In catching up with past Studio Ghibli productions, I've become increasingly surprised by how often the studio's films tend to overlap, if not in setting then in theme and spirit. Howl's Moving Castle is a Hayao Miyazaki film through and through, from the nutty characters that populate its idyllic hamlets to the young girl that stumbles across its alternate dimensions, but the film's meta momentum is bound to disappoint fans of the director's more conventional work. Based on a popular children's book by Diana Wynne Jones, Howl's Moving Castle tells the story of 18-year-old hatmaker Sophie and her serendipitous encounter with a playboy magician named Howl, whose castle moves across the film's land of confusion using legs powered by a cursed flame named Calucifer. When the Witch of the Waste turns Sophie into a 90-year-old woman, Sophie seeks out Howl's moving castle, where she takes a job as the magician's cleaning lady but doesn't reveal that she's the girl Howl saved from the Witch's gooey minions in a cramped alleyway the day before. The film is inundated with spellbinding set pieces (the best may be a race between Sophie and the Witch of the Waste up a staircase) and intricate details, none more impressive than the castle itself, which suggests a Sino Epcot Center whose front door opens randomly to different corners of the world, a concept that allows Miyazaki to revisit old haunts, from the dreamy wastelands of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind to the seaside ports of Porco Rosso. Just as the locations shift to fit everyone's moods, desires, and memories, so do the characters, and it's amid the flurry of perpetually-shifting identities that it becomes increasingly difficult to tell who's who, why anything happens, and where it's all going. Of course, by the time Sophie's appearance has changed for the umpteenth time and no one—not Calucifer, not the boy who lives with Howl inside his castle, not the turnip-headed scarecrow that helps Sophie into the castle, not the dried-up version of the Witch of the Waste Sophie comes to care for—has noticed a thing, it becomes obvious that the story is acting out some preordained act of fate that exists, like the pointless war put into motion by a magical queen, for its own benefit and is bound to repeat itself over and over. Of course, what the film lacks in backstory, subtext, even logic and emotion, it more than makes up in sheer force of invention—it's a frustrating mobius strip, but it's impossible to take your eyes off of it as it repeatedly falls back and caves in on itself.
(This is a review of the film's undubbed version.)