“They say that the best blaze brightest when circumstances are at their worst.”
In 2003, Spirited Away won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature but its director, Hayao Miyazaki, did not attend the ceremony to accept the accolade. The reason?
“The reason I wasn’t here for the Academy Award was because I didn’t want to visit a country that was bombing Iraq. At the time, my producer shut me up and did not allow me to say that, but I don’t see him around today. By the way, my producer also shared in that feeling.”
LA Times, July 25 2009
Out of his feelings against the Iraq War came Howl’s Moving Castle. Well, elements of it. Miyazaki purportedly read the novel under that title by Diana Wynne Jones. The novel is a fantasy tale, the first in a series, about a hatter named Sophie and a wizard named Howl. In typical Miyazaki form, the Studio Ghibli film adaptation went beyond the scope of the book and made several changes, one of which being the anti-war sentiment in the film.
Wizards who joined the king’s cause in the war turned are transformed into monsters, irreversibly. The titular wizard risks that as well, according to a supporting character. Though he dodges the draft, as it were, he involves himself in the fighting by attacking the mutated wizards themselves, which seems to slowly be corrupting him into a monster himself as he uses his powers for violence.
We don’t know much about the war in Howl’s Moving Castle but it is always depicted negatively. It is a war fought by monsters and the people in leadership are indifferent to the suffering of others and are excited at the prospect of making war. Yet despite the war and those who are carrying it out being evil, the film also indirectly condemns the titular wizard for involving himself in fighting both sides.
Howl says to Sophie when she asks which side a war ship belongs to: “What difference does it make? …Those stupid murderers.”
I consider Miyazaki’s pacifism in this sense interesting. To him, violence is violence, even if it is violence used to end a foolish war, or violence used to stop the violent. Compared to what… 90% of extant anime, his works are marked by a lack of violence. His works never glamorize it, his protagonists are peacemakers, and his climaxes are typically emotional rather than action scenes.
Howl’s Moving Castle begins in a valley kingdom, modeled after a city in France, and Sophie the hatter. She’s a plain girl and doesn’t think of herself as very pretty, unlike her sister who seems to be rather popular. One day, she bumps into the wizard Howl who literally sweeps her off her feet. They go walking through the air.
Because of that moment of tenderness with Howl, the jealous Witch of the Waste puts a curse on Sophie, transforming the girl into an elderly woman. The worst part of the curse is she won’t be able to explain what’s happened to her. Knowing she can’t face her family, she ventures out into the countryside to search for a way to break her curse.
Sophie meets a group of adorable characters: the scarecrow Turnip Head, the boy mage Markl, the flying dog Heen, and the fire demon Calcifer. Some of the most lovable characters in animation appear in this film and it’s tough not to fall in love with the unique little “family” that comes to live in the Moving Castle.
Howl’s Castle itself is one of the most astounding works of animation I’ve ever seen: a combination of computer generated and traditional hand-drawn imagery. The two different styles of animation come together seamlessly to create something truly wonderful and unlike anything else I’ve seen on screen. The Castle looks almost alive at some points, like it’s a creature crawling over the grassy foothills on its big chicken legs, gaping mouth wagging open and closed.
Another change from the book besides the look of the Castle and the addition of anti-war themes is the extent and presentation of Sophie’s powers. I was surprised to learn (since I’ve not yet been able to read the book) that Sophie is a sorceress who is well aware of her abilities. In the film, however, Sophie’s powers are only barely hinted at.
One example would be how she can unconsciously affect the curse upon her. Throughout the film, she morphs from truly decrepit nonagenarian to the girl of her youth (retaining her silver hair). This seems to happen unintentionally, unconsciously, when she’s asleep, when she begins thinking of others beyond herself, when she falls in love. When she sees the best in Howl, her hair regains its color and her skin loses its wrinkles.
However, Sophie seems to accept her curse rather quickly and the movie depicts advanced age as variably comforting and facilitating compassion. She’s always saying “The nice thing about being old is…” even though she isn’t actually old. She’s merely under a spell to appear that way but she makes the best of it. But seeing as how she was already a timid, frowsy girl, the physical change wasn’t really so life-altering. In fact, it seems almost as if she thrives with advanced age. I think this is at the heart of the film.
