"Well, one nice thing about getting old is that nothing surprises you anymore."
Rumored to be legendary Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki's final film before retirement (although he's made that claim a few times before), Howl's Moving Castle is another fantastically imaginative if downright peculiar vision from the man who brought us such modern anime classics as Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away. The film is a fascinating merger of Western and Eastern storytelling that, like most of Miyazaki's movies, is designed as a fairy tale for children only on its most superficial level, but also contains some quite complex ideas and is told with tremendous filmmaking artistry.
Set in a vaguely Victorian-era magic realism fantasyland where steam-powered flying military battleships routinely zip across the sky and witchcraft and wizardry are taken for granted by the general population, the story follows a young hatmaker named Sophie, a rather plain girl without much self-esteem. Having crossed paths with the notorious wizard Howl, a flashy but shallow playboy who literally sweeps her off her feet during what was meant to be a simple walk through town, Sophie soon winds up at the wrong end of a curse from Howl's nemesis, the devious Witch of the Waste. Transformed instantly into a 90-year-old crone, the pragmatic young girl quite surprisingly adapts to her new condition quickly, observing that she's still in pretty good shape and at least now her frumpy clothes suit her. Setting off in search of a way to break the spell, Sophie will again find herself in Howl's company, moving into his magical home and establishing herself as his cleaning lady. Much grander adventures are in store of course, including a great war between two kingdoms of the land, the Witch of the Waste's ploy to steal Howl's heart (in the quite literal sense), and a conspiracy involving the king's royal magician.
Despite being based on a British children's book from author Diana Wynne Jones, the film is clearly linked both stylistically and thematically to Miyazaki's previous works. In fact, in many ways it plays as a summation of most of his recurring ideas and themes. Like Chihiro, the protagonist of Spirited Away, Sophie is a girl who has not yet found her direction in life, and through her bizarre adventures must learn self-reliance and maturity. The story's setting recalls the Industrial Revolution playground of Castle in the Sky mixed with magical elements from Kiki's Delivery Service, as well as the environmental and anti-war messages from Nausicaa or Princess Mononoke. The director also finds time to pay homage once again to some of his favorite Western stories such as The Wizard of Oz and Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Common to all his films, Miyazaki creates endearing, multi-dimensional characters (even the villains) and unveils many wondrous visions that defy description.
The greatest joys in any Miyazaki film come from seeing his skewed imaginings brought to such vivid, detailed life. From the curious blob-men who seep through walls and chase Howl around town to the corpulent Witch of the Waste, whose tightly contained fat looks likes it will spill out over her clothes at any minute, the movie reveals layers upon layers of wonderfully cluttered design and fabulous grotesqueries. Chief among these is the title building, Howl's castle itself, a ramshackle structure cobbled together from bits of things found along the way and held together by sheer force of will. Propelled through the countryside on spindly chicken legs, with each mechanical movement the building aches and groans and sighs, becoming as much a character as any of the speaking roles. It is truly a sight to behold, and cherish, and study in detail with rapt attention and amazement.
Some critics have complained that the movie's story gets overwhelmed by its style. While I admit that the plotline sometimes seems too ambitious for its own good and some of the preachier anti-war messages feel shoehorned in, Hayao Miyazaki is a skilled storyteller who makes movies of uncommon intelligence and complexity. His films invite an audience of children with their magical sights but do not talk down to them, and leave adults with much to puzzle and ponder. The ending of the movie is particularly complicated, but not impenetrable, even if it takes a second viewing to fit all the pieces together. And with so many dazzling details to absorb, multiple visits to this world are more than welcome anyway. It's the type of film that asks an audience to step up to its level, rather than sinking down to theirs, which is a rare quality to be admired.
Capping a career that has given us some of the finest animated filmmaking ever produced, Howl's Moving Castle is another stunning triumph from Hayao Miyazaki. Should it indeed prove to be his final production, it deserves recognition as a quite worthy swan song.
While the Region 1 DVD of Howl's Moving Castle from Disney has little to distinguish it from a quickie catalog release, Daiwon Video in Korea has treated the movie to a deluxe 3-disc Limited Edition. Packaged in a handsome box set that includes an animation cel, postcards, and a keystrap, the discs themselves contain a nice DTS track for the film and a fair variety of bonus features, some of which are English-friendly.
Note that these Limited Edition discs are hard-coded for Region 3 NTSC playback and will require compatible equipment to operate.
Derived from the same video master used for the official Japanese DVD release, the Korean disc is presented at an aspect ratio of 1.85:1 (anamorphically enhanced) with significant windowboxing on all four sides of the frame. This is similar to what had been done to all worldwide DVD editions of Miyazaki's Spirited Away. The intent of windowboxing is to counter the picture loss around the edges of the frame associated with standard TV overscan, so that viewers with any television can be sure to see all parts of the animated frame. While that may sound like a nice idea in theory, those viewers with zero-overscan displays will find their image surrounded by needless and annoying black borders. Because the image has been shrunken in size, this also means that the active picture content uses less resolution and therefore has less detail than the DVD format allows.
This windowboxing strategy appears to be endorsed by Studio Ghibli. It's interesting to note that although Disney complied with such a presentation for Spirited Away, their Region 1 DVD release of Howl's Moving Castle fills the width of the DVD frame as it should.
In other respects, the video transfer on this Korean DVD is nice if not spectacular. The film has a palette of light, pastel colors that are reproduced accurately. What I found distracting is that foreground objects, especially facial features, are often soft in detail, even when the backgrounds of shots have a sharper focus. This is a minor complaint, however, and will really only be noticeable to the pickiest of viewers. The picture has none of the edge enhancement artifacts that plague the R1 release. Overall, it's a fine-looking disc.
