Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Words – Christian Abbott
In 2004, the landscape of animation was rapidly changing. 9 years previous, Pixar released the revolutionary Toy Story, showcasing the very first fully 3D animated feature. The following years, and especially at the beginning of the 21st century, there was a race to switch from 2D to 3D, capitalising on the success Pixar had been seeing.
At the time of release, Howl’s Moving Castle was seen as something of a leftover from a bygone era, a defiant swansong for the 2D age. The swansong however, turned out to be premature, as once again Hayao Miyazaki (writer and director of Studio Ghibli fame) proved not only to be the master of visual storytelling, but also of an art form he dearly loves.
Based on a Welsh novel of the same name, we follow an uneasy and self-doubting young woman who, following an encounter with a witch, is cursed with an old body. To regain her youth and achieve the confidence she lacks, she embarks on a journey with a young wizard in an enormous walking-city.
The walking-city is this film’s most distinctive aspect. More of a character in of itself than an actual location, its look and aesthetic quickly became iconic. The steampunk design with its grilled face, spider-like legs and belching chimneys, has left a lasting impression in the imaginations of its audience and envy of artists in the genre. It owes more to the visuals of cyberpunk than the arthouse standards of Miyazaki. It is bold, loud; dominating the frames it resides and is all around wonderful.
While taking place in such a brutalist location, it strides through breath-taking environments. The harsh greys and browns are surrounded by punctuating greens and blues, bringing the whole world to life. Few could manage to write a story centred on such a mechanical location and manage to keep the picture so poetic and serene.
Inhabiting this world are some of Miyazaki’s most bizarre and colourful characters in his history. From wizards to witches, monsters and men, even a sentient flame, the scale of imagination and creativity compounds the film. Owed much to the original novel, it is clear why Miyazaki wanted to bring this story to life the only way cinema can.
Even after 16 years, these characters continue to delight for their complete and unique individualism. Again, there is a sentient fireplace – that alone, for making fire, a singularly dangerous element cute, demands attention.
It’s hard to really quantify the films of Miyazaki, even harder to compare them to one another. The term “movie magic” can be sweeping and often vague or misused. But here, when you take in the hand-drawn animation, the beautiful world and characters, the wonderful writing and the overall vision of the piece, it’s hard to describe it as anything else.
Back in 2004 the place for 2D animation seemed unclear in the world of cinema, 16 years on and we are still asking that question. There are good arguments made for both, but after watching this, there isn’t a more persuasive argument.