23 June 2005

An Entirely Informal Conversation about Howl's Moving Castle

To do a formal review of Howl's Moving Castle, I would want to see it again, and see the subtitled version rather than the dubbed. But there were a number of images, questions, and moments that stayed with me, and I wanted to work through a few of them, so I asked Geoffrey Goodwin, with whom I watched Howl, if he wouldn't mind doing a completely informal discussion of the movie, and he agreed.

(Note: One of the references that recurs in the discussion is to something we talked about while trekking around Cambridge in search of the theatre where Howl was playing: We thought it might be fun to create a new Latest Dark Cabal. I don't remember why we settled on the title we did, but it amused us at the time.)

GG: Are we going to do this under our real names or as Dark Cabal II: Babies with Weaponry?

MC: Definitely The Latest Latest Dark Cabal: Babies with Weaponry.

You said after the movie that you were surprised you cared as much about Howl as you did. Have you thought any more about that? I suggested perhaps it came from the early scene where Howl -- before we know who he is -- rescues Sophie from some obnoxious soldiers.

GG: I've come up with a few possibilities for why I rooted for Howl from early on, one of which seems to hold water.

It could be that Howl rescues Sophie from the soldiers and then lets the evil black goop chase him instead -- echoed later by his making her invisible and luring the pursuers away when she's learning to pilot the wacky escape craft -- or it could be that Christian Bale's voice had instant cred for saving Gotham from the Scarecrow earlier in the week [in Batman Begins], but I think (and hope I'm right) that what really gave Howl my early sympathies was that he was being stalked by a shadowy presence from the get go.

Having not read the book, I didn't know who he was -- but malevolent entities (that were gloomy but had rhythm) chasing after him made me care about him and hope he'd be okay. You can call me shallow if you want, but I might have sympathies for any stranger who's being chased by mysterious black goop.

MC: You do realize, don't you, that once people read this, you're going to be besieged by people who expect sympathy just because they've been chased by black goop? You're leaving yourself wide open here!

Howl had my sympathies right from the beginning because he looked like a glam rocker the morning after a really wild night. Each to their own, I guess.

He seemed a kind of Byronic hero to me, even more in the movie than the book. In the book he's just egotistical, but in the film he's more obviously flamboyant. It's almost a disappointment when he matures, stops being moody, and becomes responsible. Some of the last scenes are positively domestic.

GG: Yes, I do realize what I've opened myself up for. And the door's wide open. In fact, here and now, I hereby (and now-by) establish a Black Goop support group. We'll hold meetings right after twilight on the eleventeenth of every month, right across from Howl's shack in the flowery glen. Stop in, have a sit -- both the tea and sympathy will be free. (As a disclaimer though: the amortization rates on shame and dignity will approach a breathless death faster than most would ever expect...but such is the nature of Black Goop support groups!)

I agree, the Howl character looked glamtastic, a Jeepster for Sophie's love and the throb of anyone else who happened to amble by...but my quandary was how Howl won my particular sympathies, because the "unfortunate hair and moping" scene made me question why I'd originally liked him.

Members of Poison, Winger, Warrant and even Trixter dressed as glammy as the laws of physics and spandex allowed yet didn't offer a millionth the frission of Bowie or Ronson, so (for me) it couldn't have just been the outfit.

And wild nights don't impress me. Wizards who party like it's 2099 (the actual year not the Marvel Comics imprint that went under for being, um, ahead of its time) and then manifest mad wizardry early the next morning while the other scenesters are still clocking their pillows...that impresses me.

You're right about domesticity being shown as a cherished goal. Cleaning and cooking are held on par with magick. It's almost like the Old Sophie made a snack so everyone figured she must've been a witch. This may explain a great deal about Martha Stewart and Nigella Lawson. Along those lines, do you think a complicated parallel could be drawn across Miyazaki's work -- as if the rage from being anti-war/greed, pro-environment and such (on a planet that seems to be losing faith in such principles) -- is softening toward a "Hey, there might be a nasty war and things falling apart but we can still cherish the small stuff" vibe?

As a corollary, Miyazaki declared retirement after both Mononoke and Spirited Away

(according to stories that I read somewhere or another, more than once, which means that everything is actual and satisfactual, even the princely neighbor who's randomly freed from his Buddha Scarecrow Nature in the final seconds)

and then rumbled back to direct his last two films, with HMC coming to him when Mamoru Hosoda (it seems) wasn't going to do it right (in Miyazaki's eyes?) -- so therefore, isn't the film a mediatation on how it's pleasant to find fire, childhood dreams and a cozy shack all at the same time? Or have a just smeared my wants across someone else's canvas?

