To better understand Howl’s Moving Castle it helps to understand it’s origins. Howl’s Moving Castle was the first book in a series written by Diana Wynne Jones in the 1980’s. The books go into depth on several subjects the movie barely touches on or offers in what could be considered a hurried fashion. The books are worthwhile and prove to be very complimentary to the film. Fear not, the books are not required reading as the movie is otherwise an extensive reworking by the one and only Miyazaki-sama.
Hayao Miyazaki is not only the director and screenplay writer for Howl’s Moving Castle, but is also co-founder and figurehead for Studio Ghibli. A quick glance will likely affirm you have heard of either of the former through their extensive catalog of notable anime. Studio Ghibli garnered it’s name from the Italian word meaning Mediterranean wind, meaning to offer up a fresh breath of air to the anime industry. Howl’s Moving Castle is no exception.
The Review: “A heart’s a heavy burden.”
Howl’s Moving Castle, like many of Miyazaki’s works, is a clever allegory using a multitude of metaphors. The story can be enjoyed by viewers of all ages, exploring themes including love, family, and friendship. A deeper appreciation is found by seasoned cinephiles who identify the correlations of the conflicts in Iraq taking place in the real world while the film was being produced, flawed human traits, and a deviation from the destinies placed on us by society or ourselves.
On the surface it’s a whimsical love story set in a magic imbued country, nestled in the mountains, at war with a neighboring country. Love blossoms between Sophie, a dull and uninspired 18 year old girl working in her late father’s hat shop, and the infamous Howl, a mysterious wizard who lives in a moving castle. After literally being swept off her feet by Howl, Sophie finds herself at odds with the Witch of the Wastes, who sees fit to curse Sophie for being favored by Howl. Sophie’s curse turns her into a 90 year old woman. Sophie sets out to break the curse, meeting a cursed scarecrow along the way who guides her to the door of Howl’s moving castle. At the castle she meets Markl, Howl’s apprentice, & Calcifer, a fire demon who is also cursed and seemingly trapped in the castle as it’s sole power source. On Sophie’s quest to break the curse, she loves, she laughs, she learns like all other movies before have done.
Below the surface the movie presents us with characters that act as metaphors, a commentary on war, and a relatable struggle to find our place in the world. Characters like Sophie, who exhibit low self worth, claiming to not be pretty enough to have her heart stolen by Howl and destined to honor her father’s memory by running his hat shop. Another metaphor being Howl, who’s reckless abandon has put him at odds with the kingdom, who’s far too concerned with his own vanity than society’s preconceived path for wizards. Howl’s opposition to the war parallels many commentaries on real life war and it’s impact. Howl laments how other wizards being used as tools of war will regret their decisions, and be forever damaged by the process. Not only does the movie make a point to not clearly define the cause of the war, we find the resolution to the war to be fairly simple and resolved inadvertently by the main cast. We find all parties involved ultimately looking for their place in the world. Markl at one point in the movie begs Sophie to stay at the castle, telling her he loves her, and considers their collective a family. The characters feel inexplicably tied to one another. Calcifer shows little ill will towards Howl, even relishing in the fact that he is needed to run the castle. Likewise, Calcifer is filled with jubilation when Sophie compliments his ability to control the entire castle. The Witch of the Wastes is present throughout the movie, only acting as an antagonist for the first portion of the movie, ultimately becoming a part of the “family.”
The plot for both parts of the allegory is furthered by clever art direction. Miyazaki uses setting, and visual cues advantageously to further an otherwise rambling plot to a climax and resolution. The movie finds itself moving through brightly colored, beautiful picturesque landscapes to barren scenes. When Sophie first finds the castle, it is in entrenched in a foggy, dreary part of the mountains. However, once her presence is known Howl has Calcifer move the castle the edge of a lake in a lush green field. The castle has a magic front door of the home that changes locations via a magic color wheel. The wheel implements the use of several primary colors like blue and red, however Howl often uses the black setting to enter desolate settings including the war ravaged areas of the country experiencing bombings. Miyazaki does not rely on setting alone. He also uses several visual cues in the movie. The most noticeable is the fact that Sophie’s outward appearance fluctuates with her mood and progress with finding acceptance of herself and the world around her. Numerous times throughout the movie when Sophie exhibits bravery or a selflessness her visage is young and beautiful, only to revert back to a weathered aged form when she expresses self-doubt. Concurrently we find The Witch of the Wastes continuing to age and become more sheepish as Sophie overcomes her curse. These plot devices can be justified by both sides of the allegory.
The movie is visually stunning, implementing great detail to architecture, scenery, and character features. Miyazaki has been known to study subjects/objects extensively to translate them into animated marvels. The characters are lovable, memorable, and develop before your eyes. The movie is not without it’s faults, however. Regardless if the viewer is aware of both stories being presented or not, several plot points and resolutions feel rushed or ill conceived. With a two hour run-time, the director presents so many plot lines and interesting characters that simply can’t be explored enough given this restriction. All things considered, this is still one of my favorite Studio Ghibli films. Howl’s Moving Castle is worth watching. It’s worth owning. It’s a great ride. And if you disagree: “Here’s another curse for you – may all your bacon burn!”
Epilogue: Howling For More
Studio Ghibli has released 20 films to date, all worth watching. Of those 20, 9 films were written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki, including Oscar winning Spirited Away. Excellent reviews for Spirited Away and My Neighbor Totoro are available right here; Penned by film clubber John Edward Lee.
I applaud the Alamo for showing Howl’s Moving Castle in it’s original format, subtitled. Of the 4 Miyazaki films being shown this month, 2 are subtitled and 2 are English dubbed. Subbed Vs Dubbed can be a heated debate among Anime enthusiasts. The good news is that the English dubs of all of the Ghibli movies are top notch. Howl’s Moving Castle features voice acting by Christian Bale, Billy Crystal, and Emily Mortimer to name a few. One of the key benefits of being released by Disney in the US.
Subtitled is preferred by many for a few reasons:
- Purist will always wish to see a film in it’s intended format.
- Anime was plagued by lackluster dubs for decades. Usually produced by the same emotionless cast of 5 English speakers in Japan that just wanted to go home. You can easily identify the same voice actor is a myriad of your favorite 90’s dubs. The only good one was Steven Blum. Hey Steven, THANKS!
Fun Easter Egg: A young Pazu from Castle in the Sky can be seen running through a scene.
That’s it! You’ve reached the end…
You’re still here? It’s over. Go home. Go.