Hayao Miyazaki’s Howl’s Moving Castle (2004) traverses several themes — humanity, selfhood, compassion and belonging. However, the film derives its most enduring message from its ideas of war and its evils. Miyazaki identifies as a pacifist. He has said of the film: “I wanted to convey the message that life is worth living, and I don’t think that’s changed.” Identifying it as his favorite creation, Miyazaki has asserted that the film was born out of his outrage at and distaste of the United States’ invasion of Iraq in 2003; he wanted to make a film to reflect his antiwar ideals. With its core of pacifism, however, the film doesn’t lose sight of what makes it a Hayao Miyazaki film.
It opens with a young girl, Sophie, who works as a hatmaker in her father’s shop. The dull little town she inhabits is made infinitely more interesting by the arrival of Howl, an enigmatic wizard who is on the run from his own pursuers. He is chased by sludge-like creatures set upon him by the wicked Witch of The Waste. Sophie, on her way back home encounters these creatures, and Howl rescues her. However, she’s visited by the witch, and turned into an old woman for what is perceived as her interference.
Setting up the premise
Before this moment in the film, the Sophie we know is an unwilling, unwitting heroine; she’s unsure and insecure about who she is, and her sense of belonging. She is often framed as a mere speck in the alleys and wide lanes of her bustling town. Her country is at war, and despite everyone else being swept up in militaristic fervor, celebrating the troops marching and gathering to catch a glimpse of a fighter plane, one can clearly see that Sophie hasn’t quite made sense of it yet. Almost as if her work and discipline is to keep her from considering the futility of the life she’s living. On her way to Cesari’s, where her sister works, she’s even harassed by two men from the army. As planes and army troops punctuate the otherwise idyll of the town, one might as well ask themselves: how does war disrupt everyday life?
Under these circumstances Sophie meets Howl. After she’s been turned into an old lady, she sets off to the Folding Valley, looking for a solution. With the help of a benevolent scarecrow, she finds the moving castle. Inside, its master is nowhere to be found. However, she meets Markl, Howl’s apprentice, and Calcifer, a fire demon who keeps the castle moving. We learn that the secret to Howl’s power is that he gave his heart to Calcifer a long time ago, in exchange for skill at wizardry. If Calcifer dies, so does Howl. As Sophie becomes their self-appointed house-help, we discover that not only can the castle move, its enchantments allow it to move between four locations.
The problem? The rulers of these places all want Howl’s magical prowess. They want him to join the war effort on their behalf, something Howl is opposed to. And so, this makeshift family of four continues to escape. Howl disappears for long periods of time, and when he returns, he’s petulant, tired and not quite himself.
Why we should root for Howl
It is tempting to find fault with Howl. After all, he’s a powerful wizard, wouldn’t it be infinitely easier for him to simply join the war? But as Sophie, and the audience, later discover, Howl is also just a young boy in a world with a lot of things beyond his control. One night Sophie discovers him returning to their castle as a giant bird; he has been morphing back and forth and interfering with both sides of the war. But each time he changes form, it gets progressively harder and harder for him to change back to human.
Stripped of the enigma around him in human form, and from the armor of monstrosity in bird form, he is just Howl. A lost, misguided young man who doesn’t quite know what to do with life, but all the same, he is not ready to squander it on a war fought due to the whims of other people.
As we watch Sophie care for him even as he lies exhausted, dragging him to clean the mud and smoke from him and ensuring he does not slip back into the form of the bird, it isn’t hard to note how painfully young and vulnerable he is drawn to be. It is a conscious choice after all, a jarring juxtaposition of what war and its violence take from you — youth, vitality and vulnerability, and a veritable chunk of life itself, that cannot be returned. Howl may be vain, shallow and selfish, but he is also yet another casualty.
If Howl’s redeeming quality is that he does not see the value of wasting his youth on a pointless war, Sophie finally blossoms into her own virtues after she has been turned into an old woman. Their perceived differences are a necessary narrative contrast. Sophie, so far, the unwilling heroine, carries a maturity that is past her years, but this maturity is also accompanied by insecurity. Young Sophie believes she is not beautiful, often wondering about her place in the world. After being cursed however, there is a new vitality to her, a profoundly calming wisdom. In her time at the castle, she takes care of others around her, offering compassion and understanding. Her advice and actions are rife with the thoughtfulness of someone who has lived a long life, and this is both a foil as well as a contrast to Howl’s more freewheeling ways.
While the book that Howl’s Moving Castle is adapted from (Diana Wynne Jones’ eponymous 1986 novel) portrays Howl as a womanizer, the film takes a more ambiguous stance. It depicts Howl as somebody who is rumored to “tear” hearts’ out — possibly emphasizing his transient presence and inability to form meaningful bonds with people. As Howl gradually learns to protect and care for the people he loves, Sophie too gains more confidence and discovers her ability for kindness and compassion. Gone is the naïve, insecure girl we started the film with; in her place is a strong and self-actualized individual who knows what she is capable of.
