Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)


Young Sophie: They say that the best blaze burns brightest, when circumstances are at their worst.

Calcifer: Yeah, but no-one really believes that. Come on, let’s be honest.

 Now we get to the first movie that served as inspiration for my blog title. That process literally involved me staring at my movie collection seeing if I could somehow make up a cool-sounding name based on some of my favorites. Somehow, this movie ended up making the cut, and with good reason; it is one of my favorite movies (I have a lot of favorites…) and one of my favorite Miyazaki movies. Although I know, besides my husband, that I am in the minority in saying that, I’m going to attempt to prove everyone wrong in this review. Why is it my favorite, say, over Totoro, Castle in the Sky, or even Spirited Away? It’s hard, but let’s see if I can explain it (This will also be one of the first cases where I’m actually going to rate this movie below what you would expect me to for a “favorite;” I know this movie has flaws, but I love it in spite of it).

 Alright. Well this one is NOT a Miyazaki original. It was a book of the same name written in 1986 by British author Diana Wyne Jones. I have never read the book but I have wanted to since seeing the movie. Apparently they’re pretty different, but the general ideas are still there, and you can see why Miyazaki was drawn to this story. Here’s the movie plot:

 Our protagonist Sophie runs a hat shop. She’s off to see her sister one day when these strange mud-like creatures come after her. She’s rescued by a wizard named Howl. Later, back in the hat shop, the owner of those creatures comes in (she’s called the Witch of the Wastes) and is jealous of her being with Howl, and puts a curse on her, turning her into an old lady. (I’m starting to sense a theme with later Miyazaki movies… he sure liked curses!). Not knowing what else to do, Sophie heads out into the mountains, looking for a witch or a wizard who can break the curse. She meets a possessed scarecrow she calls turnip head, which leads her to Howl’s moving castle, which is literally a “castle” that walks (I say castle lightly, seeing as it’s just a bunch of junk put together… it’s not regal looking at all).

 Sophie enters the castle and makes herself at home before meeting the fire-demon Calcifer who is embodied by a fire and is the one making the house move. He recognizes that she has a curse on her and makes a deal with her: if she can find a way to break the curse that Howl has over him, he’ll break the one on her. She agrees.

 Eventually Howl and his apprentice Markl show up and Sophie says Calcifer hired her as a cleaning lady. We learn the castle’s door is a portal and leads to two different cities within the kingdom. There is a war going on, and Howl is summoned to the palace to fight in both cities using his aliases, The Great Wizard Jenkins, and the Wizard Pendragon. However Howl does not want to fight, and somehow talks Sophie into acting as his mother and going to see Madame Suliman at the palace for him. She goes, meets the Witch of the Wastes again, who has been summoned too, and meets up with Suliman, exclaiming Howl is too lazy to come himself. We learn that Suliman has stripped the Witch of the Waste of all her powers, and after Sophie stands up for Howl and his actions, he shows up and rescues them.

 Other stuff happens, there’s a bomb at the hat shop which is now a portal from Howl’s castle, and a climax in which Sophie learns what the curse is on Calcifer and how lifting it can help both him AND Howl. She breaks it, he breaks the curse on her (although had it already been broken?) and everyone lives happily ever after.

 Ok. I’m missing a lot of stuff in that plot that really makes the movie what it is, but I’ll talk about it through the characters. I do want to say that the plot is one of the reasons a lot of people don’t like this movie. And it’s true. It IS a bit hard to follow. It IS a bit boring at times. There are things that don’t make sense. The ending is way too rushed and confusing. You honestly have to watch this movie a few times to really understand it. I think that’s why a lot of people don’t like it. They don’t like a movie they have to think about or watch more than once or figure out for themselves. Unless it’s a movie like Inception. I happen to love it. 

 This movie has so much right at the heart of it. It’s a love story (I would argue it’s actually Miyazaki’s only really romantic movie, even though all his movies have a bit of romance/connection to them), but it’s also like Spirited Away: a movie in which a young girl learns the confidence she never thought she had.

 Sophie, in the beginning, is a mouse. She’s soft spoken, average looking, and believes she really isn’t anything special. In a world where the Wizard Howl is known for eating the hearts of young beautiful women, Sophie knows she doesn’t have to worry: she’s none of those things. So when Howl does show up, it throws her for a bit of a loop. After she gets the curse put on her and turns into an old woman, something interesting happens: after freaking out initially, it turns out to be incredibly freeing. Something about being old and undesirable makes her personality grow and her confidence begin to shine. She starts at Howl’s castle as a cleaning lady because it gives her something to do, but through dealing with him and learning about him and taking care of Markl and Calcifer, she learns to stand up for herself and speak her mind. Something about being old is freeing, and she takes advantage to the point where it actually changes her.

