enjoy Japanese films quite a bit. I was raised by parents who took the kids to Toho La Brea--a Japanese theater in LA that no longer exists--everytime a new movie came out. I saw comedies and dramas and, of course, samurai flicks. But the one thing that didn't exist back then was full length animation.
Now Japan had its animation. Tezuka Osamu was pretty famous in the 60s and his stories are animated, from Atom (Astro Boy) to Leo, King of the Jungle (Kimba the White Lion) to Mach 55 (Speed Racer). But these were mostly for TV. The only movie length animation I knew was Bambi, Sleeping Beauty and other Disney fare. So when Akira came out, I was pretty amazed. I was even more amazed when I saw Nausica. It was pretty amazing. This was followed by Laputa (Castle in the sky), Tottoro and Kurenai no Buta (Crimson Pig). These animations have been pretty consistent: They are all visually stunning, but a rather vague storyline. At least at first viewing. But much of the meaning comes to light, for me, after some reflection. And Howl's Moving Castle was no different.
*Warning* Spoilers ahead
The story is about a wizard named Howl who lives in a moving castle--duh! I haven't read the original story by Dianne Wynne Jones, but from what I gather, the characters are the same and the basic storyline is similar. A young girl, Sophie, is the eldest daughter of a hatter and she is doomed to spend the rest of her uninteresting life there. she considers herself plain and unattractive as well. One day she steps out, only to encounter a handsome man, who turns out to be the wizard Howl everyone is talking about, the one who eats the hearts of young girls.
Upon returning home, a fat old lady enters the hatter's store and remarks how plain and uninteresting Sophie and the store is. When Sophie asks her to leave, the old woman reveals herself as a witch--the Witch of the Wasteland as it turns out--who is after Howl, or more specficially, his heart. She then casts a spell on Sophie--turning her from an early 20s young lady to a 90-something hag--for associating with Howl. As a decrpit old lady, Sophie finds herself even more unattractive than she thought before and leaves her home, only to find a new one--thanks to a bewitched scarecrow she helps along the way--in Howl's moving castle. Here she first meets Markel, the wizard's assistant, and Calcifer, the fire in the castle's hearth that actually is the power source of the castle itself. The fire is bewitched as well, and Sophie and Calcifer make a pact to help undo each other's spell. Sophie decides to become the cleaning lady of the castle and makes herself at home when Howl returns home and makes no particular fuss over the new addition to the household.
It is from this point that the story grows complex. There are two non-descript, unexplained countries who are headed for war and they require the help of wizards and witches to defeat their enemy. Both seek the help of Howl--the wizard who turns into a feathered war bird in battle--as he apparently travels all over the place with his moving castle. His castle doesn't only move, its door can open to different countries and different settings just by "change channels". Howl is less concerned with the war than he is with escaping the Witch of the Wasteland, the reason why his castle is always moving. Ultimately, Sophie, who has since made herself an indispensible member of the household, convinces Howl to use his powers to stop the war, and they--a young wizard and an old hag--slowly fall in love with each other.
What is a mystery to me is that Sophie changes back and forth from a hag to a somewhat younger version of herself, although not completely to her original age--she still has gray hair. She seems to change when Howl shows an interest in her, but then there are times when it doesn't matter. M thought that Sophie seemed to change when she became excited and active in her defense of Howl. I thought that maybe the spell had to do with her self image: she intitally thought of herself as plain and unattractive, but slowly she feels more attractive, and indeed Howl says to her at one point, "You are beautiful", as her shift back to youth become more permanent. So maybe her physical self changes with her imagined self.
But what do I know?
The one thing I was able to grasp was the fire character, Calcifer--I suppose a combination of calorie (heat) and Lucifer. It is perhaps the central motif of the story. It represents Howl's soul or life force. Calcifer was--I think--the original spell that was cast on Howl. After it first entered Howl, he coughed it out as a living flame, as Sophie saw when she seems to have magically slipped back in time to witness this event. This is when she realizes that Calcifer is Howl's heart--in the Japanese, it is specifially referred to as "heart" 心臓 as opposed to "soul" 心, suggesting that it is the very source of his life. And this goes a long way in explaining why Calcifer insisted throughout the story that if he was extinguished, Howl would be extinguished too. I also explains why the Witch of the Waste wanted to eat Calcifer, even when she had turned into a powerless, even older hag than Sophie. As such, we can see Calcier as Howl's burning, emotional heart, one that restores Howl's humanity when it is returned to his body.
Anyway, I oculd be completely wrong, but at the very least, the visuals are beautiful, and the hand drawn animation of Miyazaki and staff are compelling, as usual. I just wish someone would tell him to make his storyline clearer, cleaner. He always seems to be open ended--which of course is not a bad thing... I think. It just seems like too much work for an anime...