Flight is a constant fixation for Hayao Miyazaki, a director for whom part of the power of animation is the ability to open up new avenues of movement across azure, cloud-dappled canvasses. Yet in most cases, the ascent to the skies doesn’t provide for instances of pure escapist freedom, forgetting the few movies in which conflict is dialed down to a minimum in favor of an overall untroubled ambience. While characters frequently tumble from great heights without consequence, or find brief moments of ecstasy hurtling through the air, they’re more often forced to ascend with the help of machines. As demonstrated most fully in his near-valedictory pinnacle The Wind Rises, such flying crafts tend to have a dual use, outfitted for the dispensation of broad-scaled, mechanized violence upon those who remain earthbound.

This dialectic comes to a head in Howl’s Moving Castle, a cri de coeur against rampant militarism whose intensity ends up diminishing the usual light touch. Produced in the run-up to America’s invasion of Iraq, as the Bush administration attempted to strong-arm its allies into helping grant legitimacy to a misdirected, illegal incursion, its disgust at this perversion of power is palpable. Depicting a similar march toward conflict within a fantastical world packed with the usual wizardry and gadgets, it maintains a focus on defilement and corruption that provides a darker undertone than in much of Miyazaki’s work, offering a grim, somber edge that also makes use of all of his manifold skills as an animator.

Here the conduit through which possibility and reality are commingled isn’t just flight, but magic, a practice whose secrets are dispensed by agents of an unseen king, with the proviso that certain favors may one day be called in, those having mastered it eventually needing to serve at his whim. This is all conveyed via an opaque plot that borders on incoherence, its tangled machinations falling a distant second to the weighty power of the visuals. Part of this confusion at least seems intentional, as protagonist Sophie (Chieko Baisho) remains on the fringes of the actual conflict, attempting to navigate a nascent relationship with the mysterious sorcerer Howl (Takuya Kimura) and his coterie of weird assistants.

In the world of Howl’s Moving Castle, the tools that provide the foundation for a life of relative autonomy still leave one bound to unsavory demands from holders of unscrupulous authority. This duality remains a fixation in Miyazaki’s work, and the twinned connection between escape and servitude in his films — a fitting concern for an artist whose chosen form involves the painstaking creation of thousands of hand drawn pieces — further explains the endless amalgamations of organic matter and mechanical contraptions, as well as devices that seem to fuse the industrial with the pastoral. All of this comes to a head in Howl’s castle, a ramshackle mashup of small huts, trees and stones, supported by a chicken-like pair of legs, reminiscent of the mobile hut of the Slavic witch Baba Yaga. Other times it propels itself through the sky, juddering like an unsteady balloon.

It’s eventually revealed that the entire structure is held together by the benevolent demon Calcifer, a falling star turned fire sprite with whom Howl has forged an alchemistic bargain, their destinies permanently bonded together. This ever-shifting entity functions as the power source for the itinerant castle, itself the central fluid node in the film’s wide network of transformations and declensions. Many of these metamorphoses are sinister, particularly the semi-villainous Witch of the Waste, her shriveled true form obscured within a squishy mantle of shifting flesh, and the aging spell she casts on Sophie, who spends most of the film in the enforced guise of a withered crone. There’s also Howl himself, an ever-slippery figure who flits from one form to another, periodically transforming himself into a huge, monstrous bird in an effort to disrupt both sides of the conflict. None of these transitions are seamless or without permanent effects.

By focusing on a series of characters who spend much of the film in often grotesque guises, Miyazaki nudges his usual mix of monstrousness and beauty toward the former rather than the latter. What results feels like his darkest work since Nausicaa, another strident anti-war epic which confronted the toll of nuclear destruction head on. Yet balance is still ultimately attained, and haunting specters like the fear of aging, signaled by Sophie’s geriatric transformation, are folded into a larger acceptance of change as an essential element of progress. In this sense, it’s fitting that the ultimate antagonist is not the Witch of the Waste, who’s set up early on as the main adversary, then later revealed as little more than an addled old woman, powerless and infirm. Actual evil remains unseen, lurking behind the callous dispensation of destruction and the wielding of excessive power, a true-to-life detail that applies a sour tinge to an otherwise happy ending.

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