MC: (It may take me a while to forgive you for evoking the names of Poison, Winger, Warrant, and Trixter.)

Actually, in some ways I kept thinking of Howl as William Beckford, but I have only superficial knowledge of Beckford's life. And then Howl's a French Decadent, too -- he even oozes absinthe-colored goo when he's depressed and dissipated. I guess it says more about me than the movie that I adored him because I kept thinking of him as a mix of Beckford, Baudelaire, and Bowie.

Domesticity, yes -- so is this an old, successful man's dream in his twilight days? Maybe. The war scenes were effective, but they didn't have the polemical power of similar scenes in other films, particularly Princess Mononoke, which can be a pretty shocking film if, as I was when I first saw it, you're not used to the idea of violent animation. The war scenes in Howl don't have any hurt, and I never really felt like the characters were truly in jeopardy. The ending was a reconciliation not against war, but against having to live a life with any requirements other than making sure the doddery old lady doesn't fall off the back of the castle.

To me, the ending was a kind of dream, or, less charitably, a resignation to the formula of an innocuous fairy tale, as if Miyazaki got to a point in the story where he thought, "Well, I can either end it honestly, in which case it will be the most depressing movie since Grave of Fireflies, or else I can just make it a Disney-style fairy tale." It doesn't have the complexity of the endings of most of his other films, which are more world-weary, more ambiguous, more a realization that fantasy ultimately gets trumped by reality for anybody who's sane. (Although this is less true of the dubbed version of Spirited Away than the original, so I'm slightly wary, since we saw the dubbed Howl. But it was just a matter of dialogue in Spirited Away, and here it was the entire last scene.)

A day later, what remains most vivid for you from the film?

GG: Thoughts that are in the forefront, now like 40 hours later:

*) Billy Crystal's voice wasn't helpful. Perhaps he's too iconic / recognizable for the role...and therefore not convincing as the fire demon.

*) Sophie's character is not as memorable as Howl, perhaps because she changed shape and voice. That interests me because I would've figured it'd be the opposite, that her polyphony and guises would make her stand out more. It does remain interesting that she aged without gaining new wisdom, inverting the typical equation. I still care about her, I just don't wonder about her future.

*) I understand and agree that Howl was archetypal in the French Decadent (or glam-decadent, archetypal anime lead) way and feel that his arc is tragic until the forced happy ending. In my head, I keep wondering about other endings. Is this a curse of the DVD era and bonus footage? Or, is the happy kiddie ending the result of market pressures. If it's in my head, it's the former. If it stands out even more in a second viewing, it's the latter. It might make sense to view Miyazaki as the sort of pessimist who doesn't want to bum people out as they leave the theater, a dytopian who believes in happy endings.

*) Got war? I've noticed the trend to throw war (like a glamour?) as a backdrop. I really like how Carol Emshwiller has deployed the motifs as of late. There's always been war, but when it flares up in the "real" "world," I understand it leaking into our fantasies and dreams. Thus, the war was added -- from what I've heard from you and others who've read the book -- but it worked for me. I like that it was nonspecific feuding. We didn't get an explanation of the sides or the reasons -- and I'm fine with that, because PKD and Grant Morrison have taught us that empires never end. I agree that Mononoke's war was much more frightening. I wonder how the jolly soldiers feel about magic. If those two worlds, soldiering and wizardry, interacted in the film, I missed it.

*) When I see HMC again, it might behoove me to give attention to Howl's shack. I want to understand its role more. There's a rich paradox between the lumbering castle that moves around to avoid detection and the pastoral shack that stays still but can be reached from doors that might be anywhere.

*) The idea that one can stop a fall by simply walking is lingering for me. It seemed cheesy at first yet now I'm still thinking about it. I'm reminded of The Hitchhiker's Guide and how one can fly by forgetting to fall or land. There's a parallel in remembering / forgetting that the ground exists.

*) The last wiggling thought makes less sense, but I'll try. It ties to the forced / kiddie ending. Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade, which I saw with grad school friends in probably 2001, has leaped back into my head even though I barely remember it. I can only presume that it is gritty and dark in ways Mononoke must've been and HMC isn't. I want to see HMC again, for many reasons, but understanding Howl's shack (and how war is there too, and the youthful pact with the fire demon, etc.) might help me understand the domesticity. I know I'm not making sense, but rewatching Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade and then HMC, there'll be an insight into culture, fantasy or art. I know it's there, I just don't know what it is.

So, it's early and I'm late, but those are this morning's vivid bits. Knowing me, the film's starting to fade and I'm beginning to superimpose my own poetics on top of it.

