Welcome back to Ghibli Month where we take a look at one movie from this studio every weekend through the month of December. This weekend, we’ll be looking at Howl’s Moving Castle, directed by Hayao Miyazaki and based on the novel of the same name by Diana Wynne Jones. Thought to be influenced by Miyazaki’s disapproval of the US war in Iraq, this movie depicts strong images of how war causes undue destruction while also seriously discussing the concept of aging in a very positive light.
If you have not already watched this movie, here is a quick overview:
Sophie is, by her own definition, a boring woman with little interest in modern fashion even though she works at a hat shop. While going to visit her sister, she has a run-in with a mysterious wizard who sweeps her off her feet – literally – as they try and escape capture by the Witch of the Waste’s henchmen who were on his tail. Inevitably, Sophie becomes targeted by the Witch of the Wastes who puts a curse on her that turns her into an old woman. In an effort to break the curse, she journeys into the wastes where she is picked up by the wizard Howl’s moving castle who just so happens to be the wizard she met that day. It’s here she joins his make-shift family as a cleaning lady, discovers the secret behind his castle, and witnesses the devastation that war can bring.
I watched Howl’s Moving Castle not too long ago and I was still captivated by the overall level of animation throughout. This is probably one of the most iconic movies from Studio Ghibli next to Spirited Away and My Neighbor Totoro mostly due to the amount of detail put into Howl’s castle and its overall aesthetic of sudo-steampunk. The animators do a fantastic job of ascribing weight to the castle as it moves through the landscape, using lumbering movements to give us more of a sense of scale. Not to mention that it looks like each piece of the castle is animated as well, shaking as it takes a step, its giant mouth opening and closing as if panting, the pipes on its back swaying to the pace. It not only adds another level of detail but gives us the sense that it was cobbled together from spare parts, probably barely held together. In all its ridiculousness, it becomes this looming figure in the countryside, a symbol of the kind of magic that can be found out in the wastes.
Some of the other animation sequences done really well were all of the transformation scenes. Both Sophie and Howl regularly go through transformations throughout the movie. While Howl’s are more overt and detailed, Sophie’s are subtler and easily overlooked, but each is handled with the same care and detail. The fact that they seem natural in the moment lends credence to the amount of attention the animation staff paid to each of these scenes.
The overall setting of the movie was also pretty striking. In this movie, Miyazaki moves away from a more Japanese-centric setting to something that is reminiscent of some Germanic or European locales. In the backgrounds we see towering cathedrals, Germanic architecture with its exposed or decorative beams on the outside, and expansive palaces. The people wander around in gaudy fashion with large feathered hats and soldiers can be seen performing a sort of goose step while parading down the streets. In looking at the setting, I think we see one of the key facets of Miyazaki’s movies: the intersection of rural and industrial places. The first shot of the movie is of the castle walking through the wastes with farmers herding their sheep in the foreground. Industrialism and modernism seems to be more central in this with its extravagant cities and especially with the train going right through the center of Sophie’s hometown. Add in the immense battle ships with their almost dragonfly design, and you have a setting that is both reminiscent of a war-torn Europe with a touch of fantasy to it.
But that’s also one of the main subjects of this movie: how each of the characters are affected by war. The war between the two countries was fostered by the disappearance of a prince (who just so happens to be Turnip Head, cursed by an otherwise unidentified wizard or witch). This is especially apparent when we get to the scenes of bombing and destruction shown around the country. Some of these are probably the best animated parts in the whole movie, and for good reason as those scenes need to have the most impact. When you combine this with Howl’s absolute disdain for destruction, it becomes apparent what Miyazaki’s overall view of war is. At one point during the movie, Howl responds “What’s the difference?” when asked who’s ships are those doing the bombing. The war had started as “this country may have kidnapped our prince, we need payback” to “war only brings meaningless destruction for the innocent.” I think Miyazaki does a great job of displaying this theme through the scenes of whole villages turning into huge flaming seas to even the scene where the destroyed and smoking battle ship is towed into the harbor. We see all the fishermen jump into their boats to help, dragging soldiers from the water as they all jump over the side into the water. At the same time, these defenseless people start getting shot at by another bomber. This scene shows maybe a less dramatic scene of the effects of war, but it was still equally impactful.
Along the same vein, it’s not only the towns that feel the effects of the war, we see a lot more lasting and emotional impact from the wizards who give themselves to the fight, Howl being among them. Howl and Calcifer talk about this a few times over the course of the movie: the fact that the more often and longer a wizard changes their form, the harder it’s going to be for them to change back. We see this plainly with Howl and his transformations, it starts to become harder and more painful for him to return to his human form, and over the course of the movie he becomes more monster than human at some points. But what I think really struck me in this area was knowing that all of those monsters being shot out of the bombers were once human wizards, and after the war they would never be able to return to who they once were. In a way, I think this is Miyazaki’s way of telling us that war will forever change the soldiers that are sent to fight in it, whether it’s PTSD, missing limbs, or even death, no one is ever the same afterwards.
