*** Note: I received *three* GHIBLI films on Friday to be reviewed for Tuesday: Whisper of the Heart, My Neighbor Totoro, and the masterpiece Howl’s Moving Castle. I’m trying to get them all reviewed ASAP so please be forgiving…it’s been a full weekend! ***
Brilliant. Visionary. Heart-warming. Inspiring. Uplifting.
Howl’s Moving Castle is quintessential Miyazaki magic. Bizarre, dreamlike visions of monstrous machines, grotesque imaginations, and blithe depictions of a fabled early 20th Century townscape meld together in almost unsettling accord. The story builds around the experiences of a young woman of little regard who experiences a process of self discovery as her adventures unfold.
In the midst of all these forces, Miyazaki weaves a thread of humor that caught me by surprise. On several occasions I found myself laughing out-loud, and when I saw this film projected theatrically last year I remember the audience breaking into fits of laughter at several key points. Much of the credit for this well delivered wit goes to Billy Crystal who plays the voice of “Calcifer” in the English language track (Japanese speakers…please let us know if this same humor is reflected in the Japanese-spoken character as well). Nothing about Miyazaki’s masterpiece can be labeled as conventional. Like many other films of his creation, Howl’s Moving Castle defines its own genre, and provides the willing viewer with the tools by which to read the work. Howl’s Moving Castle is a film that can be viewed many, many times without growing old—new layers of meaning are revealed each time it is seen.
If that sounds vague, it’s intentional. The less you know about the story the better. If you have never seen Howl’s Moving Castle I urge you to avoid reading any “plot summaries” or story synopsis and simply allow yourself to enter into Miyazaki’s mystical world without any preconceived expectations. Let his images and story overtake you. Very few directors demand such a level of trust, and your enjoyment of Howl’s Moving Castle will be proportional to how much that you give.
How’s Moving Castle comes to you one this R1 DVD edition with its original Japanese soundtrack beautifully presented in 5.1. However, the 5.1 English audio option should not be dismissed as an artistic compromise for American audiences. On the contrary, Pixar studios was charged with the task of adapting the original Japanese soundtrack for English audiences in a manner that maintained the integrity of the dialogue and dutifully serves the film. They succeeded, and the talents of actors such as Jean Simmons, Christian Bale, Lauren Bacall, Blythe Danner, and Billy Crystal gave great assistance. This English audio translation is top-drawer.
I support Disney’s decision to provide both optional English and the original Japanese language presentation for Region 1 audiences with this DVD release. I personally prefer to watch this DVD listening to the English language as I find it gives me a better opportunity to drink in the animated visuals and experience a more emotional connection with the story than I would wrestling with subtitles that distract me from the hand-drawn imagery that the director wanted me to see. I respect any film purist’s (or Japanese speaking viewer’s) preference to watch the film with its original Japanese audio presentation. Feel free to discuss, just be respectful to all sides.
Subtitle Update (March 21):
There are actually THREE English-subtitle options for Howl (and the other 2 GHIBLI films released along with it:
- English Closed Captioning...which includes sound-effects and is more-or-less a translation of the Enlgish audio soundtrack (ie, a word-for-word translation of the the English soundtrack option, not the original Japanese).
- True English Subtitles. This is more literally a translation of the Japanese language and in many cases differs more noticably from the "English Audio" soundtrack option. Fans and purists should use this option when listening to the original Japanese language to get the most authentic experience.
- English captions for written signage. This is an unusual option...subtitles only appear sporatically when something in the scene with Japanese wording might have been readable to Japanese audiences (like signs or letters)...and is translated with English subtitles. They only appear a handful of times. Curiously, these subtitles default to "on" and you'll have to cycle through the subtitle menu to shut them off if they become annoying.
PERFECT, except for edge enhancement.
There you go.
Really…the image would *really* be perfect, were it not for distracting ringing which found its way around the hard-line contours of actor’s facial features and occasional hard-edged background line. By and large the sumptuous background vistas of Miyazaki’s imagination escape relatively unharmed…mostly by virtue of being watercolored paintings and lacking severe hard-edged features. But in almost every face of every character, there was some serious edge enhancement going on. In many places, the ringing actually draws “lips” on the face around the simple hand-drawn line the artist put there to represent the mouth. Hats and collars also have their share of halos.
It really sucks, and anyone viewing from closer than about 1.75 screen widths will probably see it and anyone viewing closer than 1.6 screens widths will probably be bothered by it. I’ll assume that viewers from greater than 2 screen-widths distance might not notice anything objectionable.
