Howl's Moving Castle
Imagine a fairy tale Europe where the world wars never happened, a steampunk Europe of pre-war Dresden, Krakow, Paris, Budapest, et al, merged into one of narrow cobbled streets and wooden-beamed buildings and courtyards of different colours; imagine Hanseatic harbours of tall gables and market stalls with azure seas. Imagine finally mountainous meadows carpeted with flowers that glisten like jewels. These are the settings for Howl's Moving Castle, another masterpiece in Miyazaki aesthetic that conjures a range of paradises both pastoral and urban. The landscapes and townscapes which channel these scenes are the film's sumptuous highlight, and underscore Miyazaki's main theme and ultimate villain in the story: the self-harming destruction of war and what is lost as a consequence. Typically for Miyazaki, therefore, the setting and the purpose is carefully considered.
But the story, meanwhile? It peters out for me, as something purposeful, two thirds of the way through. This isn't just down to my own lack of concentration; I've watched this film on different occasions and still am not sure what to make of the ending, where a dozen loose ends are tied up promptly in saccharine comfort. A war that was tearing up the towns and burning the skies is suddenly brought to a close with the order of a high-ranking witch; a benevolent, silent scarecrow is revealed as a bewitched missing prince whose absence is meant to have been important, but will pass you unnoticed as a plot thread. The arc of the handsome wizard Howl is also confusing: towards the end, the heroine, Sophie, witnesses the secret to his power in a recreated memory, involving a falling star; yet it's also suggested that under the surface of his feminine beauty, Howl is actually an eagle-like monster. The plot, it must be concluded, is poorly signposted, and as Howl's wondrous castle begins to fall apart in the final sequence, it could be suggested that this is an apt metaphor for the movie as a whole.
But should this matter? With Miyazaki's films, it's the artistic settings that stick in the mind and bewitch you. Howl's castle, in particular, is a thing of fascination: a steam driven, magically assembled creature of balconies and breath-taking views; it roams the alpine settings, emerging and submerging in the mountain mists, and possesses a doorway to four possible locations, depending on which colour the dial is turned. It was this doorway, and these locations, that spoke to me most, as if based on the Freudian psyche of Superego (the towns and cities of social construction), ego (the countryside of our freedom of choice) and id (the black, raging war zone of trauma and monsters in this animated movie). Interesting too is the dialled location that opens up to a dark, rainy nothingness, to my mind an evocation of the Lacanian realm of the Real, where language ceases to exist.It's with the recognition of this Freudian/Lacanian presence in the scenery that the truth emerges from a critical perspective, and where my review feels strangely uninformative. In trying to reflect on the characters and the plot, I've relied on description instead of analysis. This isn't out of choice; it's because the most psychologically complex and politicised issues emerge not in the characters or the plot, but the scenery. I think I'll leave this review as it is, accordingly, in spite of its overly descriptive nature, as a reminder that to appreciate the work of certain artists, including Miyazaki, the danger is in looking in the wrong places.