 I’m going to mention Howl first before I really delve into their relationship. Howl is, to put it simply, a selfish, heartless, baby of a man. He’s running from responsibilities. In some ways, he’s really a character you shouldn’t like. But yet, when you watch the movie, you can’t help but be incredibly intrigued by him the more you learn. He and Calcifer have this arrangement. What is it? Why does Howl act like this? Did something happen? He’s not exactly an open book. He doesn’t talk much about himself, and for much of the movie is pretty much a mystery. He’s got this problem where he’s slowly turning into this strange black winged bird-monster thing. Does this have to do with him and Calcifer? We’re intrigued because Sophie is intrigued. She thinks he’s ridiculous and childish, but something about him still draws her in. She cares about him unconditionally and wants to help him. We do eventually learn the answers about Howl, but in the meantime we’re left with questions about this character, which I think is part of what makes him so interesting. He’s a mystery, and I like that. The first time you watch this movie, you really don’t understand. If you’re completely oblivious to details, like me, then the ending the first time is a huge surprise.

 The more I watch this movie, the more I pick out, and the more intricate and amazing Howl and Sophie’s relationship becomes. It’s not easy to see the first time you watch it. It’s in the small things you pick out after watching this movie over and over again. This movie is about destiny. It’s about seeing through the faults of someone if you truly love them. Sophie has this connection to Howl that is a bit hard to describe. She loves him and wants to keep him safe. She wants to rescue his soul from turning into a monster, because I think somewhere deep down, she knows that he is a good person worth saving and worth loving. Perhaps she thinks that like her, he’s a bit misunderstood. 

 Howl’s actions with Sophie, on the other hand, are completely all about destiny, and I kinda really love it. It’s almost like a bit of time traveling weirdness. I’m going to explain this scene that really puts it all together for you. It’s kinda that “ah-ha!” moment for the movie when you understand everything and get the answers to all our questions. 


 Sophie has to break this thing that’s on Calcifer and Howl so that Calcifer can break the curse that’s on Sophie. The moment where she figures out how to do it is beautifully done and is my favorite scene in the movie. It’s near the end. The castle has just fallen apart because Sophie had to pour water on Calcifer to save the witch of the waste (we figured out that Calcifer has Howl’s heart within him, and she wanted it.) She’s at the bottom of a ravine and the door to the castle is there too. It’s open, leading into a black void. She has seen Howl disappear here before, and decides to go into it this time. After walking through nothingness, she arrives at Howl’s childhood. He’s at a home in a meadow we already know he came to many times as a boy. It’s night and there are shooting stars. After some amazing imagery with absolutely no words, we learn that the falling stars are spirits, and landing on earth is actually killing them. 

 Anyway, Sophie watches as a young Howl outstretches his hands and catches one of these stars. They’re seen exchanging words, then Howl eats the star and brings it out of his chest, along with his heart. To save the star spirit, he sacrificed his heart and essentially gave birth to Calcifer. This is the moment Sophie understands. She knows how to break the thing that’s on the two of them: she has to give Howl’s heart back and hope that Calcifer can survive. Calcifer can be free, and Howl can go back to having a heart, which should stop his transformation into a monster (It’s implied that this is his true form – it’s what he truly is without a heart).

 As she’s in this dream portal thing, the ground begins to give way. As she falls into the void, she shouts out to the boy Howl that it’s her, Sophie. She knows how to help him and tells him to find her in the future.

 BAM! This one scene explains SO MUCH about this movie it’s ridiculous. It explains why Howl acts like a child and is called heartless. Essentially, he IS still a child; he IS literally and figuratively heartless. He used his own heart and as such essentially gave away a part of him. Sophie even remarks when she returns his heart to him that it’s fluttering like a bird, and Calcifer says that its still the heart of a child. Howl literally had no heart. It’s why he was so stand off-ish and somewhat cruel. It could explain how he was so selfish. 

 BUT what I love about this scene is that it explains so well why the rumors came up of Howl being a wizard that goes around eating young girls hearts. HE WAS LOOKING FOR SOPHIE CAUSE SHE TOLD HIM TOO. I remember the second I realized this, probably the 4th or 5th time I saw this movie. In the beginning, when we first see Howl, he shows up next to Sophie and says “There you are sweetheart, sorry I’m late. I was looking everywhere for you.” In the situation and the first times you watch it, it’s just something he’s saying as a act because she’s in trouble with some guys who are trying to take advantage of her. But dear sweet lord it is so much more. He FINALLY found her. He heard her in his childhood and spent the rest of his life looking for her because he knew that she could save him and that she was someone who obviously cared enough about him.

 I think that realization makes this movie so much better. In some ways, it makes Howl’s connection to her deeper. He’s probably already decided that this girl is worth caring about, because obviously she cares about him enough to figure out how to save him. He’s selfish and heartless because it’s a side product of giving his heart to save another. That action alone makes him a much more likable character. Suddenly we realize he’s not heartless or crazy. We realize that he does have a heart, and it’s something that only Sophie can handle because she’s pure and the only person he can maybe even sort of care about.

