A moving castle would be cool, however I’m not sold on the talking fireplace!
Screenplay By: Hayao Miyazaki
Directed By: Hayao Miyazaki
I am a ginormous Hayao Miyazaki fan, I will get that out of the way right now. Not only do I love everything I have ever seen from the man, but he is, without question, hands down, add every superlative you can think of, the best director the film industry has ever seen, animated or otherwise. For this very reason I was surprised when initially hearing mostly negative things about Hauru No Ugoku Shiro back during its initial Japanese release and subsequent worldwide run from 2004-2005. How could it be that a director that has never misfired in my book all of a sudden has? Did this signal that Miyazaki had fallen prey to continuing past his prime like so many other great directors? It took me about five minutes into the movie to realize that I was not going to agree with a single negative review and that Miyazaki hadn’t lost it, but had it just as much as he ever did.
There are a number of ways to go about fantasy storytelling and the style that Miyazaki chose is the most startling, confounding and controversial. On the surface it may not seem all that controversial or startling but you may agree with the confounding label. The path Miyazaki decided upon is a complete envelopment in the idea of fantasy. This means that real world ideals and theories don’t really apply. This type of fantasy storytelling is dependent on awe inspiring visuals and moments of pure fancy and delight. There won’t be any storytelling that you are familiar with, but rather a broad story that asks you to connect with the imagination you have long buried to connect all the dots for yourself. The amazing thing with this type of surreal fantasy storytelling is that the dots may never connect, it’s about the feeling you get from actions, from visuals and from characters. If you can’t accept that type of storytelling then Hauru No Ugoku Shiro surely isn’t a film that will appeal to you.
Miyazaki being Miyazaki, fantasy storytelling wasn’t enough. It wasn’t good enough for him to have created this wonderful, bizarre and hard to decipher world where nightmares come true just as easily as dreams. Because he is the man in every sense of the word, Miyazaki still explored humanity and what makes us tick. In the case of Hauru No Ugoku Shiro it is appearance or the appearance we put on for everyone to see. Sofî looks like an old lady, but that isn’t who she truly is. This ties into her personality and it is only when Sofî shucks the misgivings she harbors about herself that the old lady vanishes and the young woman reappears. Only when she accepts who she really is can she return to her younger form, and the same holds true for every character in Hauru No Ugoku Shiro. Every one of them is hiding something or putting on a brave front and it is only when they accept who they are and why that isn’t a bad thing that their true self is seen.
The one necessary in the type of story Miyazaki decided to tell is a strong and dynamic female lead. In that regard Sofî is the one weak link in Hauru No Ugoku Shiro. Her progression is interesting, the choices they make with her character are compelling, but Sofî herself never feels dynamic enough in her actions, or lack thereof to completely carry the story. The rest of the cast balances this out, as does some stellar voice work by Chieko Baisho as Sofî, but her character needed to be just a little bit stronger.
I recently wrote in my review of Toy Story that 3D animation provides a level of depth detail that 2D animation can’t. Leave it to Hayao Miyazaki to remind me how I was wrong in thinking that. It is true that 3D animation provides tremendous depth detail and reaches levels that I don’t think 2D animation can. But, all you need do is watch Hauru No Ugoku Shiro for a few frames and you will be amazed at the level of depth Miyazaki brings to 2D animation. From beginning to end Hauru No Ugoku Shiro is beautiful to behold and truly captures the feeling of whimsy, imagination and fantasy that the story is striving for. I know I sound like a broken record when saying this, but I have never seen anyone as adept at meshing high class storytelling with pulchritudinous animation, and yes, I have used that word before and am using it now to spice things up a little!
The funny thing about Hauru No Ugoku Shiro is that even with all the praise I have foisted at its feet, it falls near the bottom of Miyazaki’s catalog. That right there should tell you why I consider him the greatest director of all time. I know I am not the only admiring voice in the Hauru No Ugoku Shiro crowd, but if you haven’t seen it based on some of the more negative reviews or have seen it and felt underwhelmed then I urge you to give it a shot, or another one as the case may be. Hauru No Ugoku Shiro is a fantasy of the highest order and great fantasy is hard to come by in films these days.