Tsunderin: Within the Ghibli library, I would argue that there’s a specific trifecta of films that stand out as the Ghibli films to the general, movie-going American audience. There’s the breakthrough hit, Princess Mononoke, the award winner, Spirited Away, and the one everyone loves, Howl’s Moving Castle. Seeing as we’ve already discussed two of them, I think it’s pretty obvious which one is the topic of today’s discussion. (That and it’s also the title of the article. Duh.)
While this film perpetuates much of what audiences have come to love about Miyazaki’s directorial style, it also takes many risks with its script, one of the most looked over or ignored being that this movie is based on another person’s work. Author Diana Wynne Jones penned the original Howl’s Moving Castle in 1986, but to fans of Jones’s work, Miyazaki’s Howl is only sibling by name and nothing else. We’ll get into that later, however.
For now, let’s start at the charming little hat shop in a stereotypical, adorable European town—in Jones’s novel, the setting is the imaginary kingdom of Ingary, which I can only assume looks just about the same—where our protagonist, Sophie, works. Sophie, finding herself unexciting and bland, especially in comparison with her more vibrant sisters, has resigned herself to living a quiet life of solitude and hatting, until she is suddenly scooped up into a political and magical plot by the womanizing sorcerer, Howl. Well, it doesn’t start out that bad, but he does rescue her from some of the henchmen belonging to the nefarious Witch of the Waste before dropping her off back at home. Unfortunately, the Witch is madly in love (lust?) with Howl and also extremely jealous. Taking Sophie’s five minute interaction with the sorcerer as competition, the Witch curses Sophie to live in the body of a ninety-year-old woman for the rest of her life.
Surprisingly enough, Sophie doesn’t take this as the end of the world. On the contrary, she packs up what little possessions she deems worthy to bring and sets off on a journey to make a new life for herself and maybe break the curse in the meantime. I say maybe because in all honesty, Sophie seems to genuinely enjoy the freedom and respect that comes along with her new appearance, but she does start off looking for a cure in earnest. Eventually she is led to the castle/laboratory of Howl and asserts herself as the castle’s new cleaning lady, causing discomfort to Howl’s fire demon, Calcifer.
Other than Calcifer, Sophie learns to live with the other residents of Howl’s moving castle. The second person she meets is Markl, a young boy who seems to be Howl’s apprentice but really shows no inkling of magic beyond simple disguises. Almost instantly he falls in love with Sophie and comes to see her as a mother and a mentor. Also, Turnip Head, a strange scarecrow who lead Sophie to the castle in the first place, has decided to take up residence despite being incredibly fragile (he is just sticks and straw, after all). And of course, there’s Howl.
As the rumors about him suggest, Howl is extremely selfish and vain, and also an extremely talented sorcerer. However, something that the rumors didn’t speak of was his cowardice. Currently, Sophie’s homeland is at war, and as one of the most powerful magic wielders it seems only logical that Howl be invited to participate in the battle. Yet, he has reservations about meeting with the royal sorcerer, Madame Suliman, so Howl proposes that Sophie meet with her instead, posing as his mother.
Hey, he’s known for his magic, not his amazing plans.
Sophie agrees, but when she arrives at the castle she finds that the Witch of the Waste has been invited to Suliman’s audience as well. Despite being harassed by the now almost pitiful woman, shown as weak and unable without her magic, she helps the Witch reach the chambers unaware of Suliman’s plans. As punishment for the Witch’s deeds, Suliman saps the Witch of all her magical powers—and as far as the Witch goes, that means all of her power—and threatens Sophie that the same will happen to Howl if he doesn’t agree to aid them in the war.
Sophie protests these threats, her strong feelings for Howl causing the spell on her to fade momentarily, but before Suliman can get another word in, Howl comes and rescues Sophie in his usual literally-sweeping-her-off-her-feet manner. After escaping the palace, Sophie discovers that the reason why Howl leaves every night is that he shapeshifts into a large bird and interferes with the battle. However, every time he does this it becomes more and more difficult for him to return to his human form.