 Ok. I want to move on to Calcifer, because he’s another extremely important character. He’s the fire demon/falling star that Howl swallowed. He makes a deal with Sophie about her curse: if she can figure out how to break the one on him, she can break hers. Neither of them can talk about their curses, but it’s almost as if he somehow knows that she’s different and that somehow she’ll be the one to do it. Most of the movie he’s depicted as the fire that is in Howl’s castle, but he has remarkable magic, as he is also the one who moves the castle from one place to another. He’s cheeky and sarcastic in the American dub, and offers for a bit of comedic relief. He’s also one to watch, and we realize early on that Sophie is something special, because he actually allows her to use his flames to cook – something that’s remarked on by Markl that only master Howl can do. He’s voiced by Billy Crystal, and in all honesty is a great comic relief character who has some of the best lines in the entire movie.

 Also in Howl’s castle we have Markl, who is his apprentice. He’s a small child but practices magic and in the beginning is almost more of a mini-adult. With Sophie there to act as a mother figure (especially when she embodies her old Sophie) he learns to take himself less seriously as the movie goes on. He’s a cute kid.

 We have a lot of minor characters, but the other big one I want to talk about is one of our villains, the Witch of the Wastes. She is the one who puts the curse on Sophie, and the next time we see her is at the palace where Madam Suliman strips her of all her magic, turning her into what she truly is (according to Madam Suliman). She ends up as a decrepit old lady who Sophie takes pity on. What’s interesting about her is that the Witch of the Wastes embodies the ideas of greed and jealousy. She for years has wanted Howl’s heart. In this movie, that means literally as well as figuratively. She isn’t working for anyone but herself, and because of that gets everything handed to her. After she’s stripped of her powers she seems a bit more manageable and less evil, but only until she learns that Calcifer has Howl’s heart, then she goes into a rage to get it, essentially destroying the castle and not only injuring those inside but Howl as well. Seems some things are hard to completely get over.

 Our other villain is Madam Suliman, who works for the king. There’s a war between two kingdoms because one thinks the other kidnapped their prince. Or something like that. Honestly, this is one thing that I really don’t like about the movie. At the end (SPOILERS) you figure out that Turnip head that has been following Sophie around is really the lost prince. The one they’ve been at war over. But honestly? You have no idea this is why they’re fighting unless you happen to listen very closely in the beginning to two people having a soft conversation as Sophie walks by. Or if you’ve read the book. Seriously, that’s it. That’s the only mention they have to why they’re fighting. It bugs me.

 At the same time, though, it doesn’t bug me that you don’t know why they’re fighting. Because as Madam Suliman remarks at the end when she finds out Howl has found his true love, “It’s time to put an end to this idiotic war.” WHAT? I know it’s anti-war man Miyazaki, but if you didn’t catch that they were fighting because of a kidnapped prince, what would this make you think? Did Suliman start this war so that she could get Howl? I just… I honestly don’t know. But Suliman is an interesting one we don’t see a lot of, but I still classify her as evil, and the “villain,” if only for the same reason as Jigo in Mononoke: we don’t know anything about her and she’s trying to hurt our characters. And apparently she can start and stop wars for no good reason.

 Alright. Characters out of the way, I want to talk about this curse of Sophie’s, because it is a bit confusing. The Witch of the Wastes casts it on her because she was jealous Sophie had Howl’s affections. She thinks that turning her old will stop him from wanting her. She starts off extremely old, hunched over, etc. As the movie progresses, there are certain times where she is not as old as she was in the beginning. She’s old but standing more upright. Wrinkles disappear. Most noteworthy is when she’s talking to Suliman about Howl and she goes from really old to as she was at the beginning of the movie right in front of our eyes. Suliman calls her out on it and she goes back to being an old lady. Or the scene where Howl first shows her the meadow he went to as a boy. She’s all young except for her silver hair, but he calls her beautiful and she morphs back into an old lady.

 So what’s going on? I mentioned that Sophie finds the older version of herself freeing – she can speak her mind and essentially be more of herself in that body than she could in her own, young body. The conversions to her younger self happen, I believe, when she’s in the midst of feeling like herself and gaining her confidence. It happens unconsciously, but when someone points it out to her or compliments her, she starts thinking again and turns back into the old lady.

 So does the curse get lifted by Calcifer in the end? Apparently, it is to be believed that the curse was already lifted. Apparently this was one difference in the book and the movie. In the book, Sophie was in fact a bit of a witch herself but didn’t know it. Howl could see through the curse and lifted it for her, but Sophie wouldn’t let him – unconsciously. In the book, that’s what accounts for the transformations back and forth. 

 In the movie, I dunno how much of that could be true. It’s possible Howl could have seen through the curse all along – we see him glance at her as a young girl when she sleeps. But there is nothing in the movie that makes you think Sophie is a witch. Nothing (unless I’m completely oblivious – which wouldn’t be a first time). Obviously it was dropped for the movie (which I actually think is a good thing). I think instead, the curse was all about Sophie finding out how to lift it herself, and in gaining wisdom and confidence she was able to do so, however any steps backward in her progress would reveal the curse again. By the end, she’s comfortable with herself, and Calcifer breaks any of the curse that’s left after he’s freed, and she’s her younger self again (although with silvery hair).