Subverting ageist tropes
The film’s focus on keeping Sophie “old” for the better part of its runtime is significant. Old age is hardly ever portrayed as something worth celebrating in cultural mediums. However, the film doesn’t look at Sophie’s old age as a curse (despite the fact that it is a literal curse). It instead chooses to look at the strengths that come with it. Sophie feels more able to give voice to her thoughts, and is instrumental in ending the war in her country.
Through Howl and the scarecrow (who is later revealed to be a missing prince) Mr. Turnip Head, the film gives her two conventionally attractive male counterparts who come to love her. But the film refrains from portraying her old age as unattractive. Howl and the prince see her for her actions, and who she truly is, regardless of the wrinkles and grey hair that old age brings.
In fact, by the time the film ends and Sophie has her youth restored, her grey hair remains intact, a marker of wisdom, a reminder of her kindness and capacity, but ultimately, a deeply feminist understanding of gender and age.
The women of Howl’s Moving Castle
I find in Studio Ghibli’s works, and Miyazaki himself, a nuanced medium perfectly capable of portraying complicated realities of our world. Howl’s Moving Castle is populated by a feminist, inclusive ethos. Three notable characters who appear to fulfill this claim are Sophie, the Witch of the Waste and Madame Suliman, Howl’s former instructor and the instigator of the war in the kingdom. The latter two offer an infinitely interesting portrayal of female characters vis-à-vis witchcraft and magic in Miyazaki’s body of work.
Whereas the Witch of the Waste hungers after Howl’s heart, Madame Suliman is every bit the primary antagonist. Or she would be, anyway, if her character were stripped of all the nuance that the film so carefully grants her. Our first interaction with Madame Suliman is through Sophie, who goes to her disguised as Howl’s mother to convince her that he is a coward, and therefore, useless in the war effort. Madame Suliman sees right through her, takes her captive and reduces the Witch of The Waste to her true age, turning her into a harmless old woman. She comes across as one of the primary reasons why the war has been so prolonged, and seems to encourage the fighting due to pure caprice, if not anything else.
Under different circumstances, Suliman would be wholly evil, and she would have to be destroyed or utterly humiliated in defeat. The same goes for the Witch as well. However, the film never portrays them as complete villains. While Madame Suliman eventually understands the necessity of ending the war, the Witch is assimilated into Howl’s household by Sophie. She is taken care of and treated with kindness and affection, much like one would care for their slightly wacky grandparents.
Nuanced portrayal of conflict
All this to say, that in Miyazaki’s capable hands, women and witches who dabble in magic escape easy categorization. They cannot be boxed into the limiting categories of pure-hearted benefactress/evil witch. The film avoids portraying them as male-propagated stereotypes and does not punish them for any “transgression.”
Ultimately, the film chooses the much harder, and infinitely more rewarding pathway of maintaining that there are no villains or heroes. There are only, now and forever, people like you and I. People who are doing the best they can. In the only way they know how to.
This is true of all of Miyazaki’s work in general, and Howl’s Moving Castle in particular. The only true culprit is war. Treacherous war that steals, injures and endlessly damages all faith in love and humanity. In the end, it is only Howl’s memory of who he is, and Sophie’s genuine love for him that keeps him from completely morphing into the giant bird that he so often turns into. Love, kindness and a sense of identity bring his heart back to him, so to speak.
In this aspect, comparisons have been drawn with Princess Mononoke (1997), another Miyazaki offering which takes a stand against war, and presents compassion and understanding as the only way to move forward, but portrays all sides of the conflict as equally responsible.
Perhaps, then, Howl’s Moving Castle could be looked at as an immediate reaction to the time and events that inspired it. If that is to be so, then it certainly was prescient in looking at war as a deeply unnecessary waste. Today, the Iraq war is largely acknowledged by many as a mistake, at best, and as a horrifying crime and a greedy power grab, at worst.
Miyazaki has long stated that he believes in making films that emphasize the smaller joys of being alive, and reinforce the belief that life is worth living. A field full of flowers, fluffy clouds against a deep blue sky, sharing warm food with your loved ones and gazing upon nature’s beauty. His films infuse such grandeur, romance and vigor into the simplest of everyday things and actions. Live for the small joys in life, they seem to say.
This joie de vivre permeates all of his works, and Howl’s Moving Castle is no exception. As Sophie, Howl and their makeshift family of a fire demon, an adorable apprentice and a former witch and her dog travel the rolling hills, safe in the knowledge of their love and freedom, it reminds the viewer of a homecoming to their inner child. An assurance that despite darkness, despite things like war and loss, there is always comfort in the small pleasures of life, that no one can take away.
Nearly 17 years after its release, my love for this film continues to grow; I can only hope yours will too.