Feb 4, 2011

[Movies] Howl's Moving Castle / Hauru no Ugoku Shiro (2004)

Howl's Moving Castle / Hauru no Ugoku Shiro (2004)I'm forever thankful to my partner for formally introducing me to the magical worlds of the Studio Ghibli movies. As amazing and powerful as each movie is for me, I can't seem to find the urge to rush watching them all at once. It's like the timing just has to be somehow "perfect" before we watch another one.

Each of the Ghibli movies seem to feature key themes in most of them. We normally have female protagonists or at the very least strong female roles. We have the friendly yet rather repulsive-looking old woman as a grandmother-like character. We have a love of nature or the land and the need for harmony. And we get different types of machines and devices with a definite steampunk feel.

So on a particularly good weekend we loaded this into our DVD player and again I was completely blown away. The brilliance of this movie will challenge my ability to capture my feelings in words, as is always the case with Ghibli productions.

Howl's Moving Castle is a 2004 animated film written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki of Studio Ghibli. It's loosely based on a novel of the same name written by Diana Wynne Jones.

Young Sophie (Chieko Baishō) runs a modest hat shop as inherited from her late father. She's a rather serious and somewhat precious young woman whose life changes when she encounters the wizard Howl (Takuya Kimura) by chance. He is taken with her for some reason and manages to save her from possible harm from two soldiers, but his attentions in turn attract the Witch of the Waste (Akihiro Miwa). She finds Sophie and casts a curse on her, turning her into an old crone and preventing her from even speaking of her condition.

Howl's Moving Castle papercraftImage by Ben.Millett via FlickrShe then runs off in search of Howl in the hopes of finding a cure to her curse. With the aid of a somehow sentient scarecrow that she names Turnip Head, she manages to find his castle, which has the ability to move about on its own on spindly legs. Inside she encounters the fire demon Calcifer (Tatsuya Gashūin), who offers to help her break the curse in exchange for freedom to move about once his spell with Howl is broken. She also encounters Howl's assistant Markl (Tatsuya Gashūin) and learns that the castle is linked to different locations around the country by use of a magical door that allows them to do business without ever leaving their location. By the time Howl arrives home, Sophie claims to have become his cleaning woman in an effort to stay near him and resolve her curse.

The movie is filled with interesting and bizarre characters which were either drawn directly from the book or are amalgams mixed and matched by Miyazaki to meet his purposes. But more than any other strange character involved, the most intriguing remains to be Sophie herself, whose appearance shifts throughout the film to match her emotional state or level of confidence. Thus in moments of deep depression she appears to be very, very old and as she feels better or asserts herself, she visibly gets younger, even if only temporarily. Thus the complexities of her curse play a key visual purpose as well in terms of communicating her progression in terms of the film's overall story.

The complexities of animating Howl's castle in itself boggle the mind. You can see that a lot of it seems very simple in terms of techniques and methods such as sliding pieces about and the like, but the overall effect makes it look like so much more. Ghibli definitely has a thing for the complex movements of mechanical constructs such as this one along with gelatinous structures such as the shadow servants of Madame Suliman (Haruko Katō) or Howl's own depressed state featured within the movie. These are not at all easy things to animate, especially by hand, and the end results are always quite stunning given the masterful talents of the Ghibli animators.

And in terms of lovable characters, another hallmark of Ghibli films, you can have your free pick of either the fiery Calcifer, the adorable dog Heem, the Turnip Head scarecrow or maybe even the young Markl and his elaborate costume when dealing with the outside world. Every Ghibli movie has this element and yet it never takes away from the entire experience, which is not easy to accomplish. They were all key figures in the overall story and pivotal in their own way to the eventual resolution.

Howl's Moving Castle is definitely one of my favorite Ghibli movies in terms of both the story front and the visuals front. It gets 5 creepy transformations by Howl out of a possible 5. Copies of the movie are available on DVD and you can also find copies of original book via Amazon and other retailers.

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