 Alright. I have to talk about the bad stuff, because it does exist. This is far from a perfect movie. I’ve already mentioned the incredibly difficult plot to follow (i’m not even explaining some of the details because that would make it ridiculous). I’m not going to lie – the thing that has always gotten me in this movie is this one part. I don’t know if its because of plot holes or what, but for whatever reason I can’t wrap my head around it.

 The point in question happens after Sophie is at Madam Suliman’s and rescues the Witch of the Waste. They crash land into the castle, and Howl decides to redecorate, making it bigger and adding another portal – this one leads to the hat shop and Sophie’s home.

 I understand why he’s doing it. He’s showing that he supports her, loves her, and wants her to feel like part of the family. But here’s my question: we already know that when the castle isn’t tuned into one of the portals, it just stands as an empty framed building. so… what happens to Sophie’s house? what happens to all the people who did work there? Was she the only one? Eventually her mother shows up (working with Suliman to find Howl), and acts all surprised to see her there. Doesn’t she live there? isn’t that where you, her mother, would expect her to be since you have no idea that she’s with a wizard? I mean we do see Sophie’s mother in the beginning right after she turned into an old woman. Does she live there or was she just visiting? if she did live there, where does she live now?? ugh. I don’t understand!! You never actually get the answers to these questions and it’s a bit bizarre. It’s something that has always bugged me.

 It also bugged me that that place was so short lived. They get there, Suliman spies on them, and then a bomb targets the house. It was supposed to be a enemy bomb – but was it? was it Suliman? Howl tries to save them, but they’re still connected to the house and Sophie decides instead of disconnect them from that place by pulling calcifer outside of the castle so that Howl stops protecting it. WHAT WAS THE POINT OF THAT PLACE!! ok. I really don’t get it, other than to show Sophie that he does care about her (which I guess is an ok point, but wasn’t the other portal to the meadow the same thing??). There is the argument that Howl is setting them up to be comfortable, suggesting that he’s going to sacrifice himself to save them. Sophie even points this out to him, and he doesn’t deny it. I guess this argument works, but I dunno. It still bugs me and seems kinda pointless.

 One more problem that I’ve actually gotten over is the voice acting. For the most part, it’s good. I’ve mentioned Billy crystal. This movie also has Emily Mortimer as young Sophie, Jean Simmons as Old Sophie, Lauren Bacall as The Witch of the Waste, Josh Hutcherson as Markl, and Christian Bale as Howl. For the most part, they all do a good job. Except – geez… Christian Bale. I mean, one of the reasons i’ve gotten over this issue is because Howl IS supposed to be a heartless unfeeling person for most of the movie. But I’m sorry, that still means you have to act. Some lines and their delivery are just SO HARD to watch. It pains me because I could act better. “heartless and devoid of feeling” doesn’t mean “wooden.” Sometimes some of the lines are very wooden. Anyway. I’ve gotten over it because it’s a stupid thing to complain about. And it’s only a few lines that still really bug me or make me laugh because of how… ugh… they are (Calcifer! You hang in there! – hahaha… just watch the movie and you’ll understand). 

 Wow – this review is a lot longer than I thought it was going to be. Part of me feels I have to justify my love of this movie. Other parts of me feel that this is a movie you either get or you don’t. You either like it or you don’t. You either feel the things about it, or you don’t. And that’s ok. 

 It’s messy. This movie and its plot is very messy. Its confusing, and intricate. But unlike Spirited away, which I feel may not even have answers to some of its questions, I view Howl’s Moving Castle more like a mystery: the more you watch and the more you catch, the better it becomes. You just have to let yourself see it. The stuff this movie doesn’t answer do bug me, but they’re just issues, and if you focus on them too much you forget what part of this movie is really important – the relationship between the two central characters.

 It’s worth watching for the characters alone. I’ve mentioned before that a movie can have a horrible plot and good character and I’ll love it. This is one of those movies. Sophie is a joy, and Howl is a character you feel drawn to although you don’t know why. The world of this movie is pompous and like a circus; the music is the same, and it’s incredibly beautiful (I’m actually humming it as I’m writing). Through all that joy, this movie also has this dark side that is almost downright scary at times with the war and Howl’s monster. It’s weird and quirky. The Castle isn’t a castle, but a jumbled mess of junk (it’s pretty much its own character, btw). But at its core is a story about a man searching for the woman who can save him. It’s not necessarily for young kids (they might find it incredibly boring), but it’s worth a watch.

 I give Howl’s Moving Castle (2004) a 4 out of 5. I would deduct more for the uncharacteristic sloppiness of this movie, but I can bring myself to do that because I love it so much despite its flaws.