Once back at the castle, and with one more guest (the Witch) to boot, the Witch discovers a peeping slug and feeds it to Calcifer to get rid of it. This causes Calcifer to become very ill and the defenses of the castle to all but disintegrate, leaving them completely exposed to everyone in the outside world. Protecting the inhabitants of the castle from a bombing and trying to figure out how to save Howl after he decides to finally fight for himself against both sides, Sophie has her hands full and must venture into Howl’s past to figure out how to rescue the man she loves.
Of course, she figures it out and Howl is rescued from eternal bird-dom. Sophie also manages to find the whereabouts of the missing prince—the prince that this entire war was started over: he was actually Turnip Head, another one cursed by the Witch. The war ends, Howl and Sophie are together, Calclifer is freed from his servitude, and everyone lives happily ever after.
MadameAce: I cannot say that I am the biggest fan of this movie. I didn’t hate it when I first saw it, but unlike everyone else, I didn’t really love it either. My opinion has since changed. It has its moments, and I can safely say that I enjoy it more in the scenes where Sophie’s older rather than younger. I think my favorite thing about Sophie is how she reacts to things once she’s old. First, she freaks out. Then, she accepts it. And hey, after being magically transformed into a ninety-year old woman, there doesn’t seem to be anything that’s really surprising. When she first meets Turnip Head, she just starts nonchalantly talking to the sapient scarecrow, and when she first meets Calcifer, the fire demon, she falls asleep in the middle of the conversation. She just starts taking life as it comes, and it’s wonderful.
Now that I’ve seen the movie again after watching all the ones before this one, I have certainly grown to appreciate it more. At the same time, there are some things that I can’t help but hate about it. Case in point:
At this point, there’s nothing new that I can really say about that. It’s still annoying, and had it been only a couple of movies following this trend, I certainly wouldn’t care this much. As it is, it’s cheap. Every single one of the protagonists thus far—including Nausicaa, if more work had been put into her—can stand on their own. But there are a bunch of little things that they all share in common that make me concerned that we’re being given the same character over and over again. Both Nausicaa and San are prone to violence, Shizuku and Haru are essentially the exact same person, so on and so forth, and it doesn’t help that a lot of their story arcs are also the same. This is one of the reasons I hate the hair thing so goddamn much. Physically making them all look alike in this regard just enforces these similarities.
Ultimately, that’s also why I like Sophie more as an older woman. It gives her more character and it sets her apart from all the other girls. Hell, she even acts like an old lady while still having quite a bit of spunk about her. So while I don’t love this film, I can certainly respect it for Sophie’s change in physical appearance and the struggles she has to face because of it. This is also exactly why the hair issue is so fucking obnoxious. This movie encompasses my hatred for it on every level. I also hate the fact that Sophie reverts back to youthfulness whenever she sticks up for herself and takes initiative. Much like her hair, Sophie’s age also begins to reflect her strength of character as well. At the beginning, despite her youthfulness, she’s weak and can’t stick up for herself that much. Then, she becomes an old woman. Now she’s physically weak, but she has to find her internal strength, and only when that happens does she revert back to her youth. Her age becomes a direct statement on her strength and self-worth.
Unfortunately, Howl’s Moving Castle takes it an extra step in the early portion of the film to showcase Sophie’s weakness. Howl has to save her from unwanted sexual advances—because only weak people can experience sexual assault or something, I guess.
Though in Sophie’s case I could understand wanting youth, as it was basically stolen from her, rewarding her with youth as a direct statement of her internal strength sends a pretty terrible message in and of itself. Especially when we add in the Witch of the Waste as an example, the movie treats youth as a reward and old age as a punishment. So while I can say that I love Sophie’s character for the struggles she goes through, that struggle is also the same reason that I hate this movie.
Continued in Part 2.