Directed by the brilliant Hayao Miyazaki, “Howl’s Moving Castle” is an animated fantasy about a young woman who is cursed by a witch, and becomes embroiled with a wizard who lives in a house on legs. The story is set in an imaginary world with steampunk-style technology, and also magic, demons, and so on. Miyazaki wrote the screenplay, based on a novel by Diana Wyn Jones. It has great characters, an exciting plot, and interesting themes.
Sophie, the heroine, is a really great character, possibly my favourite from Miyazaki’s work. The first thing the viewer notices about Sophie is that she is extremely level-headed and pragmatic. Her initial meeting with Howl is almost immediately followed by the arrival of creatures that look like black goo with little straw boaters on their heads. However, Sophie takes this, and Howl’s magical escort of her through the air, all in her stride. Her fear of something does not lead to paralysis or stupid actions. When she is cursed by the witch and made old, again she has a pragmatic approach to her predicament. She realises she can’t stay where she is, and takes steps to leave. She makes comments to herself like ‘at least the clothes suit me now’, and ‘thank goodness I still have my teeth’. I’m not sure most people would deal with such a horrible situation so well. She is also clever – on entering Howl’s ‘castle’ she meets the fire demon Calcifer, who powers Howl’s house. She meets every attempt to con or threaten her calmly, and asks how he would cope with having water poured on him. This shuts him up. There is also a fun scene involving a massive flight of stairs at the king’s palace, which both she and the witch who cursed her have to climb. The witch is extremely overweight and unfit, while Sophie, despite being in an aged body, manages much better. She takes the opportunity to get some of her own back against the person who has caused her so much grief, and she does it brilliantly (it’s a very funny scene). What is a very important aspect of Sophie’s character is that, in spite of her apparent level-headedness, courage, wit and wisdom, she doesn’t see any of this in herself.
Howl, the wizard of the title, is on first appearance handsome, quick-thinking, and powerful. But when he is observed in his own place and with his guard down the situation is quite different. There is a hilarious (and quite telling) scene after Sophie has cleaned up the extremely dirty home. Howl likes to take baths after coming back from his adventures, and on this occasion bursts out of his bathroom in a screaming fit because Sophie has moved all of his potions – we find out that his glorious blond hair is the result of a magic potion (or possibly just hair dye) and he comes out with orange hair instead. This triggers a massive meltdown on the part of Howl, who is massively vain and seems to think that if he can’t be blonde he is not ‘beautiful’ and this is the end of the world. Sophie is furious. She never regarded herself as beautiful even as a young woman, and now, trapped in an old body, she certainly isn’t. Her no-nonsense dealing with Howl’s ‘tantrum’ (her words) once she has calmed down is priceless. Howl transforms himself into bird form in order to fly across the land, where he observes the problems created by a war (we never know why there’s a war), but more and more he struggles to return to himself when he returns. Despite his own skill he is fearful and hides behind false identities and moving his house (one assumes this is why he created it to walk around) in order to evade enemies and problems.
This brings us to the main theme of the film, which is about people rising above their fears and insecurities in the face of danger. Both Sophie and Howl learn and grow due to the situation in which they find themselves. Political shenanigans are taking place behind the scenes, with the king’s witch Suliman acting as the power behind the throne and pulling the strings. Howl, appalled by the destruction he has been seeing as a result of warfare, refuses Suliman’s insistence he work for her, and she tries to destroy him as a result. Sophie’s insight into the way she tries to trap Howl is what saves both of them in the end. The animation is used in order to illustrate these changes in the main characters. Howl’s hair reverts to black, his original colour, and he never again complains about it not being ‘beautiful’. He has avoided conflict with the Witch of the Waste, and with Suliman, but when he has to confront these threats he shows just how courageous and resourceful he can be. The animation is also used to illustrate Sophie’s journey towards breaking the curse on her. The Witch of the Waste says she has no idea how to change Sophie back, blithely commenting that she knows how to cast spells, not break them. But Sophie is seen, little by little, being less lined, less stooped. Sometimes she has the voice of an old woman, sometimes a young one. This fluctuates, as situations that disturb her will cause her to revert, but eventually, a young Sophie, with only her hair remaining grey, saves Howl, who says ‘your hair is like starlight’. We know then that Sophie is cured. The curse, I think, was to make her as she saw herself, of no worth. The curse is broken when she realises she is worthy. It is a clever use of the animation to illustrate the evolution of character.
Miyazaki often has recurring motifs in his films. While flight is a common one, it is usually a serene and peaceful part of his films. Howl’s flights, however, take him over landscapes devastated by war, and witnessing bombs being dropped from steampunk-style airships. The transformation of Howl is a part of his disconnection from his heart, a slow degradation of what makes him human. Miyazaki’s work is usually anti-war, and the depiction of the initially beautiful country being burned and destroyed is something we would expect to see from him.
The films that come from Studio Ghibli are always beautifully made. The animation is drawn in the traditional sense, not computer generated, and the artistry in the films is always evident. There are often interesting quirks that are not always explained, but I like that – it leaves you with something to ponder. In this film, for example, both the witch of the waste and Suliman use magic to create servants out of some kind of black goo. They are given approximations of bipedal form but no actual humanity. However, I spent the whole film wondering why they always wear little hats. The witch of the waste’s creatures all wore little straw boaters, while Suliman’s creatures wore top hats. Why? I still don’t know. It’s a fun touch, though.
“Howl’s Moving Castle” is, like all Miyazaki films, a brilliant blend of the beauty and the horror that lies at the heart of all fairy tales. Young children should only watch with parental guidance, as there are some scenes that could frighten them. This film is beautiful, and scary, and magical and mystical, and so very enjoyable. If you love Japanese animation, watch this. If you love fairy tales, watch this. If you are new to both of these, try it anyway. You may love it.