Every child’s cartoon needs a villain, or better yet a villainess. Her colors are dark purple and black, she is of an uncertain age, and she wears a great deal of makeup. She may be statuesque and austere (Cinderella’s wicked stepmother), or gorgeous and malevolent (Snow White’s Evil Queen) or gross and malevolent (The Little Mermaid’s sea witch), but one thing’s for sure–she’s gonna get hers in the end. We are encouraged to fear and hate her, and to relish her destruction.
In Howl’s Moving Castle, the latest feature by beloved Japanese anime (animation) director Hayao Miyazaki, the Witch of the Waste is a tower of haughty blubber. She is swathed in black and purple, with plenty of eye shadow swabbed under her arched brows, and her chins cascade down in a fleshy river. (In a delicious later scene, she is shown being carried about in a small square-sided litter, and appears to fill it up like pudding in a glass.) The witch steps into the hat shop of Sophie, a plain adolescent girl, and pronounces it tacky, and Sophie herself the tackiest of all. Sophie indignantly orders her out, and the Witch retaliates with a spell that will bind Sophie throughout the film.
We have an expectation of how things will go from here: Sophie will make lots of speeches displaying her spunky determination; the Witch will grow ever more threatening; at last there’s a big noisy battle in which the Witch is satisfyingly destroyed, perhaps thrown screaming from a precipice. Ah, sweet catharsis.
But in a Miyazaki movie things are never that predictable. Sophie awakens the next morning to discover the effects of the curse: She has been aged some 70 years. But after initial panic she pulls herself together. “At least now my clothes suit me,” she says. She sets out from her village and her adventures begin.
And the witch? Though this occurs moderately early in the movie, you might consider it a SPOILER; if you’re worried about that, skip to the next paragraph. The witch encounters a more powerful sorcerer, who strips her of a cloaking spell that has enabled her to look younger than her true age. The witch is revealed to be a plump old lady with a bland, open face, bright eyes, and the vague smile of a baby. Sophie ties a cloth around her neck and feeds her pablum from a spoon. The witch accompanies Sophie throughout the rest of the story, and often gives plainspoken good advice. She hasn’t been turned into a “good guy,” she’s as selfish as any normal child. But she’s become a believable mix of good and evil. Like most people in the audience.
Volumes could be written about the challenges a Miyazaki film brings to an American audience, but one that interests me most is this resistance to our default assumptions about good guys and bad guys. Whether it’s liberals hating “homophobes” or conservatives hating “pro-aborts” or everybody hating the KKK, we love to find somebody to hate. If we can locate a certifiable bad guy, we feel such relief; our own foibles seem excusable in contrast. There’s nothing we love so much as the cowboy in a white hat shooting the cowboy in a black hat, and that template leaks over into our daily lives and interactions. The results are not pretty.
Miyazaki’s world is not one of moral ambiguity–far from it–but one in which perfect goodness is clearly located somewhere outside of individual, fallible human beings. There’s “absolute morality,” all right, but nobody can claim to have it down pat, not in our crooked little hearts. Miyazaki’s patience with imperfection teaches us patience as well, and that is a first step toward compassion.
He drives home the point by having some fun with the design of the title character. The wizard Howl is an impossibly gorgeous young man: a smooth, triangular face, huge, glistening blue eyes, flowing yellow hair, a pair of green-jeweled drop earrings. It’s a weirdly androgynous effect, recalling the sexy-glam 80s (did you see David Bowie in Labyrinth?). Guys who look like this are a staple of manga (Japanese comic books). Howl’s appearance is in such sharp contrast to the simplicity of Sophie and the other characters that it seemed to me at first a misstep, but it turns out to be a brilliant element of the plot. The anime fans in the audience, quicker on the uptake, burst into laughter at the mere sight of Howl in lingering close-up, his hair waving in an impossible slow-motion breeze.
Miyazaki, one of the world’s last remaining artists producing hand-drawn animation, is famous for being meticulous, and Howl’s Moving Castle exceeds his previous high standards. The sheer beauty of its images is breathtaking, whether it’s the warm village of Sophie’s birth, the extravagant Kingsbury castle, the flower-strewn highlands, or the moving castle itself, which ambles along on chicken legs with all the grace of an accordion full of bees.
Yet fans of Princess Mononoke (1997) and Spirited Away (2001) may find the story less satisfying; the plot is more contrived, more active and driven, but the big-impact elements have curiously little impact. A war is going on, but we don’t know why, or whether to care. What would seem to be climactic moments turn out to be inconsequential, and the dramatic energy is oddly spent. It may be that, as with those earlier Miyazaki films, the story will be more appealing (I almost wrote “make more sense”) in the original Japanese with subtitles, than in the dubbed version. American voices may also drain something away. The character of the fire spirit, Calcifer, is voiced by Billy Crystal with his worn-out “Look, lady” attitude of nasal sarcasm, and it is consistently repellent, a fly in the ointment. But, oh, what ointment. You won’t see a more beautiful movie this year than Howl’s Moving Castle.
–Frederica Mathewes-Green writes regularly for NPR’s Morning Edition, Beliefnet.com, Christianity Today, and other publications. She is the author of Gender: Men, Women, Sex and Feminism, among other books.