Studio Ghibli #14: Howl’s Moving Castle

Following the success of his previous film, Miyazaki eyed up Diana Wynne Jones’s novel; Howl’s Moving Castle, as his next directorial effort after Mamoru Hosada, the director of Wolf Children and The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, left the project after creative differences with the Studio Ghibli executives. Howl’s Moving Castle has become one of the most iconic ghibli films among anime fans, and, from my own perception, seems to be one of the more popular in the West. But I’ve always had a mixed reaction to the film, while I’ve always liked and enjoyed the film it doesn’t live up to the hype surrounding it for me. There’s no doubt that the animation is beautiful, but I find the script to be quite weak and the characters fairly one-note. 

The film follows Sophie, a young hat-maker, who encounters the mysterious wizard Howl on her way to visit her sister. But after her encounter with Howl, she ends up being visited by the Witch of the Waste who curses Sophie by transforming her into a 90-year old woman. In searching for a cure Sophie meets a living scarecrow, named ‘Turnip Head’, who leads her to Howl’s moving castle. Sophie is an interesting heroine even by Ghibli standards, as even when she is young she’s older and more mature than most other Ghibli protagonists, and after the set-up she spends most of the film as her older self. But this mature protagonist and message are just as powerful, Sophie is empowered by her optimism and determination even for the most minor of tasks. Miyazaki himself stated that one of the reasons he wanted to adapt the story was it’s relatively positive approach to the idea of growing old. Similarly the romantic element of the film feels a lot more endearing as the film represents love as something deeper than on attractiveness. Sophie ends up with two different suitors who fell in love with her kindness and optimism even in spite of her curse, which remains unknown to them, and this is a bold move for a film, and not something I’ve personally seen in any other film. 

The film’s visuals are stunning, the image of the titular castle is one that is instantly recognisable to anyone who’s seen the film. Made up of digital objects that were rendered into the animation, it stands out prominently against the hand-painted backgrounds. It’s robotic movements and metallic designs give it an almost cyber-gothic vibe that integrates brilliantly with the general European influence that dictates the rest of the designs. On that idea, the different designs of all the different locations in the film are brilliant. Each town has its own distinct imagery, from the architecture of the buildings, to the clothes and uniforms of its citizens, means that when Sophie moves from location to location, through the castle’s magic door, is achieved in a way that isn’t confusing for the audience. Similarly the design of the castle’s interior is fantastic, it has a very authentic fairytale vibe that matches the magic that is used in the house. In the house with Sophie and Howl there’s the latters apprentice, Markl, and the fire demon, Calcifer, who powers the castle and is magically connected to Howl. The rest of the film focuses on Sophie’s adventures and her efforts to find a cure for her curse while also helping Howl in the midst of the outbreak of war between the local countries. 

In traditional Miyazaki tradition, the film contains very powerful anti-war themes. The main antagonist of the film, Madame Suliman, is manipulating the sides into war with only sadistic motivations, despite her omnipotence she only realises the banality of war by the end of the film. Compared to Miyazaki’s previous films like Princess Mononoke, the complete lack of a justifiable reason for the villain’s intention shows a step further in Miyazaki’s criticism of war. These ideas were directly influenced by Miyazaki’s staunch opposition to the Iraq War, and he even stated that he expected the film to be received poorly in the US due to its overt criticism. While the characters do remain somewhat complex, and are shown to be capable of change, Howl especially shows a tremendous growth over the film as he regains his humanity through Sophie’s presence. But even with Madame Suliman, and the Witch of the Waste, who experience changing moralities over the film, the film retains the underlying message that war is bad beyond the individual changes. But alongside the nihilism of war that Miyazaki highlights, he offers significant hope in the form of Sophie’s optimism, and shows this as the key to overcoming the conflict. By doing this Miyazaki reassures the audience that despite his critiques of the war, his belief that optimism that things can change remain powerful even in the face of conflict.

Overall I really like Howl’s Moving Castle, it was one of the earliest Ghibli films I ever watched and I’ve seen it plenty of times over the years. But I’ve never considered it the greatest Ghibli film, I do think the film has pacing issues in the second act, in that the film drifts too far from the central narrative and becomes pretty stagnant for a while. Similarly I don’t think the character developments are the strongest, as the cast feels fairly cliche and onenote, not offering enough substance as compared to other Ghibli films. But despite my criticisms of the film, I do think that it’s a great film and beautifully animated, it’s European aesthetic makes it a very unique film, even compared to the Welsh aesthetics in Castle in the Sky, and the use of magic in the story makes it feel like a traditional fairytale. It’s easy to see why this film is so popular, and Miyazaki offers enough unique twists on his own traditional formula while utilising the advancements in animation technology to create a visually striking and memorable film.

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