The following images have been magnified to showcase the flaws in both DVD editions, the softness in the Region 3 disc and the edge enhancement in the Region 1 disc.
The Korean box set has a strange selection of audio options. The movie's original Japanese-language soundtrack is available in DTS 5.1 or Dolby Digital 2.0. There is no DD 5.1 track in Japanese. However, the disc does offer a Korean dub in DD 5.1. That's a very odd decision, if you ask me.
Getting past that, the Japanese DTS track is a little bright in character, but does have nice bass and aggressive surround usage in selected scenes. The majority of the movie has a restrained and subtle sense of envelopment. The musical score is reproduced well. This is perhaps not a demonstration-quality soundtrack, but it supports the movie adequately.
The disc does not contain the English dub prepared by Disney and Pixar for the United States release.
Optional English, Korean, or Japanese subtitles have been provided, and are presented in an unobtrusive, small white font. The English subtitles come from the same translation that was used for the movie's U.S. theatrical release, which plays very coherently in English even if some of the movie's more complex ideas are not conveyed as clearly as they might be. Then again, it's Miyazaki, so they were probably pretty obscure in the first place.
Intended for Korean consumers, the Limited Edition box set has mostly Korean-language menus that may be a little difficult for English speakers to navigate. Although most of the bonus features are not specifically designed to be English-friendly, many of them contain enough portions in English that American viewers will still find them worthwhile.
Only the movie itself is found on Disc 1, not any supplements. Disc 2, however, begins with a storyboard presentation of the film from start to finish. Using the angle button on the remote, you can switch back and forth between the storyboards and the finished animation. I've been told that some people find this fascinating, but personally it does nothing for me. The movie plays here in Japanese 2.0 audio with only Korean subtitles available, but I would imagine an English translation isn't terribly important for those who just want to study the artwork.
Next we have some character and filmmaker bios in Korean text, which isn't too exciting. Following this are a series of Studio Ghibli trailers for all of their productions up through and including Howl. The trailers may not have subtitles, but you really don't need them. Along the same lines are 11 minutes of Japanese TV spots and 4 minutes of Korean TV spots for Howl.
Getting into more English-friendly territory, we move on to a 7-minute Diana Wynne Jones interview. This segment has only Korean subtitles, but even though all of the questions are asked in Korean the author answers in English and you can easily get the gist of the whole conversation from her responses. Topics under discussion include what she liked about the movie and which scenes were entirely of Miyazaki's imagining. Similarly, the 7-minute Pete Docter interview has been transported from a Japanese press kit; the questions are in Japanese with only Korean subtitles but Docter's answers are all English. The very geeky Pixar filmmaker speaks about his work on the English-language dub track, which is not even included in this DVD set, so it's a wonder why the disc producers threw the interview in. Without any English is the 4-minute Japanese voice acting featurette. This is just footage of the actors reading their lines from the movie and goofing around, so the context is pretty clear even if the specific words are not translated.
Disc 3 begins with the 16-minute Hayao Miyazaki Visits Pixar featurette, which comes from the Japanese press kit. Only Korean subtitles are available for the Japanese narrator and Miyazaki's side of the conversation, but there is a translator present who repeats everything Miyazaki says into English, and the vast majority of the piece is devoted to John Lasseter of Pixar anyway. If you've seen any of the introductions Lasseter recorded for previous Disney DVD editions of Ghibli films, you know to expect him to spend most of his time gushing about what a genius Miyazaki is and pretending to be his best friend in the world.
Wrapping things up are a 20-minute animation featurette that is untranslated but mainly visual, the same string of Studio Ghibli trailers found on Disc 2, and an additional series of Studio Ghibli TV spots for all of their productions.
No ROM supplements have been included.
Having given the film such a positive review, I am forced to note that I made the mistake of taking my wife, who had never watched anything by Miyazaki before, to see Howl's Moving Castle in the theater, and found that to be one of the biggest mistakes of my married life. She hated it. To paraphrase a famous Roger Ebert quote, she hated hated hated hated hated this movie. Hated it. Hated every second of it, from the first frame of the Studio Ghibli logo at the beginning to the last frame before the opening credits came up, at which point she promptly dragged me out of the theater and proceeded to chastise me in the parking lot for ever forcing her to sit through such horrid, worthless garbage. She hated it so much that she couldn't even articulate what she didn't like about it, just that enduring it was one of the worst experiences of her life and that I am never, ever allowed to pick a movie for us to go see again. Ever. Virulent reactions like this are not normally in her nature, and I'm honestly at a loss to explain this one. I can understand Japanese animation not being for everyone, but it's not like this is a Pokémon movie, though apparently in some people's eyes there isn't any difference. Oh well, it wouldn't be a marriage if we agreed on everything.
My wife's adverse reaction to the film notwithstanding, I personally believe that Howl's Moving Castle is one of master animator Hayao Miyazaki's finest achievements, and that anyone who appreciated his previous works will fall in love with this one too. Then again, I've been wrong about such things before, as my wife will gladly tell you.
I'm not a fan of the windowboxed video presentation, but it's only a minor annoyance in this otherwise terrific Limited Edition box set from Korea that contains a DTS soundtrack, some decent bonus features even for English speakers, and truly lovely packaging. This is a true film collectible, and as such rates the highest DVDTalk Collector's Series rating.
Howl's Moving Castle (Region 1)