Two nights after seeing this, I find myself still captivated by the images and rhythms of this film. I’m not sure there is a filmmaker working today that better brings me to a place of wonder than Miyazaki. My mind is active in his films. I find myself thinking about what might be going on around a corner, just over a hill, or inside a random building. The worlds he creates are so utterly plausible that I can’t help but think there are all kinds of stories worth telling in and around the one he has chosen to show us.Yet I find myself asking a follow-up question: Just what exactly is so plausible about the worlds he creates? They are filled with strange creatures, wizards, witches, birds, giant babies, bouncing heads, flying dragons, and of course, the face of Studio Ghibli – totoros. So it isn’t the kinds of characters, per se. Rather, it is the characters themselves. Even if I’m not convinced that there are totoros wandering around in my backyard, the characters in Miyazaki’s films are dealing with real problems. He provides us the time to know them. There is always some kind of real life hardship that roots his stories in reality. Whether it’s Chihiro’s need to find her parents, Satsuki dealing with her mom’s illness, or Kiki finding her own way in the world of grown-ups, his films involve lone characters dealing with the real hardships of life.
Howl’s is no different. With another young female protagonist, Miyazaki brings Sophie to life as a girl who fears growing up. She receives all kinds of pressure to get out of her hat shop and do something for herself. She’d like to continue in the hat shop to honor her father who started the business, but also seems desirous of something more. She wishes she would at least be noticed from time to time.
In comes Howl, a wizard with a reputation for heartbreaking. But what follows is not the simple boy meets girl, woos girl, and gets girl, but rather a tale of them both needing to overcome significant problems in their lives. Either of their own volition or due to others forcing things on them, both Sophie and Howl are faced with the prospect of ridicule, injury, or even death.
The film is captivating, and in its honoring of the elderly, it stands unique among many films of its kind. Also, the visual inventiveness of the film never ceases to amaze and delight. For instance, so much of the comedy of the film comes in quiet, subtle moments that almost seem like throwaway moments. When Sophie first enters the castle, there’s a moment when she stops at the top of a staircase. All we see is the top of her head and her eyes just peeking over the side glancing this way and that. It lasts only a second or two, and if you blink, you’ll miss it; yet it’s so delightful in its simplicity.
There’s more to say about this film, but I’ll let it simmer for now. I’m planning on catching one of the few Miyazaki’s I haven’t yet seen in the next couple of days: Nausicaa, which is considered his first major effort with his own material. I am looking forward to it in eager anticipation.