The Emperor Has No Story

Sophie and Howl are the lead characters in
Sophie and Howl are the lead characters in "Howl's Moving Castle," directed by Hiyao Miyazaki. (By Nibariki -- Gnddt)
By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 10, 2005

I never feel so utterly fraudulent as when I review a movie whose charms impress all in the world and I simply do not get it. The other variant is that I love something the world disdains. This has had severe career consequences: I am still famous -- or notorious -- in certain quarters where I am recalled as the man who liked "Hudson Hawk." I have never connected with "Gone With the Wind." "Lawrence of Arabia" leaves me cold. Then, I am damned as the cretin who failed to appreciate the epiphanies of Abbas Kiarostami.

Now, I am about to be nailed as the man who disliked "Howl's Moving Castle."

Lord, give me strength! Also, IT, please disconnect the e-mail thing.

Anyway. "Howl's Moving Castle" is the latest from the beloved Japanese anime director Hayao Miyazaki, whose last film, "Spirited Away," won an Oscar and quickly became a cult object of girlpower. It told the story of a young woman forced to contend with difficulty when her parents were kidnapped by spirits after an ill-advised shortcut. Miyazaki is a kind of a specialist in young women in extreme circumstances, as both his previous film, "Princess Mononoke" as well as "Moving Castle," pivot on them.

In "Howl's Moving Castle" the young woman is Sophie, and her extreme circumstances are that A) she has been transformed into an 80-year-old woman and B) there's a war on. She struggles through both, ultimately triumphing. How can you not like this film? It is gentle, spiritual, driven by wondrous values, it appreciates magic and it hates war. It empowers young women, their pluck, their grit, their heroism. As the father of a young woman, I applaud vigorously.

It is, moreover, beautiful beyond telling. Miyazaki loves sylvan fields, sinuous objects, the sparkle and density of water. He loves giant, whimsical machines. He loves flowers, he loves love, he loves comedy. He's a freakin' saint.

Alas, his is strictly a visual sensibility. The movie made almost no sense whatever to me. I literally could not follow it, even as I was dazzled by it. I waited for two solid hours for it to begin. Then it occurred to me: It has begun. This is it. This is the movie. There is no story, or rather, there's no force to the story, which meanders almost casually this way and that for no apparent reason. When it finishes, you wonder why it went where it went, if it can even be said to have gone there.

It's set in some fantasy reality that seems to be extracted from a variety of sources: One is Western European civilization at about the turn of the century, when the straw hat, the bustle, the steam engine were all in fashion. (It bears a certain design resemblance to Katsuhiro Otomo's "Steamboy" but none of the vigor.) The landscapes are hobbitty, all glens and dales and low mountains and ferns and glades and ferns and bogs and bosques and meadows, a kind of deconstruction and reassembly of various themes from romantic art. The cities are Tudoresque to the maximum extent allowable, Shakespearean arabesques piled atop arbors and arches and timbers. Meanwhile, aeroplanes keep dropping infernal devices on all of this.

The war, however, while evoked with all visual ferocity imaginable (vast blitzscapes of burning cities in the night), is curiously undramatized. It provides no urgency and fear and not even much anxiety to the proceedings. It's not even always there.

That's because of the movie's oddest conceit, utterly bewildering to me. Let's see if I can explain this, not the why part but just the old-fashioned what part. Our heroine, the cursed Sophie, has fled to the protection of Howl's Moving Castle, Howl being a sorcerer who was attracted to her and whose attractions inspired the anger of the Witch of Waste, who put the curse upon her. Thus, Sophie took refuge in the Moving Castle, an exceedingly strange vehicle that wanders the landscape on mechanical chicken legs and is meanwhile an assemblage of turrets and arches and balconies, a kind of combination Nantucket rustic house and HMS Pinafore-style dreadnought.

So you think: Okay. It's a cartoon. They have funny things like this in cartoons. But then the madness starts. There's a weird lever at the foyer keyed to a color-coded pie chart, and by moving the lever, you somehow move the reality. One color is for the moving castle, another for a wizard's shop in a small town and still another for a huge city. Whichever color you choose, that's the reality you encounter when you open the door.

Everyone under the age of 25 in the theater had no problem with this; as the only one there over 25, I never caught on. I was behind from start to finish. Sorry, that's just the way it is. I kept wanting to know the physics of such a device and such minor questions as, given that, why would anyone turn to the war part of the pie chart?

Well, on it goes. It turns out that Howl, in certain iterations, is also a bird, or at least acquires a huge bird body (his handsome face remains amid his plumage and as such he goes out and shoots down enemy bombers). A lot of the business of the film seems to be about getting into magic doorways that take you out of one zone and into the other. And if you think this is some weird Japanese thing, let me hasten to add that the movie -- also like "Steamboy" -- is completely un-Japanese in origin, derived from a novel by the English Diana Wynne Jones and financed by Disney and Miramax (though already released to huge success in Japan).

I should also add that many believe the film is best seen with the original, subtly nuanced Japanese vocal performances in place, the dialogue content then being expressed in subtitles. Maybe so. As it is, Disney-Miramax has released it with largely British actors reading the lines, including Christian Bale, Emily Mortimer and Jean Simmons. None of them registered to my ear.

Howl's Moving Castle (119 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG for frightening images and brief, mild language.

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