 Up Next: Ponyo (2008)

Spirited Away (2001)


Zeniba: Now, try to remember as much as you can about your old life.

Chihiro: For some reason, I can remember Haku… from a long time ago… but I thought I never met him before!

Zeniba: Oh, that’s a wonderful place to start! Once you meet someone, you never really forget them.

We’ve all been there at some point in our lifetimes. that moment when we have to leave the place we call home and travel somewhere new. For many of us, this uprooting first happens as a child. we’re taken away from our school and our friends and thrust into a new situation where nothing is familiar and we know absolutely no one. Whatever confidence we might have said is taken away, and the fear of the unknown becomes the only thing we think about. At least, that’s how it was for me.

The idea of moving is the frame in the story of Spirited Away. Set in present day Japan, it centers around a young girl named Chihiro, who is moving from one town to another with her parents, and is not too happy about it. On the way to their new house, they get lost, go through a tunnel, and find themselves in what they think is an abandoned amusement park. They snoop around and find food cooking, and her parents begin to eat, thinking the park is still open and they can just pay when the cook gets back. Chihiro goes off to look around, finds a bath house, and watches as the sun sets. This suddenly transforms the place from abandoned to teaming with life, although not the life that Chihiro and her parents are used to. This is a place for the spirits of Japan to gather. It is a place to eat the food and visit the bath house, stay, and refresh after a hard day. She returns to tell her parents to go, only to find pigs in their place. After a few strange encounters, she makes a deal with the witch who runs the bath house, Yubaba, and gets a job at the bath house so she can keep an eye on her parents and figure out how to change them back. She gets to know the bath house’s employees, patrons, and has very strange adventures, all leading up to a test that Yubaba gives her in order to return home and turn her parents back into humans.

I will be honest. This is one strange movie. that being said, it’s also so engaging in its uniqueness that you can’t help but be drawn into this world and what this little girl is going through. Every individual looks different. Every spirit and its design is unique; some are noticeably based on real Japanese spirits, while others I couldn’t place. The animation is amazing. The characters are strange and wonderful at the same time. They are memorable not only for their personalities but their designs. This is another thing that Miyazaki does well: he is so creative that sometimes it makes my head hurt. The fact that this man can come up with so many movies that are so different is something that I can’t wrap my head around. I’ve heard that everyone has at least one story in them worth telling. Well… Miyzaki has like twenty of them. This one definitely takes the cake for the MOST original. As such, it is the most unique and most strange.

It is also the most Japanese of his movies. Princess Mononoke and Totoro are as well, but this one… i dunno, it almost feels more Japanese. Each spirit represents something, whether it be a river, vegetable, or belief. The idea of the bath house in general is very Japanese. The clothes are Japanese. The animation is very Japanese. I think maybe that’s why westerners like this movie: It gives an idea of Japanese culture and beliefs through this strange story that they may not understand, but love it because it’s unique and has characters that are so mezmerising and deep and they are immersed into this world that is so unbelievable but so engaging at the same time.

Let’s start talking about some of these great characters. Our protagonist is a young girl named Chihiro. I have to admit, I’m actually not a fan of her. At least at the beginning. I think that’s actually the point, but oh my goodness is she a whiny little brat. She needs help with everything. She whines whenever she opens her mouth. She has no confidence whatsoever. You can tell she’s smart, and she has it in her to be confident, but she for whatever reason cannot access it. Essentially that is what this movie about. It’s about a girl discovering what she’s capable of and pushing herself to the brink for those she cares about.

She is, as Miyazaki does so well, a wonderful representation of a child. She’s innocent and naive. She almost assumes the best out of everyone (the character of No Face as well as Haku are a good examples of that). She’s not drawn into such “adult” matters as believing rumors or greed. Instead, she knows that some people are trying to help her, and that is enough reason for her to trust them and love them. She sees a character standing out in the rain and assumes the best of him and leaves a door open. She’s a kid. There is no reason for her to think ill of anyone unless they do her harm.

She is also a strong female character. If anything, she shows the progression so well INTO a strong character that in some aspects, she might be the best one Miyazaki’s ever written. The transformation she goes through is amazing. She goes from a whining little brat who has issues asking anyone for help or telling anyone what she needs (instead of asking) to being a girl who can stand up to a monster that everyone else is afraid of, and going on a journey to an “evil” witch’s house to save the person she cares about. She grows and changes so much during her time in the bath house that at the end of the movie she is almost unrecognizable.

There are a lot of characters in this movie. Most have smaller parts, but many help Chihiro on her path. One of these, possibly the most important, is Haku. He is a spirit (he can shape shift from a man to a dragon – his dragon is beautiful) who forgets his real name and can’t find his way home. He explains to Chihiro that this is part of the way the witch Yubaba controls you – she takes your name. She does to Chihiro, turning her into Sen. The longer you’re at the bath house, the more you forget. He almost acts as her friend, confidant and mentor through the movie. he saves her from disappearing into nothingness when she first arrives, and he’s the one who tells her what to do to keep herself from getting in trouble with Yubaba. He looks out for her, and as a result their bond is very strong. It’s one that is remarked on having existed since before she got there (“I’ve known you since you were very young” he says to her at one point). 