On a more positive note, Miyazaki manages to say some great things about aging and the elderly through the character of Sophie and how she is affected by her curse. Most of it is Sophie coming to terms with her new body, but in a way Miyazaki shows this by giving a positive light to aging and even some form of freedom. Before the curse, Sophie was living with the sense that she was plain and boring while being surrounded by fashionable people such as her sister and mother while also being held by the familial obligation of taking care of her father’s hat shop. When she was hit with the curse, it was almost as if she was transformed into another person entirely. She had the chance to escape all of that and find a new life for herself. Her searching led her to the castle of Howl who didn’t seem to care about her looks and that was understandable considering the kind of dysfunctional family he had already gathered. But in living with Howl, we get to see a sense of wonderment return to Sophie, and I don’t think these moments would be as impactful if Sophie wasn’t stuck with the curse. When these moments hit, her appearance subtly changes to become more of a semblance of her former self. Even the smallest gestures or movements can stick out sometimes. In a way, I wonder if this is Miyazaki’s way of telling us we can still find wonderment even when we grow older or that magic and love can help return some our youthfulness as we age.
Then there are those characters who for whatever reason want to escape aging entirely. In the character of the Witch of the Wastes, we see what relying on magic to escape aging can do to people. She has been using her magic to make herself look younger for years, but by the time of this movie she had become something other than beautiful. By forcing her body to be something it was not, she had in a way come to look like something unnatural. In this way, the Witch of the Wastes castes what she believes is a curse of aging on Sophie. To her, growing old was a curse, but to Sophie, it becomes her escape.
In this way, it feels like Howl is similar, but I think his case is a little different. For him, it was more that he was stunted emotionally from the loss of his heart at a young age. He acts immature, chases after women just for their looks, and obsesses over his appearance. It’s almost like there is a teenager stuck in an adult body. When Sophie makes herself part of their family though, we begin to see the start of his emotional growth. I don’t know if I’d really classify her as one of my “force of nature” types (or as other people call them “manic pixie dream girls”), but is was definitely her influence that caused him to change and find something to fight for. There is also this sense that without his heart, he loses his sense of being human. Not to mention that returning his heart seems to be the cure to his difficulty changing back from his monster form. But I don’t think that was the only reason, he also had the support of the ragtag family he gathered together. By the end of it, his family consisted of Sophie, Markl, Calcifer, the Witch of the Wastes, Hin, and him. With all of their support, he was able to return to normal. This can also relate to what I was saying before about how war affects soldiers in that Howl was able to return to being himself because of his support network.
In terms of romance, this idea of support carries over. Howl’s Moving Castle is, I think, one of Miyazaki’s more mature romances. Not only because the characters are older, but because I think we get more of a sense that their romance is lasting. For Spirited Away, Haku and Chihiro’s romance was sweet but there was also this sense that they may never meet again. Here, Sophie becomes an integral part of his life, leaving her old one behind. They form this sense of mutual support together. Howl helps build up her self-esteem and sense of self-worth while Sophie keeps him grounded in reality and gives him something to want to return to. I also think their romance is pretty great because of the way Howl treats her curse or no curse. It seems like most of the time he sees through the curse to who she really is, and regardless of that, thinks she’s beautiful anyways. He moves away from chasing women who were beautiful on the outside to someone who may outwardly look old but has an inward kind of passion and strength.
But, as much as I love this movie, I did feel like it left some things hanging or didn’t even bother to wrap up a few things. For one, the prince who was turned into Turnip Head didn’t really get any closure. Sure he was turned back into a human and went off back to his country, but we never really knew who cursed him in the first place. Was it the Witch of the Wastes or some other wizard who had it out for the King? It just kind of seemed like he was mostly supposed to be there as Turnip Head with his transformation back into the Prince coming secondary to that and probably as a last minute play on Howl and Sophie’s romance. While I liked Turnip Head as a character, the Prince part seemed like an afterthought. There was also the other unknown of whether or not Sophie’s curse actually got broken. It seems like it did since we see her riding off with Howl at the end, but her hair is still silver and we never see Calcifer keep his promise to break her curse once he’s freed. It stands open as this question of whether Sophie is still cursed but her love for Howl keeps her looking young or her curse is broken but her appearance will be forever changed by it (i.e. her hair).
Regardless, Howl’s Moving Castle has stuck with me and many others as one of the most iconic Studio Ghibli movies next to Spirited Away and My Neighbor Totoro. It is definitely a movie you can watch again and again and still pick up on new things and enjoy yourself equally as much as last time. If you have time this season to sit down and watch something, I would highly recommend Howl’s Moving Castle. Join me next weekend for the last installment of Ghibli Month, where we take a look at one more Studio Ghibli movie.