It is such a shame because, except for this ***ONE*** issue with edge enhancement, the picture is PERFECT and absolutely GORGEOUS. It is so gorgeous, in fact, that I found myself seduced time and time again…especially by the sweeping views and distance shots that just mesmerize you when watching this wide angle. And you SHOULD watch this wide-angle so you can soak in all the subtle detail and picture information that’s just oozing off the screen.
Then SMACK! A character face shows up and you’ve got to machete-whack your way through a thicket of halos and all for no good reason.
Disney…who is responsible for this? Doesn’t it *bother* you that a masterpiece like Miyazaki’s Howl’s Moving Castle would be release on DVD by your studio and set the reference for a perfect transfer except for the excessive ringing that’s been introduced into the picture by some shmuck behind the video console? Do you care? Doesn’t someone at Pixar care? Miyazaki, do *you* care???
Ok…we’ve got lots of industry folks who stealthily find their way into HTF to read our board. I’m charging you…anyone out there with influence…to find out what went wrong with this incredible film and to do your part to make a difference. If you can contact me or share information with me so that I can help make a difference too I’ll be happy to do so. But someone out there reading this review knows what’s going on and can actually *do* something so that the edge-enhancement madness can STOP NOW.
If Disney tries to drop 1080P Blu-ray titles in the market that have the same dorkuss-mastering-problems I cannot be held responsible for what might happen. Disney, you’re a big company. Lots of smart people wearing suits who all went to college. Presumably many of them are not blind. FIX THIS PROBLEM.
Moment of frustrated silence…
The image is appropriately letterboxed inside the 16x9 frame to preserve the 1.85:1 aspect ratio. Many viewers may not see the (small) letterboxing bars due to overscan in their system. Thankfully, the image utilizes the full 720 horizontal width of R1 DVD (some previous DVDs like Spirited Away wasted resolution by windowboxing the image on all four sides).
Were it not for the ringing, the image of this DVD would have garnered my rarely-achieved 5 stars out of 5 for video (Toy Story 10th Anniversary). Do not get me wrong, it is still a beautiful picture…just a beautiful picture with a single fault. My vote is to buy the DVD, enjoy it as best you can, and call Disney’s toll free consumer-input number to tell them that you didn’t like the ringing that their mastering department added to the picture if it’s something that gets in the way of your viewing pleasure.
Picture Quality: 4 / 5
|1-2||An absolute abomination. Hurts to watch even on a 32” 4x3 480I TV. Think Outland or Jean De Flourette (scan-line aliasing, chroma noise, dotcrawl, PAL-NTSC conversion artifacts etc.)-- truly horrid.|
|2-3||Has some serious problems, but one can at least watch it without getting a headache despite all the problems though you might try to talk your guests into picking a different movie to watch if you have a large projection screen. Think Kill Bill Vol 1.|
|3-4||Good or at least "acceptable" on a big-screen, but not winning any awards and definitely room for improvement if you view the image wide-angle (though smaller-screen viewers may be quite content). Think the first extended cut of Fellowship of the Ring...decent picture but still some HF filtering and some edge-halos.|
|4-5||A reference picture that really makes the most of the DVD medium and shows extraordinary transparency to the film-source elements limited only by DVD’s 720 x 480 resolution. Non-videophile observers can't help but remark "WOW" and ask you if they are watching HD. Think The Empire Strikes Back, the Fifth Element Superbit or the new Toy Story 10th Anniversary Edition.|
Currently running DVDs on my OPPO DVD player (Faroudja deinterlacing) which scales to 720P, feeding my BenQ 8700+ PJ via DVI, projecting onto a 106” 16x9 Dalite HiPower screen, viewed from approximately 1.6 screen-widths distance. Well mastered DVDs produce a stunningly film-like image in this scenario, and lesser-mastered material quickly shows its flaws.
Please see my comments in the “feature” section regarding thoughts about subtitles versus translated Japanimation if you skipped the movie-review.
Both the Japanese and the English soundtrack sound marvelous. Both appear to have an identical mix and channel balance. It sounds to my ears that, like the other 2 GHIBLI films I just reviewed, great care has been taken to use the same music and effects mix from the Japanese track and merely substitute English dialogue in place of the Japanese for the new English soundrack. This is impressive, and it reveals just how much respect that the mastering engineers have for preserving the integrity of the original mix (ie, no “DEHT English mix with new Follies or pumped up surrounds or bass). The English presentation sounds slightly more full-bodied and easy on the ears to me…I suspect this is because it’s being mastered from scratch from original stems while the Japanese track is utilizing the existing multi-channel master.