At the same time, Haku is also Yubaba’s “henchman.” Sen (I’ll refer to her as that from now on considering she goes through most of the movie being called that) even at one point asks another character if there’s two Hakus. He’s charged with doing Yubaba’s dirty work, according the the other characters, and he’s someone you can’t trust.

This is kinda who I was talking about when I mentioned rumors up above. Whether they are true or not (they kinda are – Haku does end up in trouble because of a mission he was on for Yubaba), Sen doesn’t care. She knows he helped her, and she’s willing to look past all that because she knows deep down he’s a good person. If someone asked her why, could she explain? I have no idea – probably not, but she doesn’t care. She knows he’s good, and is willing to do anything for him. That’s more than a lot of us could do. Because you’re following Sen during this, you almost get the feeling from Haku that he does these things because he has to – because Yubaba essentially owns him. He doesn’t remember his name or his home. What else could he do?

The most trying part of Sen and Haku’s relationship comes when she finds him hurt, having been the recipient of a curse from Yubaba’s sister, Zaniba. He was sent there by Yubaba to steal her magic seal, and as a result she cursed him. To save him, Sen journeys out to Zaniba’s to return the seal and finds that her love of him cured Haku of his curse. It’s pure love. It’s the love of a child, and it is unbelievable to watch.

Let’s talk about our “antagonist” for a moment – the witch Yubaba. First of all, her character design is nothing like you’ve ever seen. She’s got an amazingly huge head, giant eyes, and you can see literally every wrinkle on her face. She is unbelievable. Put that awesome design aside, you have a strange, zany, almost crazy witch who runs the bath house. She cares about making her patrons happy, is upset that Sen’s parents ate the spirits’ food, and acted accordingly. She has no reason to view humans as her friends, and is incredibly smart and tricky. Like Lady Eboshi in Mononoke, I have a real problem calling her a “villain.” Yeah, she’s causing trouble for our main character because of what she did to her parents, but you can see why. We hear about what she’s doing/done to Haku, and as a character she does seem a bit “shifty,” (she leaves on strange missions and has her accomplices patrol the bath house area), but you never actually find out why she’s going out, why she’s patrolling, or even why she wanted her sister’s magic seal. You kinda get the feeling when Sen gets to Zaniba’s that it’s literally just a sibling fight. Nothing more. So while some of the characters (and certainly our main one) view her as a villain, I don’t know if calling her one is fair to her. She’s running a business, wants to protect it and the other spirits, and has an extreme weak spot when it comes to her gigantic infant child (yeah… that kid is just.. yeah.). I do think she has it in her to be evil, but in the amount of time we have with her and in her dealings with Sen, we don’t really see too much.

There’s three more sort of important characters I want to touch on. The first is Lin, who acts almost as Sen mother/friend in the bath house. She’s her partner on jobs they have to do, and is in charge with showing her the ropes. As a character she’s very abrasive, opinionated, but at the same time does feel sorry for Sen and does show a bit of compassion when she’s missing her parents and dealing with Haku. She also acts as our entrance to the bath house life, which is like a whole ecosystem in itself. We learn how things work through her, and Sen learns a lot through her.

The second character is Kamaji, the boiler man. Again, super cool character design. He’s a skinny human-like character that has four pairs of arms with three fingers each, and a giant bushy mustache and huge sunglasses. He’s the person Sen first goes to to ask for a job before he sends her to Yubaba. But he gets her back, lying and saying its his granddaughter and that she’s tough. He understands the love she feels for Haku. He’s an interesting character, even if there’s not much to him. He heats the water for the bath house. (I do have to say though that his little soot sprites that throw the coal into the fire are so freaking cute/hilarious).

My last character that I want to talk about is No Face. This guy, again, could i guess technically be called a “villain,” but again I don’t know if that would be fair to him. He’s a strange black see through spirit wearing a white mask that is first seen outside the bath house by Sen. She sees him again when its raining and leaves the door open so he can come in out of the rain. Once in the bath house, though, he sees what happens when a rich patron pays a generous tip, and decides that gold is the way to get people to like him. He produces gold out of his hands to Sen, who does not want it. However everyone else goes into a frenzy. No sooner do they appease him, though, then he starts eating people, crying out that he wants Sen. I think her actions confuse him. Everyone else is crazy over gold, and here’s this girl who won’t have anything to do with it.

Anyway, Sen manages to get No Face out of the bath house, and he calms down, even regurgitating the people he had eaten and changing back from a monster to his original design. Sen exclaims that the bath house is bad for him, and he goes with her on their adventure to Zaniba’s, eventually staying there with her.

