Picture the scene: a young girl, one who is shy, humble, and self-deprecating. She’s also the girl on whom a wicked witch puts a curse. And the girl with whom the beautiful, powerful lead man falls in love.
So much for the clichés. This spectacular Japanese anime is a reimagining of the novel of the same name by Diana Wynne Jones, with some twists of imagery and theology which could only have been created by the celebrated (and recently retired) director Hayao Miyazaki.
Yes, dear Wanderers, this issue we’re preparing to wander off with Studio Ghibli’s Howl’s Moving Castle. Despite being billed as “a magical tale of adventure and imagination” on the DVD blurb, I would hesitate to call Howl’s Moving Castle a GUST, as although it is certainly enchantingly innocent and filled with child-like curiosity, the darker themes running throughout the film could lead some parents to doubt its suitability for young or particularly sensitive children.
The story follows eighteen-year-old Sophie Hatter, a girl lacking self-esteem, who has resigned herself to leading a dull life as a hat maker in a world full of war and mistrust. However (and whether this is a good thing or not is up for debate) fate has a different plan. Literally swept off her feet by the feared, mysterious and vain wizard Howl, Sophie is rescued from some lecherous soldiers who prey upon her as she travels across the city to visit her younger sister. Subsequently cursed by the Wicked Witch of the Wastes, a now ninety-year-old Sophie embarks on a quest to find a cure, but instead finds refuge from the world in Howl’s magical moving castle.
From this safe base, she becomes embroiled in the raging war waging its way across the country (it’s complicated and involves a prince from a neighbouring principality being turned into a turnip-headed scare-crow), and discovers that Howl isn’t entirely as he seems. In the midst of her adventure of self-discovery, Sophie also becomes entangled in the political situation of her own country – and realises that the king and his head sorceress intend on removing the magical powers from any witch or wizard who doesn’t obey their every command. Such is the intensity of Sophie’s love for Howl that we get the first glimpses of how the curse on her may be reversed: the traditional, to-be-expected-from-a-GUST ‘true love’ ending which seems to conclude every fairy-tale.
The English dubbed version is blessed with an astonishing cast of voices, both familiar and unfamiliar. Some voices to look out for include Christian Bale voicing Howl, a young Josh Hutcherson voicing his apprentice, Markl, and Billy Crystal voicing Calcifer, a “scary and powerful fire demon”.
There is no way I can satisfactorily conclude this review without mentioning the artists. Choose any scene from this film – any scene, even one which looks at first glance to be simple – and you will discover a richness of detail embedded in every aspect of the frame. Despite this, the ‘props’ the characters interact with – not to mention the characters themselves – are infinitely simplified, and in certain scenes this is overwhelmingly obvious, although the first-time viewer will tend to overlook these instances.
In this film, the simplification of both character and character-interacted props could be considered a negative aspect of the film – the detail lavished upon the backgrounds and the very design of the castle could be considered to have been let down by the simplification in the design of the characters. On the other hand, such is the beauty of the production that the almost caricatured design of the characters isn’t a major draw-back, although at times they can seem a little out of place in their beautifully-drawn locations.
So, Wanderers, to conclude: why should grown-ups watch this, a Japanese anime film geared at children with vivid imaginations? Because it’s visually stunning. Because the music is beautiful. Because anime is a genre which welcomes everyone. Because I hadn’t experienced Japanese anime until I was just past twenty, and a year on I’ve started my own collection (which naturally began with Howl’s Moving Castle). Because you’d miss out on a fire trying to curse the person cooking on them, saying “may all your bacon burn”.
Hannah Carter (is off to watch this for the third time today)