Miyazaki's Delivery Service

Where the clouds are far behind: 'Howl's Moving Castle'
Studio Ghibli/Walt Disney Pictures

The coolest thing about Hayao Miyazaki's new film Howl's Moving Castle is, well, Howl's moving castle, a wheezing assemblage of rusty gears, chugging pistons, and rickety smokestacks that lopes across the countryside on four spindly chicken legs, like one of Jean Tinguely's self-propelled kinetic sculptures. Miyazaki, the son of an airplane designer, has always been fond of this sort of cobbled-together contraption. The fanciful machines that populate his films might even be a correlative to his own idiosyncratic, famously labor-intensive animation process: Unlikely as they may be, his inventions are imagined with such clarity of detail that they seem perfectly plausible. Howl's Moving Castle, a bit of a wobbly contraption itself, is likewise held together by Miyazaki's eccentric perfectionism.

Though based on a book by British author Diana Wynne Jones, Howl's Moving Castle is unquestionably a Miyazaki film. Fans of his work will recognize all the usual visual motifs: sun-kissed alpine vistas, quaint half-timber chalets, and many whimsical airships. There's even a mute scarecrow, who, in guiding the film's young heroine over the proverbial rainbow, recalls the benevolent forest-dwelling Catbus from Miyazaki's My Neighbor Totoro. Like many of Miyazaki's films, Howl's Moving Castle is set in a generic, romanticized Europe balanced on the edge of war. As a child, Miyazaki was deeply affected by the bombing of Japanese cities, and the specter of destruction from above haunts his work. There is here, as in nearly all of the director's films, a palpable yearning to see the world returned to its state of prewar innocence.

The plot of this new film, too, will feel familiar to anyone who has seen Miyazaki's 2001 masterpiece Spirited Away. This time, the heroine is Sophie (voiced in English by Emily Mortimer), a mousy teenager who works as a hatter (the non-mad variety, we must assume). One day, quite out of the blue, a wicked witch transforms Sophie into an old woman. Oddly, this turns out to be less of an inconvenience than you might expect. Sophie, now a stooped crone, simply brushes herself off and takes a job as a wizard's housekeeper. Like Spirited Away's plucky young heroine, who earns her keep scrubbing a spirit-world bathhouse, Sophie finds independence in her work. In developing these female characters, Miyazaki scrupulously avoids the creepy winsomeness that pervades so much Japanese animation. Far from being a saucer-eyed anime kewpie doll, Sophie is perhaps Miyazaki's most psychologically intriguing heroine yet: a young girl in an old lady's body.

Is Miyazaki repeating himself here? Obviously, yes. But unlike so many films for children that demand attention with the relentless clamor of TV advertising, Miyazaki's movies don't rely on novelty for effect. His is a gentler magic. What sets Miyazaki's films apart is the space they reserve for offhand wonderment. Not every beautiful image needs an exclamation point, Miyazaki realizes; nor does every clever fairy-tale reference demand underlining. Even the action in Miyazaki's films tends to unfold unhurriedly, pausing here and there to take a breath of fresh air or admire the velvet moiré of a sunset. In fact, the most dramatic action sequence in Howl's Moving Castle consists of nothing more than two old women climbing a long set of stairs.

For all their mellow charms, Miyazaki's films are also precisely attuned to the primal anxieties of childhood. There's a scene in Totoro, for instance, in which the Catbus takes the film's heroines on a nighttime journey through the forest. What gives the sequence its power is our realization that the two girls are trying to reach their mother, who is in a faraway hospital. Likewise, Howl's Moving Castle taps into a childhood fear close to Miyazaki's heart: the threat that the world will be swept away by fire. At the film's climax, even Miyazaki's beloved airships are pressed into service as agents of destruction.

Ultimately, Howl's Moving Castle may represent minor-key Miyazaki. It doesn't have the epic scope of 1997's eco-fable Princess Mononoke, or the enchanting dream-logic of Spirited Away. In tone, it's closer to the director's lovely, modest 1989 coming-of-age story Kiki's Delivery Service. This, too, is a small film about a young woman growing into responsibility. Indeed, the image that lodged in my memory after seeing Howl's Moving Castle wasn't of sweeping mountain vistas, shimmering cerulean seas, or fantastic shape-shifting creatures; it was the picture of Howl's castle itself, flapping newfound wings and taking lightly to the air.

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