I’m not going to lie – I still don’t know if I know exactly what No Face is or what he’s supposed to represent. I’ll give it my best shot though, at least right now. What I think is that he represents are the embodiment of certain feelings we’re all prone to having: in the beginning, he’s the innate fear of being disliked. He’s shy, doesn’t talk, hangs outside the bath house. Once he learns what gets people excited and what gets people to like him, he acts upon it. But then once he is well liked, it goes to his head and he turns into a monster. We can’t all get exactly what we want all the time – it will always get to us and turn us into monsters. It’s only when we can distance ourselves form the things that are toxic that we can get back to ourselves and then be ok with ourselves. He’s the embodiment of fears that are so personal yet so universal to us all. Sen confuses him because she doesn’t appease his greed and monstrous personality. She, like most children, see him (and all of us) only for the good. It reminds him of what was good, and meeting Zaniba reaffirms that everyone has a place, and you’re ok being yourself. You don’t have to appease everyone all the time. Nor should you want to.

I dunno. Just my thoughts. I still haven’t figured it out. But then again, I dunno if we’re supposed to.

This animation is some of Studio Ghibli’s best. The bath house is beautiful. The detail in Yubaba’s office and rooms is incredible. I mentioned the character designs already. I don’t think anyone else in the world could have come up with this stuff. Miyazaki is truly one of a kind, and his attention to detail in every little thing, even landscapes, is unbelievable.

There is one scene in this movie that always makes me cry. Not because it’s sad, or even overly happy, but simply because of the animation. It is beautiful. It happens when Sen is going back to the bath house from Zaniba’s and she’s riding on top of Haku as a dragon. She wanted during the movie to help him with his problem (his name and his home), when it comes to her. she tells him that she remembered a time when she was little and lost her shoe in a river. she went in after it and almost drowned, but the river carried her to safety. Since then the river has been paved over, but she remembered the name of it: the Kohaku river. It is at this moment that Haku remembers. his scales give way and suddenly he’s a man again and the two of them are falling through the sky. IT. IS. BEAUTIFUL.

I don’t really know what else to say about this movie. It’s the movie that introduced the world to Miyazaki, and went on to beat out Pixar and Monsters, Inc at the Oscars for Best Animated Feature (an honor I still completely agree with despite loving Monsters). Suddenly, Studio Ghibli was on the radar. And it’s been awesome ever since.

I give Spirited Away (2001) a 4.8 out of 5. I’m deducting a few bits of points because I’m still not sure about some of the stuff that happens. That might be the point, but I don’t know. It bugs me that I can’t figure parts of this movie out.

Next up: Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)

Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989)

“We each need to find our own inspiration, Kiki. Sometimes it’s not easy.” -Ursula

“Gigi, I’ve decided not to leave this town. Maybe I can stay and find some other nice people who will like me and accept me for who I am.”  -Kiki

Kiki was Miyazaki’s first major success at the box office. Although Totoro was popular, it gathered more steam once it had come out on VHS and was run on the tv. Kiki was popular the minute it came out. Why? It’s cute. It has an easy story to follow. There’s not really a villain. It’s very kid friendly. It has characters that are memorable. Plus, it’s about a kid doing amazing things. And she’s a witch that can do magic. (seriously, why has this movie not made a huge comeback??) What’s not to love?

This was the second Miyazaki movie I saw. We bought it on VHS sometime in the 90s, and I remember that this was the moment I realized that the animated tv show of Little Women that I loved was Japanese animated. I know that has nothing to do with the Kiki movie, but it’s a random fact. anyway, i liked it, but it didn’t hit me like Totoro did as a kid. Even now, it’s probably one of my least favorite Miyazaki movies. But like I said before, asking me to pick my least favorite Miyazaki movies is like making me pick my least favorite Pixar movie. It’s still better than 90% of the movies out there.

Kiki is a really simple story. there’s not really a villain like i said before, there’s no war or action (or very little). It’s just a coming of age story: a girl finding her place in the world, quite literally.

Kiki is a 13 year old witch in a world where this type of thing is apparently pretty normal. when a witch turns thirteen, she sets off on her own to a city/town/village to find what she is good at and make herself a valuable member of society. Along with her companion talking cat Jiji (it’s a boy – in case that’s not clear) she lands in a beautiful seaside city, and after some searching, eventually settles on starting a delivery service, running it out of a bakery of a nice couple who are letting her stay. We follow Kiki as she attempts her deliveries as she learns a little about people, life, and how to make friends. through growing up, she learns, arguably, how to be a kid.

The most of a climax we get is a dirigible getting ready to crash into town (think the hindenburg) and Kiki has to help get the people out. It is pretty intense for younger kids. Actually, it’s kinda a perfect conflict for little kids.

Just like Castle in the Sky, if I had to pick a word to describe this movie, it would be this: Happy. Oh my goodness this movie is just happy. In some ways it is more of a feel good  movie than Totoro is. Part of it is just the way this movie is set up: since there IS not villain, there’s no real seriousness. That’s not to say the movie doesn’t take itself seriously, but instead, there’s no overarching hatred of a character or situation. It’s just Kiki figuring things out about life and about people.