Sophie is able to cope with her personal challenges and disability by putting others ahead of herself. Is that not true wisdom? If we want to be unselfish, and take our minds off our own problems, then we merely having to put other people’s problems ahead of our own. Compassion. Empathy. Charity. Loyalty. Devotion.
Howl, in contrast to Sophie, is selfish, cowardly, and vain beyond hope. “I see no point in living if I can’t be beautiful” he says. Whereas Sophie has been making herself useful and cares about others, Howl goes about womanizing, doing what he pleases, and fighting randomly in the war.
Sophie breaks down when Howl throws a fit about his hair accidentally being dyed an auburn color. She cries “I’ve never once been beautiful!” Sophie is the ordinary and Howl the extraordinary, on the outside, but their inner characters are the reverse. Sophie is a caring, faithful, honest, heartfelt woman while Howl is a chauvinist, cowardly and self-serving. He is quite literally heartless.
Howl’s Moving Castle suffered a change in directors. It was originally to be directed by Mamoru Hosoda from Toei Animation but when he quit, Miyazaki stepped in to helm the film. I’m not sure at what point the change took place, I think it is reflected most in the uneven plotting and somewhat rambling nature of the storyline. Furthermore, since this is a book adaptation, maybe there were just too many cooks in the kitchen.
The seeds of this style of Miyazaki’s storytelling had been growing for some time. As I asserted (infamously) about Spirited Away, Miyazaki is capable of pulling off great films, masterpieces, which would’ve fallen apart under lesser directors because of shaky plotting. This flaw in his jewels is perhaps clearer than ever in Howl’s Moving Castle, a great film with some storytelling issues.
At times, things occur in this film which seem confusing because we’ve barely any precedent by which to frame them. Things just seem to happen and the characters suffer them as they do. I think one particular example is how the film scantly mention this missing prince (spoilers: highlight to reveal) and at the end we discover that the Turnip Head scarecrow was the prince under a curse the whole time. He becomes human again after Sophie kisses him as thanks, immediately ending the war. And that’s it. The war, at least, isn’t the central conflict but resolving something so major in the space of five seconds is characteristic of the sort of things which happen in this film.
It’s as if its world operates entirely on its own magical rules without cluing us in to any of them, leaving many viewers and reviewers claiming the story “wanders”. (spoilers: highlight to reveal) Did Howl intentionally seek out Sophie since he remembered her from his past? How did the prince get cursed in the first place? What was the exact nature of Howl’s “curse” and his relationship to Calcifer? Why was Madame Sulliman transforming wizards and witches? The movie attempts to answer only some of these questions while for others it barely makes any attempt at all.
The majority of viewers may not care since the film is still exquisite. Miyazaki’s dreamlike style is at least endearing and this particular movie feels like a high-spirited, whimsical dance.
So despite storytelling strangeness, I say Howl’s Moving Castle is delightful. Unforgettable characters, romantic, amazing animation, complex themes, vivid emotion, rich fantasy world… it is no wonder that in 2013 Miyazaki himself claimed that this was his favorite creation. Howl’s Moving Castle is one of his more famous works and rightfully it should be.
It is a wonder.
The 8-bit Review
This is one of the most visually stunning computer generated movies I’ve ever seen, hands down. Looking at it you wouldn’t think it was made digitally. That’s because the original background and character art was indeed crafted by the artisans at Studio Ghibli in the traditional, hand-drawn way but then their paintings were digitized.
The Moving Castle, as mentioned, is clearly CG but it uses as its images art crafted by hand. The result is something absolutely awe-inspiring which looks both like CGI and a painting. The whole film has this organic, natural, colorful aesthetic to it which would be impossible to achieve (at that time and maybe even now) if they had only relied entirely on computer imaging.