MC: Billy Crystal definitely made me wish we'd chosen to see the subtitled version, but I loved Lauren Bacall as the Witch of the Waste. Crystal just didn't fit the character, and he did his Billy Crystal schtick the whole time.

Sophie's not as flamboyant as Howl, so didn't draw my attention as much, but the moment when she looked in the mirror and saw herself old was, I thought, powerful. Also the moment when she said to Howl that she'd never been beautiful. I found her to be a more realistic character, more grounded. Her quick acceptance of her change (and this is true for the book, too, though to a lesser extent) requires a big suspension of disbelief, but perhaps in a world where magic is common, it wouldn't have been quite as shocking as I imagine it to be.

I think we're one of the few eras in the history of the world that could say that war as a backdrop seems like an appeal to the zeitgeist, since most of human history really is one where war is the backdrop. I liked how petty and unspecific the war was, too -- it's all hinted at, whispered about. I think there were more opportunities to integrate it into the story, but it didn't really bother me, because ultimately it felt like what I imagined the war would feel like to Sophie: something out there, something vague, something frightening but distant.

The soldiering and the magic interacted a little bit with the character of Suliman and with the wizards who have been turned into flying bombs. Do you mean the ordinary soldiers themselves, the cannon fodder?

The shack. Hmmm. I didn't give a lot of attention to that. I saw it as the pastoral calm, where Howl could keep one part of himself sane and quiet. And then that got threatened by the war, too. Part of his decision finally to act and try to end the war may have come as much from his sense that his one place of peace was threatened as from his sense that Sophie was in danger.

Any final thoughts?

GG: I still feel like a Philistine for preferring the dubbed. I know, deep down in my innards, that subtitles are purer. I just have trouble watching and reading a film at the same time. The words take priority. And yes, Billy Crystal schticks to the rowf of the mowf like peanut butter.

Perhaps Sophie comes across as less of a hero because the Witch of the Waste becomes so defeated that Sophie has to take care of her. If there'd been a big swordfight in a pit full of snakes, I'd see Sophie, young or old, differently.

Yes, I wondered how the everyday soldiers, with their carousing and such, would view the magicians. They'd have to view each other as separate classes. The opening bit with Howl stopping the harassment of Sophie might've given a peek, but it seemed to be an unexplored path.

I think everyone should see HMC. Miyazaki is as good as animated fantasy gets, even if things can Disneyify a bit. Ideally, there'd be a shadow cabinet of babies with both weaponry and cash who could give him the resources to do an adaptation (for adults) of the stories in Haruki Murakami's After the Quake.

MC: It's a fascinating, imperfect movie. Thanks, Geoff.

For quite a different discussion of Howl's Moving Castle, check out Coffee & Ink, where the conversation is well informed by readers who know and love Diana Wynne Jones's novel, the inspiration for the movie.


  1. Clearly the name of the Latest Latest Dark Cabal should be Black Goop Support Group. We will all recognize "black goop" as your transparent metaphor for the people and forces crippling science fiction and preventing writers from reaching their full potential, whatever those adversaries may be for today.

    So you both viewed the movie as Howl's story, rather than Sophie's?

  2. (For reference, I saw the subtitled version. I'll have to compare the dubbed version when the DVD comes out. Speaking as a Japanese major, I have no qualms about admitting -- nay, proclaiming that I prefer the English dub of Mononoke and the French dub of Porco Rosso to the Japanese originals.)

    When Howl was introduced -- the scene where Howl rescues Sophie from the soldiers -- I took an instant dislike to him. The soldiers never got to the point of being particularly threatening, even by Miyazaki standards. Whereas, particularly with that shonen-ai art style, I had no trouble believing that Howl made a habit of eating the hearts of young girls (as the rumors had already told us).

    (Of course, I took an instant dislike to Byron on sight, too. For similar reasons. Me and Byron, we're, like, natural enemies.)

    I actually liked Howl better in the moping scene -- even if I did want Sophie to slap him -- because it showed some vulnerability. (And maybe even because it showed Sophie some vulnerability.)

    I didn't read it that Sophie aged without gaining wisdom. Actually, I thought -- whether it was intentional or not, though from some negative reviews of the book, I gather that it might have been -- that it was an interesting twist to have the magic make her think like an old woman as well as look and feel like one.

    The war scenes worked well for me, but I was reading them in the light of not just Mononoke but Laputa, Nausicäa (particularly the manga version), the firebombing of Tokyo, Swimming to Cambodia, and Copenhagen, so maybe whatever I got out of them, I brought in with me. I'd like more to have been done with the idea (which may have been a misinterpretation on my part, but if so, it's one I prefer) that Howl had made commitments that would have had him helping both sides.

