura) they are attacked by minions of the Witch of the Waste (Miwa): Howl's magic enables them to escape, but later the witch spitefully turns Sophie into an old woman. Searching for Howl in the moorlands of the Waste she rescues a living scarecrow who, in gratitude, leads Howl's Moving Castle to her. A clanking Steampunk conglomeration of metal and buildings, its appearance resembles both a bug and a head. Sophie climbs aboard, meeting the fire demon Calcifer (Gashuin) (see Gods and Demons), who powers the castle; a boy apprentice, Marki (Kamiki), and later Howl himself.

With the country at War, its king has drafted all witches and wizards. Howl is in hiding, witnessing the aerial bombardments with horror: he regularly transforms into a flying creature to hinder both sides, but finds it increasingly difficult to revert. The castle is eventually broken up; Sophie learns Howl's history and the scarecrow is revealed to be a cursed prince, whose disappearance caused the war. At the close, Sophie, whose age has been fluctuating throughout the story, is now a young woman; Howl has emotionally matured into an adult.

Set in an imaginary early twentieth-century steampunk Europe, the film includes much magical Technology. Aside from Howl's castle, the most conspicuous examples are the flying machines (see also Airships): many resemble boats – from canoe-like light aircraft to immense battleship-like bombers; others resemble birds of prey. The ocean-going warships make the historical battleship Yamato weedy by comparison; cars as well as trains are steam-powered. At one point Sophie travels to the past (see Time Travel) to meet the younger Howl, creating a Time Loop. The castle's front door has four settings: one is normal, two open as shop fronts (in different towns) for Howl's aliases; the fourth only Howl uses.

Once the shock of her condition has worn off, Sophie comfortably settles into old age, observing "these clothes finally suit you"; her maturity enables her to act wisely and with empathy. Howl's room in the castle is a trove of wonderful brightly-coloured childish things, reflecting his reluctance to emotionally grow: but with Sophie he does. Unusually for a genre work, the virtues of old age are given greater weight than those of youth (and at the end Sophie retains her grey hair). Aside from these themes of maturity and compassion, the film's also carries a strong anti-war message (giving it a different focus from the source novel), reflecting Miyazaki's hostility to the US invasion of Iraq: its depiction of the strategic bombing of Sophie's city is horrific but also visually stunning.

There are flaws: some events are left unexplained – such as Sophie's volatile age and cure – whilst the finish seems a little sudden (Sophie kisses the Scarecrow, who reverts to the Prince, who immediately goes off to end the war), especially by comparison with the source novel's more complex plotting and larger cast. However, as is to be expected with Studio Ghibli, the animation impresses and the story entertains: this is a fine, inventive and memorable film. It won numerous awards, including the 2007 Nebula for best script. [SP]

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