The release of Spirited Away catapulted Studio Ghibli into the mainstream, Academy Award spotlight. They had been a success prior to that 2001 release, but only in animation circles and between animé lovers, or connoisseurs of Japanese culture. They had already made Princess Mononoke, My Neighbour Totoro and Grave of the Fireflies, to massive success, but Spirited Away really broke them into the mainstream, especially the work of Hayao Miyazaki, totemic head of the Japanese animation team. It’s a truth universally acknowledged that Miyazaki’s films are the strongest of the Ghibli arsenal, and Howl’s Moving Castle was the film that he made after Spirited Away, in 2004.
The film, whose animation was stunning on its release, is a joy to see on Blu-ray. Animation is probably the medium that benefits the most from the clarity and definition that Blu-ray provides, and nowhere is this more obvious than with Howl’s Moving Castle. The battle scenes, and any scenes in which the castle itself is traversing the landscape, are breathtaking.
The story of the film follows Sophie, a hatter who is cursed by a gypsy to take the form of an old woman. Calcifer, a demon, recognises her curse and, in exchange for helping him with his own curse, that binds him to the eponymous castle, he hires her to clean the castle. Howl, a mysterious wizard, owns the castle, which is able to walk around. From thence the film continues, making comments on the nature of pacifism and its place in war.
The film is fantastic, and was nominated for Best Animated Feature at the 2005 Academy Awards. It’s a magical film that deserves to be seen but is often overshadowed by Spirited Away, its worthy but overrated predecessor.