'Howl's' dazzles but makes no sense

The Washington PostJune 17, 2005 

Anime master Hayao Miyazaki's 'Howl's Moving Castle' presents lovely images, but who can follow the story?

I never feel so utterly fraudulent as when I review a movie whose charms impress all in the world and I simply do not get it. I have never connected with "Gone With the Wind." "Lawrence of Arabia" leaves me cold. I am condemned as the cretin who failed to appreciate the epiphanies of Abbas Kiarostami.

Now, I am about to be nailed as the man who disliked "Howl's Moving Castle," the latest from beloved Japanese anime director Hayao Miyazaki.

Miyazaki's last film, "Spirited Away," won an Oscar and quickly became a cult object of girlpower. It told the story of a young woman forced to contend with difficulty when her parents were kidnapped by spirits after an ill-advised shortcut. Miyazaki is a kind of a specialist in young women in extreme circumstances, as both his previous film, "Princess Mononoke" as well as "Moving Castle," pivot on them.

In "Howl's Moving Castle" the young woman is Sophie, and her extreme circumstances are that A) she has been transformed into an 80-year-old woman and B) there's a war on. She struggles through both, ultimately triumphing. How can you not like this film? It is gentle, spiritual, driven by wondrous values. It appreciates magic and it hates war. It empowers young women, their pluck, their grit, their heroism. As the father of a young woman, I applaud vigorously.

It is, moreover, beautiful beyond telling. Miyazaki loves sylvan fields, sinuous objects, the sparkle and density of water. He loves giant, whimsical machines. He loves flowers, he loves love, he loves comedy. He's a saint.

Alas, his is strictly a visual sensibility. The movie made almost no sense. I could not follow it, even as I was dazzled by it. I waited for two solid hours for it to begin. Then it occurred to me: It has begun. This is it. This is the movie. There is no story, or rather, there's no force to the story, which meanders almost casually this way and that for no apparent reason. When it finishes, you wonder why it went where it went, if it can even be said to have gone there.

It's set in some fantasy reality that seems extracted from a variety of sources. One is Western European civilization at the turn of the century, when the straw hat, the bustle and the steam engine were all in fashion. The landscapes are hobbitty, all glens and dales and low mountains and ferns and glades and ferns and bogs and bosques and meadows, a kind of deconstruction and reassembly of various themes from romantic art. The cities are Tudoresque to the maximum extent allowable, Shakespearean arabesques piled atop arbors and arches and timbers. Meanwhile, aeroplanes keep dropping infernal devices on all of this.

The war, however, while evoked with all visual ferocity imaginable (vast blitzscapes of burning cities in the night), is curiously undramatized. It provides no urgency and fear and not even much anxiety. It's not even always there.

That's because of the movie's oddest conceit. Let's see if I can explain this. The cursed Sophie has fled to the protection of Howl's Moving Castle, Howl being a sorcerer whose attractions inspired the anger of the Witch of Waste, who put the curse upon her. Thus, Sophie took refuge in the Moving Castle, an exceedingly strange vehicle that wanders the landscape on mechanical chicken legs and is meanwhile an assemblage of turrets and arches and balconies, a kind of combination Nantucket rustic house and HMS Pinafore-style dreadnought.

Then the madness starts. There's a weird lever at the foyer keyed to a color-coded pie chart, and by moving the lever, you somehow move the reality. Whichever color you choose, that's the reality you encounter when you open the door.

Everyone under the age of 25 in the theater had no problem with this. As the only one there over 25, I never caught on. I kept wanting to know the physics of such a device and such minor questions as, given that, why would anyone turn to the war part of the pie chart?

If you think all this is some weird Japanese thing, let me hasten to add that the movie is completely un-Japanese in origin, derived from a novel by the English Diana Wynne Jones and financed by Disney and Miramax (though already released to huge success in Japan).

I should also add that many believe the film is best seen with the original, subtly nuanced Japanese vocal performances in place, the dialogue content then being expressed in subtitles. Maybe so. As it is, Disney-Miramax has released it with largely British actors reading the lines, including Christian Bale, Emily Mortimer and Jean Simmons. None of them registered to my ear.

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