There are many things that make the animated films of legendary writer/director Hayao Miyazaki beloved. They include his penchant for narratives that focus more on relationships than conflict, complex three-dimensional female characters, and beautiful imagery. But if I had to pick one thing that made his films truly unique, it would have to be the environments of his films.
These environments often obliquely reflect the emotional state of the characters on multiple levels. For example, most of the coming-of-age classic Kiki’s Delivery Service takes place in the fictional beautiful seaside town of Koriko. The sunny and charming architecture reflects Kiki’s optimism as she goes off to find her way in the world. But Miyazaki also confirmed that Koriko takes place in an alternate version of 1950s Europe that never experienced World War II. This lack of a massive worldwide tragedy gives the town an innocence that dovetails nicely with Kiki’s own lack of experience with living on her own.
There are remarkable environments in every Miyazaki film, but some of the best are in Howl’s Moving Castle, which Miyazaki himself once described as his favorite film of his own. It tells the story of Sophie, a young milliner who gets cursed by the Witch of the Waste into becoming an old woman. She sets out to find a way to break the curse, and ends up seeking help from the wizard Howl, who lives in the titular moving castle.
Sophie’s town is as charming as Korkio, with the added menace of a looming war threatening it. (Miyazaki made the film out of disgust at the Iraq War and a desire to make American audiences uncomfortable.) Howl’s castle in particular is a marvelous creation. Its wondrous sense of motion — from the quick strides of its chicken-like steel legs to the jack-in-the-box-like movements of the spires and houses on the top — makes it feel like a vehicle unlike any other. To watch it tumble through the countryside, steam occasionally billowing from it, is to experience a wonder of animation.
Miyazaki’s films will be remembered for a long time, for a multitude of reasons. But one of the most compelling is for the environments that they create. They’re places of imagination, danger, and sheer beauty. They are the types of places where a viewer can get lost, on either their first viewing or their fiftieth. Here’s to people getting lost in them for a long, long time.
Howl’s Moving Castle will be screened twice at the IU Cinema to celebrate its 15th anniversary. The original version with English subtitles can be seen on August 22, while the English-dubbed version will be shown on August 23. These screenings are part of the International Arthouse Series and CINEkids International Children’s Film Series.
Previous Hayao Miyazaki films that have been shown at the Cinema include My Neighbor Totoro and Kiki’s Delivery Service, as well as Never-Ending Man: Hayao Miyazaki, a documentary about the filmmaker’s struggle to adapt to CGI.
Jesse Pasternack is a graduate of Indiana University. During his time at IU, Jesse was the co-president of the Indiana Student Cinema Guild. He also wrote about film, television, and pop culture for the Indiana Daily Student. Jesse has been a moderator at Michael Moore’s Traverse City Film Festival and is a friend of the Doug Loves Movies podcast. An aspiring professional writer-director, his own film work has appeared at Campus Movie Fest and the Anthology Film Archives in New York City.