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Spirited Away

A 2001 Miyazaki masterpiece

. "Howl's Moving Castle" (aka, "Hauru no ugoku shiro")

The first sign of amazement this movie caused me came from the foreign markets report in Weekly Variety in late January (it opened there in November, 2004), where its grosses exceeded $200 million--a figure this movie-loving country hasn't seen since "Spirited Away" in 2002! So, what on earth is a "Howl," I wondered. Mystified, and maybe a little perturbed at the absence of any references to something this big on our shores, I slowly learned that it was the latest anime' product from Hayao Miyazaki, unexpectedly following up his archly gripping Japanese story with a magical fantasy by a British author (Diana Wynne Jones).

After waiting months for it to be redubbed into English with an American cast voicing the parts, I can tell anyone who doesn't have something against animated features that there's a huge pleasure in store for them this season. I'm even agreeable to the publicity hype about Miyazaki: "One of the most original, influential and visionary filmmakers in animation." Miyazaki sets the standard for soul-reaching storytelling. In anime', he has secured the high ground.

Dealing with wizards and witchcraft, he weaves a spell of mystical fantasy. By its wardrobe and custom, it's sometime in the past in a region where kings rule and wizards advise. (The parallel to the current administration in Washington might not be accidental). With battleship airplanes flying the skies, it's futuristic as well as fanciful. But the prize for invention goes to the moving castle.

It's not only that it's a pile of machinery with legs, but also, and most incredibly, that it has several portals of reality in which it functions, from the countryside in the Wastelands to the bricked streets of Kingsbury, from fearful to idyllic -- you dial up the environment you want and step out into it.

Howl, himself, is the young, handsome master of the supernatural household, a sure-fire babe magnet--a winged heartthrob. He's also an emotional wreck, a wizard who flies and rescues damsels in distress while escaping his personal demons, curses, and destiny.

And, so it is one day, he flies down into the city and finds innocent little Sophie (aka, Zofi, voiced by Emily Mortimer) being accosted on a barren street by two army guardsmen. He does away with the thugs in short order but realizes that the bigger problem is the Witch of the Waste's black leech-like minions pursuing him and now he's brought her spiteful attention to Sophie, whom she will see as competition for the fair-feathered boy.

Sure enough, the hefty sorceress (demonically voiced by Lauren Bacall) shows up at Sophie's hatshop and casts a spell on her that turns her into an old woman, (now voiced by Jean Simmons). Fearing riducule and estrangement from her own family, Sophie takes off for the road where, once out in the Wastelands, she meets up with Turnip, the scarecrow. At first, she tries to get rid of the silent, well-meaning creature who hops around on its stick. But, as he seems to understand Sophie's need for shelter, she follows him to the magical, moving castle.

The place is a mess, with dust and litter everywhere, a typical bachelor pad. The host isn't at home, but his young apprentice, Markl (Josh Hutcherson), complete with phony beard, is. And, so is Calcifer (Billy Crystal), a demon who resides in the fire on the hearth and whose energy is what heats the furnace, the water and provides the locomotion of the castle, itself. But his power and willingness to use it for the Howl domain has come with a price. He holds the master's heart as a form of collateral in a contract of mutual need.

Before long, Grandma Sophie, has put a spit and shine on the place, making it feel more cared-for and homey, and becomes a fully accepted member of the Howl "family" as she gets involved in Howl's attempts to avoid a summons to appear before the king and the dark spirited, influential Madame Suliman (Blythe Danner), his head sorceress, who may have something to do with his ebbing powers. He's tormented by it, expressing his despair by melting into a green, gooey, mess that slops the floor... which Grandma Sophie's got to clean up. She exerts her gentle personal therapy to deal with his psychic gloom.

All of which becomes a Miyazaki vision that may have been initially conceived by a British novelist but which he turns into a soaring display of inventive daring, satire, humor and enchantment. He once again spins a story that only a fabulist can conjure, avoiding stereotypes in a medium that sprouts them like alfalfa. Calling this filmmaker an animator is like calling Picasso a painter.

While Chris Delaporte and Pascal Pinon with their "Kaena: The Prophecy," and Mamoru Oshi with his "Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence" are masterpieces of visual art, intelligibility is lost in both because of the need for a prior knowledge of their story references and meanings. Miyazaki's stories are complete and take us on extraordinary adventures. He insistently avoids stereotypes in a medium that sprouts them like rutabaga. No villain is without human, even admirable, qualities. No heroine doesn't have a dark secret or selfish habit. In a comparison, I'd put "Howl's..." closer to Sylvain Chomet's darker "The Triplets of Belleville" in its bending of realities and worlds than, even, to his own "Spirited Away," which occupies its own rare space.

After waiting months for this 2004 film to arrive, I realize why, despite an originality rising from a very different country and culture, the Japanese embraced it so heartily. Now, it's time for this cross-cultural original to work its magic around the world.




                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  


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Opinion Section
Comments from readers:
Very well written
This review will influence me to recommend read more by this reviewer
I've seen the movie and agree with the review
Site rating: 10

I saw this movie 4 times already and I was sadden by the many reviews in US. I felt like this movie is not correctly understood...but here it is! I am so glad to read this review. Miyazaki's movie unfold many secret of life if you know who to see it, I think. And I was really wondering why many reviewers say this movie is not well scripted. It is not as clear as some of his movies, and some messages is hidden well under the fantasy. But I agree that we can see ourselves in some instances in the movie clearly. Thank you so much for your review! It lifted my spirit!

                                                           ~~ Yoko 
Very well written
I've seen the movie and: I agree with the review
Site rating: 10

this is the hottest movie I've every.

                                                           ~~ miss b. 



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Sophie and Howl


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