    What was missing for me there was something that you do get in Laputa and Nausicäa (contrast with Mononoke's samurai, who have all the moral complexity of Republic Clone Troopers): that the soldiers and sailors and airmen are also victims. (There was a bit of this in the harbor scene — echoes of The Scar, by the way; anyone else hear them? — but not enough.)

  3. Great, honest, enjoyable conversation!

    Yeah, the idea that, regardless of sides, everyone is a victim and is culpable in war definitely came through srongly.

    There's one scene in the movie that bothered me on a causality level. About 2/3 through, when Howl decides to fight back and protect Sophie, Sophie pulls the fire-demon and everyone else out of the moving castle. The castle collapses, they re-enter, and the castle is then remade. Why does this series of events occur? Did I miss something? Why leave the castle only to return a moment later?

    Thanks a lot.

  4. Yeah, that seemed like some kind of budget cut error or something.

  5. Mely: I don't think I saw the film as Howl's story primarily -- Sophie's the viewpoint character, and her adventures and experiences are the core of the story -- but Howl is so flamboyant that he caught my attention more than Sophie did on one viewing. Actually, an advantage of multiple viewings would be to be able to look past the superficial showiness of the character and see what else is going on -- with Sophie, with him, with other characters.

    And sometimes I think all I am is goop.

    David: Thanks for mentioning Laputa and Nausicaa -- I've only seen the latter once, since it just came out on DVD, but plan to watch it again soon. Laputa I know well, but for one reason or another I haven't paid much attention to the war/pacifism elements. That's the one film where the art overwhelms my sense of story -- so many of those scenes, despite have seen them many times, I just look at and completely ignore the story, characters, etc. (There's an interesting difference there, though, between the subtitled and dubbed climaxes. I first noticed it when I was showing the film to one of my classes and a student who is fluent in both Japanese and English, and who had nearly memorized the movie, said suddenly, "No no no no!" I turned to him and asked what was wrong -- thinking someone had hit him or something. "Those are not the words," he said. "Put it into Japanese and I'll translate for you." I switched to the subtitled version, jumped back to that scene, and noticed the difference immediately. [He wasn't thrilled with the subtitles' translation, but said it was mostly accurate.] It's been over a year now since that happened, and since I last saw the film, so I can't be more specific at the moment.)

    Kelly: You're absolutely right, and I had the same feeling with that scene. "Why'd they bother to go outside?" The way I justified it to myself was by thinking that for one reason or another it would take time and concentration to conjure the magic to rebuild the castle, and they just didn't have time in the moment if they were to save Howl. I also thought it could be like a computer: sometimes you can't just quit a program if it's not working; you've got to shut it down and turn it back on again to get a program to work. But it's just guessing. In truth, Miyazaki probably got to a point in the story where he thought it would be fun to watch the castle collapse, so he created that scene. And it was fun to watch the castle collapse.

  6. Matthew and David: I'm glad you both saw this scene as an inconsistency as well. But you're absolutely right Matthew, the castle crumbling and re-inventing itself was quite an amazing spectacle, and one of the images that won't quickly leave my memory. I've always felt Miyazaki's storytelling is best appreciated when approached with an open mind, but with an openness to dream-logic over strict pragmatism. Those who don't like Miyazaki, besides just not liking animation, usually have a hard time with how his stories unfold.

    Howl's Moving Castle, as I believe David mentioned, also suffered a bit from Disneyization. Especially apparent in the Billy Crystal fire-demon, which is probably the main argument for wanting to see the subtitled version.

    On Miyzaki retiring, lets just hope he doesn't announce it again any time soon.

  7. Matt -- Definitely check out the manga version of Nausicaa, too, even if you're generally not into manga (I'm not). Much more involved than the film, with a significantly different plot, and, I think, one of the best post-apocalyptic SF novels ever written.

  8. I watched the subtitled version a couple months ago in Singapore, so maybe I was spared Billy Crystel as Calcifer.

    Anyways, something I took away from the movie was how Sophie kept shifting between young and old. For instance, how her ponytail gets shorter to tell you she is aging. I liked how the particulars of Sophie's spell were never mentioned and the audience had to do the work.

  9. They went outside, I believe, to collapse the portals--though I can't remember now why they needed to do that. So Howl would know they were away? Except that then they went shambling off to tell him, so that can't really be it.

    I loved that ugly little dog.


  10. They went outside & collapsed the castle to remove the connection to Sophie's hometown, so that Howl wouldn't need to endanger himself protecting the castle's presence there, and then had to find him to tell him he didn't need to endanger himself to protect the castle's presence there.