17 years after release, Howl’s Moving Castle remains a standalone example of complex, layered storytelling with striking tenderness and wide-eyed innocence.
Howl’s Moving Castle, Studio Ghibli’s 2004 animated film, is ostensibly one of the highest grossing Japanese films ever. Written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki, Howl’s Moving Castle is a cinematic representation of a fecund, fevered dream; a dream of a utopia where missiles do not scorch magical gardens. This dazzling film is set in a land where magic is a part of everyday life, and so are Edwardian-era inspired aerial battleships. Howl’s Moving Castle is perhaps one of Miyazaki’s most visually inventive and richly detailed animation films. The titular home is a steampunk-inspired bulbous, cranking, wood and metal home on stilts that skips around expansive landscapes. The house stands as a critique of the machine-driven world, because despite the house’s majestic appearance, it relies on fire demon Calcifer’s magic to operate.
At its heart though, Howl’s Moving Castle is a coming-of-age story where every character has a journey of their own. It effectively blends fantasy, antics and sentimentality to narrate a story of self determination.
Although Howl is the titular character, the story unfolds from the perspective of Sophie Hatter, a young hatmaker at her father’s shop. After a chance encounter with a charming, handsome wizard, Sophie is cursed by the jealous The Witch of the Waste to turn into an old woman. Sophie is understandably shaken by her new form, but she isn’t despaired. "This isn't so bad now. Is it? You're still in good shape and your clothes finally suit you,’ she tells herself.. Through Sophie, Miyazaki subverts societal expectations of female beauty. While the film does not spell out the correlation between old age and self assurance, everytime Sophie takes a stand, or becomes more assured of herself, she is depicted to look younger. Her complete transformation back into a young girl takes place only when she resists Madame Sullivan, the king’s all-powerful sorceress, and her attempts at war mongering.
The film also aligns vanity with its male protagonist, Howl. Howl is flamboyant, but also narcissistic. He draws a sense of self worth from his appearance, evidenced in his constant struggle to not turn into a monster. But in the end, Howl isn’t concerned neither his appearance, nor that of Sophie. For those who have grown up internalising Disney’s ideals of youth and romance, the gender reversal comes as a welcome change.
Miyazaki’s film, although made for children, does not shy away to present a grim and earnest portrayal of the terrors that wars cause on civilian lives. The director’s earlier works, like Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984), also dealt with anti-war themes. However, his work was largely unknown to the western audience until Spirited Away’s Academy Award win. But the director refused to attend the award ceremony in 2003 voicing his objections against the Iraq War.
Yet, Howl’s Moving Castle is not cynical. There is a gentleness with which Miyazaki has reimagined the characters created in British author Diana Wynne Jones novel, on which the film is based. He does so by deconstructing popular fairytale tropes. Thus, a witch who cursed Sophie to turn into an old woman becomes an endearing, albeit cantankerous at times, grandmother. Similarly, the frog prince of this story, a living scarecrow Sophie names Turnip Head, is transformed into his former prince self when kissed by his beloved. However, he is not worried about her loving another man. Turnip Man decides he’ll return to his own country to stop the war now. Howl, who hides his cowardice behind his magical powers and often (mis)uses them to slither out of difficult situations, finds a purpose in “protecting” Sophie. But ironically, it is almost always Sophie who comes to Howl's rescue.
17 years after release, Howl’s Moving Castle remains a standalone example of complex, layered storytelling with a striking tenderness and wide-eyed innocence.