Some of the most visually interesting moments come from several of the characters undergoing their transformations. Howl shifting into a gigantic bird and Sophie blooming into flower or withering with her cursed age look so fluid and flawless.
The landscapes and settings in Howl’s Moving Castle are among the best in the Ghibli canon: soaring, ice-capped mountains, gentle sunlight on lakes among fields of flowers, old-fashioned European city nestled by a river at the bottom of a valley, the bustling city-capital, and of course the Miyazaki favorite, the sky.
Joe Hisaishi is back in action after having a break from Ghibli film scoring with The Cat Returns. Any time he’s absent, he leaves a gaping void in his wake. I don’t know how this musical genius keeps cranking out memorable melodies, each of which have come to perfectly crystallize the films they belong to. With Howl’s Moving Castle, he used a romantic, European waltz theme that recurs throughout the film. It’s beautiful music and it sums up the extravagance, the fullness of this world with its unique high fantasy culture, as well as the delightful relationship between Sophie and Howl, indeed between each of the characters. Choosing a dance-style theme for the film was a true epiphany.
If a single criticism could be made it’s that the waltz theme recurs too often throughout the film’s soundtrack, lessening its impact and appeal as the film progresses. That’s only a minor observation, of course.
If you’d like to avoid SPOILERS for this film, please Ctrl+f Family Friendliness to skip both the Narrative and Themes portions of this review.
After leaving her city to break her curse, Sophie crawls up the hillside into the country and discovers Turnip Head while looking for a walking stick. She expresses how she hates turnips and asks the scarecrow to go away since he’s under a curse too. Turnip Head brings her a walking stick and she asks him to search for a place for her to stay. He comes back with Howl’s Moving Castle.
She enters apprehensively and meets Calcifer in the downstairs hearth, who powers the Moving Castle with his magic. She runs into Markl, Howl’s boy apprentice, and says Calcifer let her in. When Howl appears, she tells him she’s the new cleaning lady. She has a heck of a time trying to scrape together a place to live in the dust and dank of the Castle, and she’s got her cleaning work cut out for her. Since she can’t talk about her curse, she can’t have Howl help her or tell him who she really is.
With war mounting, Howl is summoned to fight for the king but being a coward he decides to give Sophie a ring and send her to the capital to pretend she’s Howl’s mother and tell them he will be unable to fight. The fantasy equivalent of having your mom call in sick for you. At the capital, she finds the Witch of the Waste who has been summoned for the war as well. The Witch taunts her and the curse she puts on her, but she’s in for a rude awakening. Climbing the steps to the palace seems to drain the Witch’s physical and magical energy, while Sophie has a hard time climbing as well with a dog in her arms (she thinks the dog is Howl come to follow her in disguise).
In the palace, the Witch is drained of the last of her magic and transformed into her true age. She now resembles a giant pink raisin and is barely coherent. Sophie meets Madame Sulliman, the king’s chief sorceress, and finds out that the dog that’s been following her was Heen, Sulliman’s watchdog. Sophie throws away the ruse of being an old mum by standing up against Sulliman to defend Howl’s character. Doing so, Sophie becomes youthful again, but when called out by Sulliman, the curse resumes.
Howl comes to the rescue disguised as the king and they escape with both Heen and the now harmless Witch of the Waste. Back at the castle, Howl reveals that he’s been interfering with the war by transforming himself into a flying monster to fight the soldiers of both sides. His attempts seem futile and they endanger him by making it harder to become human again after each transformation.
Howl decides it’s time to “move” the Castle and he magically rearranges rooms and portal locations for his abode. He gives Sophie a field of flowers through one of the Castle’s doors as a present but Sophie realizes he is making arrangements to go away. She accepts his affection by transforming into her oldest persona.
Sophie’s mother arrives and leaves a peeping bug to spy on Howl, courtesy of Sulliman, but the Witch of the Waste disposes it by feeding it to Calcifer. This makes Calcifer sick and unable to defend the Castle. Howl stops a bomb from the war from destroying the Castle and tells Sophie that he is fighting for her now.