I want to talk about our protagonist for a minute, especially because she is part of the huge reason this movie is just so happy. Miyazaki’s one for making great female characters, and I would throw Kiki in the mix. She’s a step above Sheeta and Satsuki, but a step below Nausicaa. She’s young, confident, independent, and strong. But at the same time she’s naive, shy (around certain people) and one track minded. She’s a real person and a real kid, but one that has flaws and acts arguably older than she really is. If anything, Kiki is a girl who really isn’t great at anything. She’s good at things, and she tries extremely hard, but she’s not amazing at any one thing. She’s still trying to find her niche. She’s the kind of person who is set on doing what she’s supposed to do, is willing to help anyone, and pays attention. At the same time, she doesn’t really “enjoy” what she’s doing, in that she is so focused on work that she forgets to have fun. In spite of that, she has the most infectious personalities ever. She puts a smile on everyone’s face she meets.

The only other major character that’s not just a side character is Jiji, Kiki’s cat. Voiced by Phil Hartman, this little black cat acts as a conscience and also a bit of comedic relief. He’s plucky and sarcastic, and he’s a good balance to Kiki’s upbeat nature. In the English dub, he has some pretty good one-liners, and it does make me wonder what kind of jokes he makes in his native language.

There’s a few other characters in the movie, but no one too major. There’s the pregnant woman and her husband who run the bakery. She’s nice, and he doesn’t really say anything at all the entire movie. She motivates Kiki and takes care of her almost the way a mother would. The other smaller character would be Tambo, a boy who has a crush on Kiki and thinks she’s the most amazing person in the world. Where Kiki is super serious, Tambo is the opposite. He knows how to have fun, and spends a lot of his free time tinkering with his flying machine, a bike with a propeller on it. He attempts to teach Kiki how to have fun, and tries to get to know her despite her one-track mind. He finds himself on the dirigible at the end, and Kiki must save him as well as the others.

Probably the most interesting thing about this movie is how Kiki learns her lesson. As I mentioned above, her one major “flaw” is that she is almost too serious about her job. She ends up working herself so hard that she ends up losing her magic. Suddenly she can’t fly on her broom, do other magic, or even talk to Jiji. It’s only after she spends some time with this woman named Ursula out in the woods (yeah I forgot to mention her….) that she can almost relax and find her magic again.

It’s a part of the movie that actually doesn’t last too long, but it’s a good reminder to all of us not to work too hard, because we’ll lose the part of us that makes us unique and just work ourself into oblivion. Again somehow Miyazaki manages to work in the environment. Ursula is almost a bit of a hippie, living out in the woods in a log cabin. She draws crows and cooks with herbs she finds in the forest. But she manages to stay relaxed and knows who she is. She’s a good person for Kiki to meet.

In fact, everyone in the movie meets Kiki for a reason. That’s like real life, isn’t it? I like to think that everyone in your life you meet for a reason. they all teach you something. Kiki’s Delivery Service makes me think that Miyazaki believes that too.

Some of the only things I don’t like about this movie are some of the things that make it really endearing. The lack of a villain. The lack of action. Some of it is just things that to me, don’t make for a movie i can watch over and over. Another issue i have, however, is one that has to do with the dubbing. All in all,the voices in this are pretty good. I mentioned the late Phil Hartman as Jiji, and he is awesome. Kirsten Dunst does a good job as Kiki. Janeane Garofalo is enjoyable as Ursula. The one voice I really don’t like though is Matthew Lawrence as Tambo. I don’t know why. I felt like Tambo should have this really playful voice, and Matthew Lawrence is just… being Matthew Lawrence. You don’t feel it. You can’t think of him as this character. You just think of him as him, or as Jack on Boy Meets World.

The only other issue I have I actually didn’t know I had until I learned about the dubbing. Now it is sort of common that when dubs get transferred into other languages, the company takes a bit of leeway and will add in lines in places where maybe there was no speaking in the original. This might be done to get across something they think the audience won’t get, or to add in useful information. This movie does that in a few places with Jiji. BUT THE LINES THEY ADD IN DON’T MATTER. It’s literally just Jiji’s jokes. why? why? why? I dunno. The one that really bugs me is at the very end and Kiki’s just saved everyone and Jiji is walking up to her. In the original he doesn’t say anything until he gets to her. In the english version, he talks literally the entire way up to her. And it’s not anything important. It’s just Jiji talking. WHY? I have no idea.

I’m not going to say too much more about this movie. This is the last in what I guess I would call completely family friendly Miyzaki movies for a while, meaning that with this and Totoro, anyone can watch them. We’re going to get into more serious Ghibli fanfare soon, or, as I call it, the golden Era. Really excited to do the next four movies.

I give Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989) a 3.5 out of 5. I wasn’t a huge fan as a kid, still not really. That doesn’t mean it’s not a good movie. Still enjoyable.

Next up: Porco Rosso (1991)