Having heard only good reviews about this anime adapted by renowned Japanese moviemaker Hayao Miyazaki, I decided to watch it on video one Saturday afternoon. And I never regretted it.
Based on the novel of the same name by Diana Wynne Jones, the animated Howl’s Moving Castle is a real visual treat overflowing with magic and romance, a combination that reeled me in like no other anime can.
In this classic tale about courage and finding beauty beyond the physical, Sophie, a 19-year-old girl who believes she is plain, has resigned herself to a drab life in her family’s hat shop–until the Witch of the Waste transforms her into a 90-year-old woman. While searching for a way to break the Witch’s spell, she finds unexpected adventures and discovers her hidden potential in a magical environment–the castle of the title. Sophie’s honesty and determination win her some valuable new friends: Markl, Howl’s young apprentice; a jaunty scarecrow who’s really an enchanted prince from a neighbouring kingdom; Calcifer, a temperamental fire demon; and Heen, a hilarious, wheezing dog. She wins the heart of the dashing, irresponsible wizard Howl, and brings an end to an unnecessary and destructive war. For the blow-by-blow summary of the film, try looking up this wiki page.
I’m going to delve right into why I loved it to bits. The movie starts with Sophie having a chance encounter with the enigmatic Howl in an alley, where the wizard rescued her from some ensorcelled creatures belonging to the Witch (voiced by Lauren Bacall). In the process, he took her walking in the air to reach her destination, holding on to her hands and encouraging her all the way. Now, Sophie’s a timid and diffident person by nature, so naturally she was awed by all that considerate attention Howl paid her. The beginning was rife with romantic possibilities, so how could I not get sucked into the story?
I was also instantly drawn to the characters played by Emily Mortimer and Christian Bale. Emily has this nice husky timbre to her voice while Christian as Howl was simply mersmerising. As the story progresses, I laughed along and sympathised with the aged Sophie, played by screen legend Jean Simmons, as she lamented over her circumstances but later plucked up the courage to make the best of it. Her tender heart and outspoken support of Howl also endeared her to Calcifer, played to delightful effect by Billy Crystal, and Markl. There were quite a few scenes of aerial battle and gloomy dark magic which nevertheless lends an authentic background to the story and gives it the political context that saves this story from being labeled as another fairy tale. The struggle between doing the right thing and taking the easy way out, and the value of physical vs inner beauty are issues that finds resonance within me.
In fact, I enjoyed the anime so much I watched it twice more with my kids, and we went behind the scene to see how the voices and the characters came together. I was so enamoured of this story I decided to buy the book too. I dare say this is one anime fantasy fans would enjoy. My DVD is out on loan to a colleague now, but I can’t wait to watch it again when it’s returned. This is seriously one of my best video buys ever.