Realizing that Howl may kill himself against forces too powerful for him while trying to protect his friends, Sophie tries to move the Castle herself by taking Calcifer and Howl’s heart inside of the demon from the hearth. This causes the Castle and each of its portals to collapse, allowing her to “reset” the Castle by giving Calcifer her braid of hair. But as they’re coming to Howl’s rescue, the Witch realizes that Howl’s heart was given to Calcifer and she reaches out to grab it from the hearth, destroying what was left of the Castle. The fire demon begins to burn the Witch alive and Sophie has no choice but to douse the flames and Howl’s heart with a bucket of water.
The Castle splinters apart and Sophie and Heen fall down into a chasm, separated from Markl and the Witch. Sophie wonders if she’s killed Howl and Calcifer when the ring Howl gave her begins to glow, leading her through a door that survived from the wreckage of the Castle, taking her into Howl’s past. There she witnesses the moment when Howl gave his heart to Calcifer, binding the two of them, and she realizes how to help them.
Returning to the present, she finds Howl totally transformed into a mindless bird-like beast. Together they fly to Calcifer and Sophie asks for Howl’s heart from the Witch, confronting her with a heartfelt plea. The Witch gives it up and Sophie places Howl’s heart back in his chest, reviving him and freeing Calcifer. The missing prince turns out to be Turnip Head whose curse is broken when Sophie kisses him and Madame Sulliman, watching on her crystal ball through Heen, decides it’s finally time to end the war.
The final scene in the film is of a boundless Flying Castle soaring through the clouds, the Witch, Markl, Heen and Calcifer hanging out in the backyard, and Howl and Sophie share a kiss.
Flight of course plays a role in every Miyazaki film and its transcendence is used at the end of this film as a visualization of the characters overcoming. It’s triumphant. It redeems the beauty of flight from the bomb-loaded airships seen earlier.
Because of the somewhat convoluted plot in Howl’s Moving Castle, I feel that the clearest and strongest of its themes is its anti-war pacifism. The wizards who took to using their gifts for the sake of the war become monsters and even Howl who is becoming violent because of good intentions is trapped in the same cycle before Sophie reaches him.
Vanity, appearances, and self-worth also play a major role in the film. The Witch appears to be obsessed with looking put together despite being hideously obese, and it is revealed once her magic is drained that she was using her arcane abilities to sustain her appearance. Of course, Howl is obsessed with his looks as well, and he changes outfits and hairstyles constantly throughout the film. He’s flamboyant, flashy, and seems to revel in his sense of attractiveness, feigning suicide conversely when he accidentally dyes his hair an off color.
Then of course there’s Sophie. She was never a person who was vain or obsessed with her own looks. She dressed frowsily and was a humble hatter with few friends and no suitors before her curse. Her beauty is truly inward after her curse but she shows that her youth shines through whenever she puts others ahead of herself. As we discussed, she is a remarkable exemplar of overcoming personal challenges by focusing on others, and her caring heart is contagious, spreading to Markl, Calcifer, Howl and finally even the Witch, the one who cursed her in the first place.
I think that Sophie is one of Ghibli’s most interesting characters. She is so unassuming and so genuinely humble while being inspiring to others. Her adage toward the end which she says to Calcifer summarizes her viewpoint on life: “They say that the best blaze brightest when circumstances are at their worst.” She demonstrates that even under the Witch’s curse.
We also see that she carries a kind of hurt over how unpopular she’s been and she really seems to think of herself as never having been pretty. Part of the film’s thrust is about how she views herself and her personal value. But she’s feminine, gentle, caring, warm, compassionate, and the beacon of kindness throughout the whole film. She is the catalyst that breaks Howl’s spell, humbles the Witch of the Waste, and even ends the war. It may not have much on-screen consideration, but Sophie’s concern for helping others is what ends war. Perhaps that’s a parable for our time.
Howl’s Moving Castle has no overt environmentalism but the war machines are full of the ugliness of modern technology. Miyazaki is famously pessimistic about modernity with its disconnect from nature and from community. Technology is generally depicted negatively in his works, so while the negative is present here, there isn’t much said about the environment. At one point, Howl does mention that he used his magic just enough to help the flowers grow, but that’s about it.