Front channel separation is nice and the mix makes great use of L/C/R panning with effects and dialogue. The audio has a very natural character and many of the effects like doors opening and closing had me and my guests looking around the room for who just walked in. Bass isn’t as earth-rumbling as your Jurassic Park DTS laserdisc, but it’s well extended and serves the mix without sounding artificially (tastelessly) boosted.
The one area where I find that the mix has room for improvement (in my opinion of course) is that the surround activity was very light, and the mix tended to sound a little more front heavy than I would have expected. Surround use is present…for both ambient cues and action-effects, but the volume level seems much lower in balance to the front mains than a “usual” 5.1 mix. Still, this is the way that Miyazaki’s team conceived and delivered their 5.1 audio palette, and better that we hear it the way that they intended than for someone to attempt to remix/balance everything for “American” surround-sound tastes.
Sound Quality: 4.5 / 5
B&K AVR 212 processor/receiver driving my Onix-Rocket Loudspeaker system.
The special features on these three new GHIBLI DVDs are very similar (Moving Castle adds a few more), and in each case the 2nd disc is utilized to present the entire film in raw storyboard form (with the feature-production soundtrack and subtitle options). While not as loaded as the typical stops-pulled-out-2-disc-plantinum releases, the bonus material is more than I would have hoped for and I think most fans will be content.
- [*]Behind the MicrophoneEach new GHIBLI DVD has this, and here we visit the actors responsible for the English-voice acting. This is really a nice feature, especially given that this “voice acting” is such a strong component of what makes these new R1 DVDs so worth-while. The ability for these actors to convey emotion and pull the viewer into the experience is key to enjoying the film for anyone who chooses to view with the accompanying English soundtrack. In the case of Howl’s Moving Castle, the Pixar team was set with the task of adapting the dialogue for English audiences in a manner that preserved the artistic integrity of the original dialogue as much as possible. They succeeded. In fact, they accomplished their goal so well that the English soundtrack feels as natural a companion to the motion picture as one could imagine. The voice-acting talent is superb; it creates an emotional pathway to the soul of the film.
[*]Interview with Pixar’s Pete DocterThis interview appears to have been original prepared for Japanese audiences…making it all the more interesting a feature on this disc. We don’t hear many of the questions, but we do hear Pete’s answers as he talks about his love of this film and Pixar’s special role in helping adapt the English dialogue. First rate. Fans and casual viewers will enjoy taking the time for Pete.
[*]Miyazaki Visits Pixar StudiosHayao Miyazaki paid a surprise visit to Pixar Studios and this video documentary records the event. This feature is another nice surprise on this disc, and appears unpolished which is very much in its favor. Take the time. It’s great to get to see the Pixar guys hanging with each other (Ok…who’s with me…ready to stop my job and go work for Pixar *any* day…just ask and I’ll be there. Anytime. Even today). This feature is especially nice in that we get to meet many of the “big names” of our beloved animation genre and see them interacting as ordinary people. Check this out.
[*]Trailers and suchYou get a couple of original Japanese trailers for the film as well as TV promotional spots etc. All are subtitled with defeatable English subtitles and the trailers play-through one after the other in one continuous stream. You can skip back and forth from trailer to trailer using your chapter-next/back remote buttons. All are 4x3 encoded and just reek of crappy NTSC analog video artifacts. What did you expect?
[*]Feature-length StoryboardOn disc two you can view the entire movie in concept-storyboard form. The image is slightly windowboxed on all four sides and you have optional English subtitles and a choice between the same English or Japanese audio options available to you on the feature-presentation on Disc 1. Fans may enjoy though for me personally this is overkill, but I’m not going to compain!
Howl’s Moving Castle is Miyazaki’s latest big-screen masterpiece and Disney has done a great job of delivering for Region 1 audiences. The film would belong in any animation-collector’s library were it only available on VHS, and so this DVD release should require little additional justification from my part. Picture quality borders on perfection save the visible ringing on hard-edge lines which will probably be an issue for projection and other wide-angle viewers. Audio quality is first-class, with a nicely directional front soundstage (though surround activity seems a little underutilized). However, the mix reflects the intentions of the Japanese artists and should be accepted as such, and the American Pixar team have done an outstanding job faithfully replicating the original soundtrack’s balance with an outstanding English translation that ranks among the very BEST English dubs I have ever heard. Bonus features are more than satisfactory and should please fan and casual viewer alike.
Be a good consumer and buy buy buy…
Very Highly Recommended