Oscar-winner, New Yorker profilee, and international name above the title, Hayao Miyazaki is the one-man standing answer to the American system of corporatized feature animation, a whimsical auteur amid studio-branding homogenization. Smelling like a string of miracles, Miyazaki’s best films—including Spirited Away, Kiki’s Delivery Service, and Porco Rosso—are fearsomely strange, free-associative myth stories in which anything can happen but everything has emotional coherence, judgments are suspended, character is always in flux, and forgiveness is in titanic supply.
Loosely adapted from a 1986 popular teen fantasy novel by Brit genre priestess Diana Wynne Jones, Howl’s Moving Castle airily occupies a hybrid past, half fin de siécle Ruritania, half WWII siege (Wynne Jones was five in 1939), and half Tolkienian magic play. What isn’t superbly observed history is pure toy box. Giant battle planes rain bombs on Tudor Euro-cities, but also unleash swarms of flying war demons with pig snouts and top hats, to combat intervening wizards. The story involves the titular castle (a groaning, ramshackle house on mechanical chicken legs); a petulant, mysterious wizard named Howl (voiced in the U.S. version by Christian Bale); and the requisite Miyazaki heroine (Emily Mortimer), who is cursed with elderliness by a spiteful witch. Her plight quickly becomes a secondary matter—sometimes she seems to have forgotten her younger self altogether, and her later fluctuations in age go wholly unnoticed—because the war is raging, the king’s syrupy demon minions are hunting for Howl, the castle slowly collects an ad hoc family under the amnesiac crone’s commonsensical guidance, and age-oblivious romance inevitably takes root. I haven’t in years seen an American film, live-action or not, that has attended so carefully to the details of aging, gravity, destruction, and atmosphere. The DVD comes in both the Japanese original and the predictably semi-awful Americanized dubbing job, and the extras include docs about Miyazaki, Pixar (which co-produced), and the Hollywood recording sessions. Also released, in both original versions and dubbed, are Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro (1988) and the bewitching, Miyazaki-written Whisper of the Heart (1995).