I read elsewhere that some consider the Moving Castle to be emblematic of living in harmony with nature, because we’re not actually shown that the smoke from the Castle is harming the environment. I had a good laugh at that. I don’t think we need to “see” the smoke harming the environment to know that it is, just as much as the smoke from the locomotive in the city is. Further, the Castle leaves some massive footprints (“carbon footprints”???) and it litters pieces of itself when falling apart before taking to the skies. I just think this is all reaching to say that this film really has any major environmental considerations at all.
Family Friendliness: 9/10
You get to see Howl’s baby booty at one point! Woohoo for the ladies? Beyond that, this film is almost entirely harmless. The henchmen of Madame Sulliman are slightly creepy, Sulliman’s magic is unsettling, the war scenes are brief but evocative as a Pink Floyd music video, and I really can’t think of much else. The Witch of the Waste’s neck is gross and she smokes a fat cigar?
Christian Bale evidently expressed interest in being in a Ghibli film after seeing Spirited Away and he managed to land the titular role here as the wizard Howl himself. Bale will perhaps be remembered most famously for his growling and guttural Batman in Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. I think it’s funny to hear the actor using the Bat-voice for the scenes where Howl is transformed into a monster. Howl is a character with a lot of flair and he might’ve easily been played by a much more effeminate actor with a higher, more womanish voice, but somehow Bale’s manly throatiness matches the character. The actor nailed Howl’s humor, worry, slyness, sarcasm, and childlike lines quite well.
Differing from the Japanese language track, the choice was made to use two different actresses for young and old Sophie: Emily Mortimer and Jean Simmons, respectively. Both women have voices which are perfect for voice acting. They’ve got voices that are unmistakable. There are some really great tricks they played with the sound editing when the two voices morph into each other, overlap, and transform as Sophie’s physicality does. Great work from both actresses.
An absolute joy is Billy Crystal’s Calcifer. This is one instance where the dub casting choice was a match made in heaven, where it in fact is superior to the original voice, to my mind. Crystal’s Calcifer is… well, Billy Crystal. It’s everything you’d think Billy Crystal and his line deliveries would sound like, with characteristic comedy and fast-talking warmth. Some of the funniest moments in the movie are here courtesy of Crystal’s Calcifer.
Josh Hutcherson as Markl, Lauren Bacall as the Witch of the Waste, and Blythe Danner as Madame Sulliman along with Crispin Freeman and Jena Malone round out a pretty dang solid cast for this Disney dub. And Heen’s gasping reminds me of Dick Dastardly’s dog Muttley from Hanna-Barbera’s Wacky Races.
If they never made another fantasy movie, there would be enough in the world anyways. The fantasy genre is broad and has its own sub-genres replete with their sub-cliché. The high-fantasy, swords and sorcery, magical adventure types are some of the guiltiest. But Howl’s Moving Castle combines so many elements of good storytelling (put together in perhaps an odd way) that it can’t be nailed down to just one sub-genre. It’s a great fantasy film with a strong anti-war slant and a powerful romance of mutual caring. Visually, it is one of the most interesting films you could ever see. Though it is based on the novel, it has taken several liberties, making it even more unique.
My Personal Grade: 8/10
I really adore this movie. It’s my wife’s favorite and now I’ve found out that it is also Miyazaki’s. It isn’t mine, but that’s alright. Howl’s Moving Castle has some wonky, un-traditional plotting in a traditional setting, but because of the skill of its developers it is able to surpass its flaws. This is a film of which I can confidently say that it is truly a delight to watch and I haven’t grown tired of seeing it so many times.
When we talk of Hayao Miyazaki’s magic on the big screen, this is generally the movie I think of. It is a movie which reminds us, as the director wanted, that life is worth living even through tremendous personal challenges. It reminds us also that no one can ever replace Miyazaki, as we shall most definitely see with the next film on our list…
Aggregated Score: 8.3