If I had to chose a personal favorite among Hayao Miyazaki’s films, it would probably be Howl’s Moving Castle. In fact, it’s a personal all-time favorite film. This was the first Miyazaki film that I saw, freshman year of college, and watching Howl’s, a door opened and I couldn’t consume Miyazaki’s works fast enough. Rewatching it a few days ago, it was still as magical and captivating.
For those who are not aware of Howl’s Moving Castle’s origin, it is based on Diana Wynne Jones’s novel by the same name. I read the book years ago and it is equally great, a must-read if you love the movie. The film released in 2004 in Japan and 2005 in the United States.
A combination of great characters and unique settings give this film its charm. The main character, Sophie begins the film as a young woman working at her mother’s hattery. After an encounter with Howl, she gets on the bad side of the Witch of the Waste and is cursed with old age, becoming a ninety-year-old woman with the added problem of not being able to tell anyone she is cursed.
Miyazaki has a way with female characters, making them unique and relatable, never leaning on female stereotypes. Sophie is no exception. Before the curse, Sophie is already a bit of a loner (like me!) and outsider, so when she advances decades in age, she is content now that her appearance matches how she feels inside.
Sophie cannot tell her mother and sister about the curse, so she decides to leave her town for a peaceful life in the countryside. That plan immediately falls through when she rescues a turnip-headed scarecrow, whom she aptly names “Turnip Head”. Turnip Head leads her to Howl’s castle and she decides to hitch a ride, realizing that Calcifer, the fire demon who powers the moving castle, let her inside for some reason.
Sophie, Turnip Head, Calcifer, and Howl’s boy apprentice, Markl, make up a great little cast of roommates in Howl’s home. They argue with each other as Sophie brings change to the running of the castle, but learn to love and trust each other. Howl is a mysterious outside figure to them, in a way. Master of the home, keeping an arms-length distance from his tenants and them keeping the house alive for him while he is away on wizardly duties.
When I watched this movie in the past, I’ve realized, I sort of blindly accepted Howl’s arc with the war and the king and Suliman. Rewatching, I think having accepted the awesome fantasy side of the story and amazing visuals, it came to my attention that this part of the plot is actually quite confusing and a little unclear. I think during past viewings, I just skimmed over this part of the film because I loved the rest of it so much.
I was actually asking myself who Howl was fighting for when he turned into the bird-like creature and going out to the war. I had to really pay attention to figure out that he actually just wants to interfere with the war in general, even though his bird transformations make him weaker each time. Sophie must appeal to Suliman, the king’s advisor, on Howl’s behalf to tell her that Howl will not fight for the king. In response, Suliman strips the Witch of the Waste of her powers as a threat to Howl if he does not submit.
The Witch of the Waste becomes an additional housemate, really showing Sophie’s generous character as she takes her in, though a bit naive. It’s so true to life in a way, how we never know when people with reappear in our lives and when we will need each other. The witch is Sophie’s antagonist initially, but then the witch comes to rely on her after losing her powers and youth. It’s nice to see a movie where, instead of the protagonist having to defeat her enemy, she must accept and learn to live with her. I think it’s also a testament to the female protagonist in general. Instead of fighting with fists, she fights with character and leadership.
Part of the great fun of this film, is the magical castle itself. When Howl, and later Sophie, move the house, the uniqueness of the this fantasy film is highlighted. I loved re-experiencing the castle’s evolution and eventual destruction. Miyazaki knows just how to use animation to make a movie fun and give viewers an experience that will be remembered. The moving castle is a treat for the eyes and sparks my imagination to mentally roam the place.
Rewatching Howl’s Moving Castle, I was reminded of how much and why I love this movie. The only downfall is that I cannot experience it like I did for the first time, being taken in by the story, characters, and castle. I must instead be content to find new charms and things I’ve previously missed in future viewings, which should be pretty easy with the story’s many layers and the various colorful scenes.
Howl-y things I want