The title contraption in Howl’s Moving Castle clanks and teeters through the countryside on giant chicken feet. The corpulent body, carpentered out of mismatched old buildings, changes shape with each step, as eaves and turrets and bays and dormers creek apart and collapse back together. From the face, two cannons protrude like telescoping eyes. From the rear dangles a cabooselike tail, fitted with a wooden door. Smoke blasts through chimneys and the odd crevice, as if to remind you that this machine belongs to the era of steam power. But then, the steam is produced by a captive fire demon, and Howl himself is a wizard, so you won’t learn how the mechanism works.
In its merger of antiquarianism and fantasy, artisanship and magic, the castle neatly sums up the art of its creator, Hayao Miyazaki. He is the only major filmmaker left who does traditional, hand-drawn animation–a laborious technique, which in Miyazaki’s use has yielded astonishingly strange and beautiful fables, such as Spirited Away. I recall visiting a theater not long after that picture won an Oscar, to see what reaction the film was getting from its new-found public. The place was crowded with parents who had assumed that a feature-length animation must be a kids’ movie, and who now looked worried. Huddled close to them were clusters of 5- and 6-year-olds, having an experience they will someday struggle to piece together with the help of puzzled analysts.
If you, too, go to movies with small children, then you should know that Howl’s Moving Castle is the story of a senseless war, which reduces cities to rubble and turns landscapes into crimson infernos. More immediately, it is the story of a drab young girl–a milliner named Sophie–who runs afoul of a witch and so is changed into a stooped old woman. This isn’t always as horrific as it sounds. Although Miyazaki lets you feel the indignities of advanced age–the drawings emphasize knotted fingers, beaked nose, bulging eyes–Sophie had never thought of herself as sexually desirable, and so she has lost very little in the way of hope, while gaining in recompense a great deal of craftiness and courage. These qualities prove useful when she takes refuge with Howl, a wizard of Byronic glamour, who has the great merit of being a war resister and the great faults of being vain and superficial. Yes, Sophie is in love with him, but she tries not to be bitter.
Miyazaki has taken this plot from a novel by Diana Wynne Jones, adapting it to his own spooky preoccupations without unnecessarily clarifying its meanings. Why, for example, does Sophie sometimes become younger again, just for a few moments? Miyazaki tacitly poses the question and then leaves it a mystery. You can be certain only that her transformations are brilliantly suited to his fluid style of animation. So, too, are the film’s many oozings and meltings: the dissolution of Howl into sticky puddles during a fit of self-pity, or the deliquescence of a haughty witch as she strains, sweating, up a palatial staircase, or the spreading through cracks of that same witch’s servants, a horde of shadowy, threatening blobs. For a filmmaker who so meticulously realizes his fantasy worlds, in both image and sound, Miyazaki is uncommonly drawn to the mutable, and (beyond that) the amorphous.
This is one of the big differences between him and the computer animators. Even though the latter have given us the underwater world of Finding Nemo and the malleable Elastigirl of The Incredibles, the texture of their imagery refuses to flow. They’re better at Ping-Pong balls than puddles; and just as they tend to make hard, shiny pictures, so too do they favor stories with clear-cut meanings.