The latest from Miyazaki is imperfect. Those who cried when they attained the zenith of pleasure while watching Nausicaä of the Valley of the Winds (1984), Castle in the Sky (1986), My Neighbor Totoro (1988), Porco Rosso (1992), Princess Mononoke (1997) and Spirited Away (2001) will think that this assertion is either impossible or heresy. Nonetheless, it is an undeniable fact. Then again, all the antigravitational rhetoric of the master is there, his brushstroke is still inspired and his palette remains rich enough to give the universe he puts into place all the charm of the impossible dreams of an omniscient kid, gracefully oscillating between the strange and the sublime.
In a mythical XIXth century Europe, where magic is an accepted daily reality (its participation is even requisitioned during wartime), a moving castle wanders through the land according to the whims of its mysterious owner, seductive young sorcerer Howl. Meanwhile, 18-year-old hatter Sophie is cursed by the vindictive Witch of the Waste, who transforms the young woman into an 80-year-old lady. Leaving her family, she finds refuge in the famed castle, hoping to find a solution to her situation.
Howl’s Moving Castle is not based on an original screenplay by Miyazaki. Consequentially, this second assertion might partly explain the first. The filmmaker said all he had to say about the dynamics of the Universe through Princess Mononoke and, in Spirited Away, about his intimate dreams. Henceforth, each of the aforementioned scenarios was written in close relation with its graphic expression. The narrative wasn’t sacrificed to the upcoming drawings, but subordinated to them, inasmuch as the tale’s principles sprung from the visual premises (like in Burton’s movies, for example). In other words, the storyteller defines the essence of what he wants to convey through the specific vision that guides the animators. Out of that come films that juggle countless ideas, but nonetheless preserve an absolute coherence and display a perfect development.
Since it’s an adaptation of a Diana Wynnes Jones book, Howl’s Moving Castle is the first Miyazaki picture in which some of the story’s parameters slip away from him, notably everything concerning the terrible war that’s shattering Europe (it doesn’t stop him from signing magnificent apocalyptic tableaux). If it escapes him, though, it’s not because he can’t translate its destructive fury (the insects’ charge in Nausicaä or that of the wild boars in Princess Mononoke prove otherwise) but because of an obvious disinterest. On the other hand, everything having to do with the moving castle, its occupants and the relationships they share is surely what attracted the auteur of Spirited Away (a film in which Miyazaki’s preoccupations are fully inscribed) to this British novel. Hence, the progressive discovery of the mysteries of the castle (from the architecture to its inner workings) and the characters (destiny and sentimentality) will have the viewer transported once again by the master’s enchantment.
Then again, in Miyazaki’s cinema, the epic and the grandiloquent (Nausicaä, Mononoke) tend to give way more and more to the simple splendors of quiet contemplation (Totoro), like Sophie being hypnotized by the beauty of a lake’s surface, as smooth as “inner peace”. Now, if the emotion inspired by such a spectacle remains, can we consider the imperfection (or unevenness) of the film to really be a problem? Only if critical ethics weigh more than laughs and tears.
Review by Jean Carlo Lavoie (translation by K. Laforest)