3rd July 2016, DCA
Hayao Miyazaki once again produced greatness in 2004 with Howl’s Moving Castle, following on from his previous successes My Neighbour Totoro and Spirited Away. Taking inspiration from Diana Wynne Jones’ eponymous novel of 1986, Miyazaki tells yet another tale of an unlikely hero; when young, hard-working Sophie has a fateful encounter with a charming wizard, she incurs the jealousy of the Witch of the Wastes who curses her, transforming her into a ninety-year-old woman. Not only is it interesting to see a youthful girl lose around seventy years of her life and take on a drastic collapse in physical strength, but it is also pleasantly empowering to watch a romance unfold regardless of physical appearance. It is the strength of Sophie’s heart that matters, not that of her body; the age of a hero does not affect their heroic properties. Sophie is instantly endeared to us as she emerges as an uncompromisingly strong female protagonist, her strength of character overshadowing that of the wizard, Howl (Takuya Kimura). Despite his magic and reputation, Howl appears as an unlikely damsel in distress, fighting his own personal battle within the delicacy of Miyazaki’s storytelling.
The film is set in a fantasy land where an all too real civil war is taking place. Fear echoes through the towns and there remains a steady threat throughout the entire film of this somewhat unknown and animalistic enemy that looms over Sophie’s personal endeavour. It is genuinely remarkable how Miyazaki can create such an aura of fear accompanied by a story that promotes the pure qualities of humanity. Not simply Sophie, but also her surrounding cast of peculiar characters become so individually warm that the family they have created feels incredibly real and relatable to our own ideas of family, friendship and love.
The pacing of this film is something I thoroughly enjoy. As a viewer, you are really invited and eased into this community before Howl’s appearance as a saviour sparks a series of events and questions that instigate Sophie’s adventure. You truly admire Howl’s good natured actions and the spectacle that surrounds his person – and thus, along with Sophie, you are led into the story.
In classic Studio Ghibli fashion, no character remains villainous or is truly punished for their actions – even if there are certain ones deserving of it. Miyazaki ensures most importantly that these characters retain humanity, and through love they are reborn anew and added to the family that surrounds Sophie. Storytelling that teaches you something like this, putting spite, retribution or vengeance aside and solely seeking a happy ending for every single character is undeniably beautiful.
Admittedly, I had never seen Howl’s Moving Castle before this screening in the DCA. It was one of those films I’d been recommended aplenty and already knew I’d like. I knew Miyazaki’s storytelling power and always ended up adoring any Studio Ghibli film I’d ever watched. I’ve watched it a fair few times since and kick myself for not seeing it sooner. With a cast of characters so whole and satisfying to observe, a soundtrack so crisp and delightful, and a plot so perfected that it grabs and grips you for an entire two hours before you realise that grip was a loving embrace – Howl’s Moving Castle is unparalleled. However, having the opportunity to see this on the big screen was amazing and I can’t sing the praises of this wonderful film enough. If you, like myself, have it on your “to watch” list, I implore you to swiftly change that and experience this great piece of art.