What probably fascinates me the most about Hayao Miyazaki’s movies is his persistent refusal to make the characters uni-dimensional. Throughout his illustrious career, Miyazaki has been careful to avoid the traditional format that many films geared toward young eyes often adopt: that of the clear distinction between Good and Evil, with the protagonists fighting to rid themselves of a villain that is evil purely for the sake of being so, and who shows no signs of having any personality beyond the negative characteristics that sustain the script.
Miyazaki is dissatisfied with such lack of complexity. For him, character are reflections of actual people – his characters, although situated in however fantastical settings and bodies, are real souls: full of jealousy and hope and desire and all those other things that make a person human. This was aptly illustrated in his 2001 classic, the much-acclaimed Spirited Away (screened by the Cinema Club the semester before last). A lesser-known work of his is Howl’s Moving Castle, a 2004 film based on a British book of the same name.
Howl’s Moving Castle is the story of Sophie, a perfectly ordinary milliner who is cursed by a witch and rapidly ages, her body transforming into that of a ninety-year old woman. Forced to leave her home, she decides to find the witch who had cursed her, and in the process, meets the strange and reclusive wizard Howl (famed for his many failed love affairs, and for the rumour that he ate out their hearts), as well as his companions, a wizard-in-training, Markl, and a sentient fire, Calcifer.
The story follows the growth of both Howl and Sophie, both highly imperfect creatures with their own idiosyncrasies and faults. Sophie is nervous and insecure about her appearance, a fault which she endeavours to hide by according herself a lower place in the world. Howl, on the other hand, is loud and immature, his actions driven by purely selfish motives. He is (quite literally) heartless, and is shown to be obsessed with physical beauty to the extent that he has a nervous breakdown when his appearance is altered. However, he is at the same time highly aware, consciously attempting to avoid war because of its tendencies to turn people into monsters. Over the course of the film, both of them grow and learn to come to terms with their own faults and with what is expected of them.
The original villain in the film is the Witch of the Waste, Sophie’s tormentor and Howl’s determined pursuer. However, true to Miyazaki’s form, the film goes beyond mindless villainy, exposing her as a real character with her own goals and desires. Even the secondary villain, Madame Suliman (who attempts to recruit all wizards and witches to fight for the country in a war), comes across as driven by duty than by any true hatred or desire to hurt. By the end of the film, you are rather sympathetic towards them, a testament to the complexity of their characters.
The only true evil is, of course, what plagues all humanity: war. Miyazaki is known for being a prominent anti-war activist, and his films demonstrate the same. In Howl’s Moving Castle, Howl is disgusted with war, which he feels turns people into mindless monsters (as shown with a rather obvious allegory). It is war that drives people to dehumanise and attack other human beings, that allows people to indulge in mindless butchery and slaughter. The evil in the acts of the film’s primary villains is motivated largely because of the pressure that war puts on them.
The highlight of the film for me, however, was not the complexity of its characters or the excellent directing; it was the Castle itself, a rickety old wooden building filled with cobwebs and spiders, which moves on a set of metal feet. The animation is, of course, stunning, with every aspect being rendered in great detail. Watch Howl’s Moving Castle if you are in the mood for something that is brilliant in its simplicity and lucidity.
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Language: Japanese, although an English dub is also available.
Run time: 119 minutes.