Howl's Moving Castle
dir. by Hayao Miyazaki
premiered 2004
written 25 jan 2024

Studio Ghibli and its most celebrated films, spearheaded by the work of Hayao Miyazaki, are nothing if not defined by their artistic beauty in the medium they occupy. Irrespective of their content, the teams of animators, artists, sound designers, and the like, that spend enough of their lives perfecting each painstaking frame of the studio's animated features, deserve every ounce of praise that they have received. And perhaps no other film in Ghibli's canon is as deserving of that specific praise as Howl's Moving Castle.

It is not at all purely an aesthetic dream, filled with nothing of substance; it would be hyperbole to dismiss the story no matter how cluttered it can be, just as the castle itself is at its introduction. Yet without a doubt its narrative arcs—at once touching down on interpersonal conflict, war, immaterial love, self-destructive habits, and the magic surrounding simply being human—are loosely strung together, while at times still being applied to central acts satisfyingly well. In essence, the film still captures that critical feeling, that wondrous atmosphere all its own that Miyazaki and his collaborators are so enchanted in recreating, even if Howl is maybe their most indulgent rendition of it.

Its story though, a tale of hatter-turned-voluntary-outcast, flipped into fitting in amongst unknown characters and plot threads, before being flipped again via dedication and genuine care brought about through weighty happenstance—it's all so much, and it is exactly as any complex story with fuzzy minutiae should be. That foremost arc of Sophie as the lead and hatter mentioned, as she navigates it all, is truly immense; she is an amazing lead simply for being as intricately boundless as the events she's up to her knees in. A well-formed tapestry of her surroundings, she has relatable shifts in her perception and actions; while simultaneously effortless in her ability to persist, she still has enough deep concern for others to make her this amazing, confounded-but-well-incorporated focal point to this cross-knit tale.

Each side character as well has a well-inhabited space, be it the charmingly dense fire-spirit Calcifer, the loyal and slightly blithesome aid to the castle itself Markl, Sophie's opposite and villain-turned-half-ally the Witch of the Waste, or even Turniphead as unknown companion when Sophie makes her initial departure from home.

But the film not being named for Sophie's labyrinthine odyssey is no mistake, as the castle serves as this odd and wonderfully articulated portrait of its creator, Howl, a shapeshifting enchanter for which his role in the story serves as essentially parallel to Sophie's. Their interplay is at first minimal, him simply being the spark that initiates every turn the narrative has up its sleeves, yet by the end they are so twisted together after the castle's collapse as to be inseparable.

The castle's symbolism is slight though, its multiple entrances as coded mask-switching for Howl's outward demeanor, and its demise perhaps a symbolism of letting go, freeing oneself however (in)voluntarily, in order to keep from collapsing in on yourself. Sophie being herself, this interconnected muse and way-to-let-go, whilst still going through her own doubts and existential concerns, is encapsulated really quite well; it never leans on her as a sole savior or a perfect solution to a broken person's self-destructive and trying conflicts.

Because of that, this film is truly nothing without that dense linkage between the two, and how many meanings it paints with its imagery to show their development both separately and together. Its side characters are benefits most of the time, especially as companions to Howl's castle as that metaphor for personal impasses, yet they're mostly flat—which is both a drag in them being less vital, and a plus to highlight the two primary stars. And it truly is not the best example of an anti-war film as it is so prescribed, its ending in that specific arc just a bit too sudden and clean for how pointedly complex the rest is—even if its love-over-all sentiment is certainly felt.

But what it does well, it knocks down just as well as others in its lane, this pleasantly murky and atmospheric thrill with just enough needed pause and wandering to warrant its canonization. Its pacing is imperfect, but the spellbinding art direction and atmosphere, and the subtler themes that creep through are still brilliant. The messiness of the film doesn't distract from how well-incorporated the stick-out strings of its dazzlingly rich leads are, instead adding to how Sophie's place is so uncertain for the majority of the film's beginnings. It is an intense, emotionally draining feature in an impressive balancing act, of a bittersweet yet manic hope.

light 4 / 5
created by hand, by nat!

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