Monday, September 26, 2005

Howl's Moving Castle

How can anyone not love a film called Howl's Moving Castle? With a title like that, it's got to be good. Even better, it's an ultra-literal title. There really is a guy called Howl. And he's really got a moving castle. On legs.

This, strangely enough, is not really the plot.

Howl's Moving Castle is the latest film from Hayao Miyazaki, the legendary Japanese animator who achieved a degree of mainstream breakthrough in the west with Spirited Away - a film whose reviews seemed to have been largely compiled using a special Hayao Miyazaki magnetic poetry kit featuring words and phrases such as "magical", "joyful" and "Japan's answer to Walt Disney." Spirited is a damnably weird film, with a plot that swerves all over the place (partly because he rewrote it halfway through production) and frankly doesn't altogether make sense, but which got away with it because it just had so much charm that you didn't really care.

Howl's is a very different beast, as it's far more plot driven. The plot in question comes from a 1986 novel by Dianna Wynne Jones, and centres on Sophia, a browbeaten apprentice milliner who (for reasons far too convoluted to go into here) ends up being transformed into an old woman by an evil witch, and runs away from home to Howl's castle, where she becomes the housekeeper. You'd normally expect this to lead to an entire film about Sophia breaking the curse, but instead the plot swerves merrily off in another direction entirely, and focusses on Sophia's relationships with the castle inhabitants, and Howl's own ongoing battle with the authorities.

Good god, but there's a lot of plot here. Even at two hours you can see Miyazaki struggling to fit it all in. ("Hi, I've remarried. Allow me to drop off this item. Goodbye!") The big criticism of this film, from some reviewers, is that the story is all over the place and it doesn't make much sense. I disagree, but I can see why it confuses some people. Not only is the plot hugely condensed - the cause of the war is left as a virtual afterthought - but chunks of it depend on a sort of poetic logic where you just have to be prepared to run with all this talk of Howl's heart and the somewhat arbitrary magical rules that go with it. It works because the arbitrary rules are set up long before they pay off, but there's an awful lot to take in. Heaven only knows what the younger kids must make of it. Some of them seemed dreadfully confused when I saw the film.

Personally, though, I'd rather have too much story than too little, and there's something quite appealing about the vagueness of the plot. Sophia spends much of the film quietly changing age depending on her mood at any given time - nobody ever comments on this, but you could happily spend the whole film working out exactly where her mood is changing and the character design is shifting.

In keeping with the original novel, Miyazaki sets his film in one of those all-purpose European fairy tale worlds, but with the quirk that all the magical aspects come from his own playbook rather than the European traditions. The castle itself is in a little stylistic world of its own and seems to have escaped from a Terry Gilliam animation. Oh, and there are sci-fi flying machines, because Miyazaki likes those, so he added them to the plot. All of which sounds like it ought to be a baffling style clash, but instead the elements complement one another and fit together as a beautifully imaginative world that inexplicably feels right.

Beautiful stuff. Miyazaki really is as good as the conventional wisdom says.