Tag Archives: anime

HOWL’S MOVING CASTLE (2004): “enchanting”

I admit to being utterly bewitched by this. Hayao Miyazaki is my favourite storyteller of all time. His Oscar-winning Spirited Away is one rare gem, while this, Howl’s Moving Castle, offers an entirely different picture: this is a dance through a tale of melancholy, youth and age, truth and the impossible.

I’ll be assessing this adaption of Diana Wynne Jones’ novel having seen the English dub. Young Sophie (voiced by Emily Mortimer), who works in a hat shop, has a spell cast on her by the Wicked Witch of the Waste (Lauren Bacall) that turns her into a old lady (Jean Simmons). Scared and baffled by her transformation, Sophie runs away. The Wizard of Oz touch lands with the helpful scarecrow she finds in the fields, while its the Notre Dame vibe that brings about Sophie’s sanctuary: her befriending of fire demon Calcifer (Billy Crystal) and Howl (Christian Bale), the troubled wizard who is as scared as Sophie of the world beyond him. Howl has refused to fight in a war raging across the kingdom. As these misfits fend off endless attacks, Sophie falls in love with Howl, even though she could easily be his great-grandmother.

I remember showing my own grandma Howl’s Moving Castle, unable to place what kind of film it is while we watched it together. There’s no commercial pang, nor a racy speed that pulls your emotions in a number of directions. Really, this piece is just a sublime little mystery, travelling across and around, eschewing traditional storytelling and prioritising character focus and emotional coherence.

The castle itself regenerates from being a wheezing contraption to a splendid magic-cave-turned-armour. This metamorphosis seems to hint redemption is possible for some of the evil characters fighting the castle, and it’s a bold argument the story dwells on at several points.

Warfare is the central theme, though. “No war is a just war,” says one of his characters. “You reek of flesh and steel,” complains Sophie to Howl. The possibility of annihilation hangs over these characters who you’ll grow to love by the end. The most visually spectacular scenes land when the screen is just a blaze of crimson tides awash like the blood of martyrs. It rings of rage, perhaps talking to the global wars of today.

Finally, I’d say this film is pretty much perfect. A seductively alluring half-dream, it sticks to its directors vision always and never patronises its younger audiences. It teaches us empathy and the ability to imagine, constantly asking you to immerse into the waters of its morality. Howl’s Moving Castle is vibrant and intelligent, but ultimately it’s just lovely. I found it enchanting.


THE TALE OF PRINCESS KAGUYA (2013): “in which the writer fails to criticise”

Someone recently asked me why I don’t, or we don’t, review films we dislike. For me, there are two answers to this: firstly, because I don’t tend to seek out films I dislike so am less likely to watch them (in theory). Secondly, I find it a greater challenge to articulate why I like a particular film, because it comes naturally to pick apart something and say how it is detrimental to the overall product, but I find it difficult to do the reverse without using sweeping statements. It gives me an opportunity to try and write properly, rather than descend into vitriol and spite.

So, how does this relate to Isao Takahata’s final film, The Tale of Princess Kaguya? Truth be told, I don’t have a brilliant record with Studio Ghibli; many of Hayao Miyazaki’s films have bored me, and many others I’ve found sub par beyond beautiful visuals. Mr Takahata is the one who breaks this mould – every film of his I have seen (Pom Poko, Grave of the Fireflies, My Neighbours The Yamadas) I have liked or appreciated beyond the animation. Kaguya, however, is perhaps the finest film I have ever watched. There is simply nothing I can pick a fault with, so instead of a genuine review you get two paragraphs about me so you can read something concrete before I smash my face against my keyboard.

