Written by: John White on January 14th, 2006
Theatrical Release Date: Japan, 2004
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Cast: Chieko Baisho, Takuya Kimura, Akihiro Miwa, Tatsuya Gashuin
DVD released: 23rd December 2005
Approximate running time: 87 Minutes
Aspect Ratio: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Sound: Dolby Digital 6.1/5.1
DVD Release: IVL
Region Coding: Region 3 NTSC
Retail Price: HK$145
Sophie works in a hat shop and one day she is hassled by two soldiers and rescued by a young wizard called Howl who is being pursued by the minions of the Witch of the Wastes. Later that night the witch visits Sophie and puts a curse on her which turns her into a 90 year old woman. Distraught and desperate to reverse the spell Sophie heads to the hills where the witches and wizards live where she helps a bewitched scarecrow who takes her to the moving home of Howl. Once there Sophie becomes his cleaning woman and witnesses his fights with the Witch of the Wastes and Sulimani, the King’s witch. A great war rages on and Howl refuses to help the king to get another powerful enemy. Can Howl and Sophie survive?
In a recent program on Japanese cinema on the BBC, Hayao Miyazaki bristled when he was compared to Walt Disney – “Disney was a producer, I am a director”. Here the greatest living animator returns to similar themes to his earlier films Spirited Away and Nausicaa with this romantic tale of a curse undone by true love. In other hands, this could be mawkish sentimental rubbish but the romance and the momentum of this tale are irresistible. The realisation of the story is brilliant with excellent minor characters – Calcifer the fire demon, Markl the helper, Mene the spy dog and the Scarecrow who is really a prince.
The animation is never less than superb, organic and exacting. You never find yourself imagining the computer that drew this or that scene. Joe Hisaishi scores the film with his lush melodies and the mix of image, drama and music sweeps you along and helps you believe a handsome wizard could fall for a 90 year old cleaning woman. There is little social commentary like say Princess Mononoke other than war is foolish and a waste and the emotional drive of the film doesn’t reach the heights of Spirited away, or My Neighbor Totoro, his best film.
Howl’s Moving Castle will be one of the best films you see this year and a welcome reminder of Miyazaki’s continued pre-eminence in World Cinema.
The IVL 2 disc set presents the feature film on the first disc and loads up the extras on disc two. The film is presented anamorphically with the expected excellent print and the audio is available in Japanese 6.1 or Cantonese 5.1. The Japanese track is excellent with scarily real surround – at one point I was convinced someone was knocking at my front door when it was from the film! The English subs are by Linda Hoaglund who is a regular with criterion’s discs.
The extras disc is for the most part only subtitled in Chinese but bodes well for future releases with a complete re-run of the film with Storyboard comparison available on an alternative angle. There are contributions from John Lassiter who leads a Q&A about the film with Miyazaki and receives some great presents from Studio Ghibli including a toy version of the Cat bus from Totoro. Pete Docter explains how the English Language dubbing was done and Dianne Wynne-Jones talks about her delight at the film version of her book.
Howl’s Moving Castle is an essential purchase. If you are as impatient as me you may opt for this very good HK release or wait for the bounties of goodies that UK and US releases will bring in the autumn.