I’m going to attempt to distil it down to three components: storytelling (in which I will include characters), visuals and direction. The storytelling in this film is mature. Not in the sense of it would be given a high age rating, but in a brutal honesty that comes from a writer clearly familiar with all the themes it tackles. It is astonishing how a film with such a slant towards the cosmic can be so grounded and feel human, real and truthful. It captures the relationship between a father and daughter extremely well: the dad just wants the best for his princess, but gets caught up in vanity without truly considering her needs. This creates a wonderful dichotomy, told in a subtle manner with the grace of a master at work. The story is told through music, visuals and the expressions of the characters over expository dialogue, and so creates this beautiful and ultimately profound tale with a densely layered emotional core. I’m finding it difficult to delve deeper into why it is so brilliant because it really got to me, and I don’t particularly know why. Something just clicked with me, and wouldn’t let go.

This is perhaps one of the last great hand drawn animations we will ever see in a cinema, and it is a thing of pure beauty. The use of colour is astonishing, perfectly capturing the time period, the characters and enveloping the film in a deeply natural look which sumptuously reflects traditional Japanese paintings. The animation is simply perfect, no other way to describe it. Everything flows gorgeously, and looks genuine. The facial expressions are a clear stand out. The Princess’ eyes convey joy and sorrow with humanity and subtlety, something more akin to a classic Disney tale. The emotions the characters convey feel real.

Direction… I cannot fault it. I really do apologise to you that I can’t give a solid review, and instead am looking for different ways to express how perfect the film is. It is beautifully realised, with a story told deftly and carefully. Everything is precision crafted to reflect the tone and messages wanting to be told. Isao Takahata’s final film certainly establishes him and his team as master craftsmen, if they weren’t before.

So… it’s perfect. The film is packed with soaring, joyful beauty and also captures the darkest moments of sadness and melancholy without feeling forced, ham-fisted or insulting. I am genuinely struggling to think of a film as beautifully crafted as The Tale of Princess Kaguya, and I just can’t. Please, see this film.

THE WIND RISES (2013): “Miyazaki’s masterpiece”


Hayao Miyazaki is an artist. His visions blossom into the minds of its audiences and relish with delight when dwelled upon. Most importantly, his work loves to be curious and smart. It hinges on questioning.

I describe Miyazaki’s work in terms of how it reaches children. The Wind Rises, Miyazaki’s 11th and final feature, is different: it caters to the adults. Themes of peace, the natural world, love and devotion are all weaved into a captured snapshot of a historical legacy, a memoir even. While this film celebrates the story it tells, particularly with dream sequences, the hefty conflicts and ethical debates it dares to articulate shadow every happy moment Jiro, our eyes here, endures.

That’s a lot. Really, this is the biopic of Jiro Horikoshi, designer of World War II military aircraft whose Zero fighter was essentially the Japanese equivalent of the Spitfire. In sequences that deal with this history the story’s scope expands. However it still eeks of the cool, lyrical breeze the aircrafts fly through.

Jiro (voiced by Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the awesome English dub) has been born into troubled times. Japan is stumbling into the modern age. Sometimes exposition is covered so blatantly I ask if this film needed a literal storyteller in a chair to read us particular bits, rather than show them a tad too bluntly. Is this the film’s intention, or a fault in its attempt to capture historical truth? The Wind Rises is unresolved there, but its artistic voice soars as high as its literal journeys into the sky.


Hayo Miyazaki’s final film definitely feels like a man’s inner demons writ large onto a screen. Simultaneously dramatising the life of Jiro, it contains themes very autobiographical as my fellow reviewer highlights.

I must admit, I have never really connected with any of Miyazaki’s films, often finding then rather boring or overly preachy. The Wind Rises, however, lacks both of these qualities to me. The narrative is tender and compelling, and whilst it does feature a message, the message is highly interesting and presented in a wonderful manner, through dream sequences of pure beauty and inspiration. It would be wrong to not comment on the quality of animation, which is holistically brilliant.

Everything looks natural and moves with a sense of weight. The people move in a very “human” manner, which is extremely impressive. The colour of the film is gorgeous, with many backgrounds looking sumptuous – you could hang any frame as a painting. Stellar from an aesthetic perspective.

To sum up my short review, this is the best Miyazaki film I have personally seen. It is extremely well made, and very inspiring. A great send off for a man with a lasting legacy.