Read Part 1 here.
Tsunderin: Another unfortunate thing this film also does is put Sophie on a pedestal, and not just because she’s the protagonist. There’s no denying that Sophie is a rather good female character. The problem arises when every other female character is not so good. The Witch of the Waste is a good antagonist until it’s discovered that she doesn’t really have a motivation behind her actions, or at least not one strong enough to keep her from falling in cahoots with Sophie’s gang in the second half of the film and becoming a plot device rather than a character. And though Madame Suliman has the motivation of duty driving her actions, again there’s no real strength there because the audience never sees her again after that one scene. We never have the chance to put together whether or not she orchestrated any of these attacks against Sophie to punish Howl for his insubordination. All she leaves is an imposing image and a threat that boils down to just, “you better help me, Howl. >:(”
I want to say that the only other female character that has a chance of standing up to Sophie is her mother. There’s a scene where she gives up Sophie’s location to Madame Suliman’s henchmen, then tells them never to bother her again. Short and sweet, but this scene gives her far more agency than any of the supposed HBICs.
This scene shows that not only does Sophie’s mother have a unique set of morals that don’t fall on any side of the conflict, but that she has motivations that she’s not hesitant to act on, even putting her own daughter in danger. It makes me way more interested her and the kind of family Sophie was raised in rather than anything else happening in the film.
And if you’re asking yourself, no, none of these problems stem from Jones’s novel.
Especially in concerns to these characters, it’s more than easy to believe the claims that Jones had no input on what went in the film. Despite Jones’s saying that she enjoyed the product Miyazaki created, I personally feel the changes were detrimental for the characters as a whole. For instance, Madame Suliman is, in fact, a male in the novel and is not the court sorcerer but rather another soul lost to the Witch of the Waste. Speaking of which, the novel’s Witch remains an antagonist all throughout the story and isn’t ridiculed down to a joke character to make way for a topic that didn’t exactly fit in the story.
There are two other aspects in terms of character from book to film that I think should have been left in that would have really given more power to the female characters. One of which being an ‘added’ character of Mrs. Penstemmon. In the novels, this is the woman from which Howl learned his art. Not only does this place Howl on the level of still being a potential student rather than making him out to be the best sorcerer ever, but it also would have shown the audience that there are competent female sorcerers out there, not just ones that are presented as antagonists. Lastly, Jones had the idea of giving Sophie magic as well. Though unbeknownst to her, Sophie has the magical ability to breathe life into objects (see: Turnip Head). Not only does this give Sophie another facet to her character, it puts her on more of an equal footing with Howl as she’s not only living among magic users, she too can use magic and is perhaps as talented as Howl. Obviously there’s not as much space in a feature length film to add as much detail as a novel would, but it confuses and troubles me that as someone so devoted to giving power to his female characters, Miyazaki would purposefully and consciously make them weaker when the plot could remain essentially unchanged if said characters were kept as Jones had imagined them.
MadameAce: Furthermore, time constraints hurt this movie in a lot of other ways. I haven’t read Jones’s work, but I can only hope that the novel explains more about the war and what’s going on. I didn’t get that much from the movie. There’s a war. Okay. Who’s fighting who? Why are they at war? What are the different factions? Is it because of the missing prince who also just so happens to be in love with Sophie and just so happens to have been found by her?
And Prince Man doesn’t really add a lot. He goes around as Turnip Head for a while, and that’s not a bad character for the movie. Then, at the very end, he saves everyone’s lives, so Sophie kisses him and Bam! He’s a prince! True love’s kiss saves him, so now he can go home and end the war. Okay then. That’s… convenient.
It’s not as though this movie is just filled with bad characterizations and roles. Calcifer, for instance, is actually very well done and I immensely enjoyed his sense of humor. However, his entire goal is that he wants the spell binding him to Howl and the castle to be broken so he can be free. At the end, once that happens, he comes back because he misses everyone and continues living under the servitude of Howl, even though that is what he wanted to escape from the whole movie. As for how he and Howl became cursed and bound together in the first place, I don’t feel that that is really explained. There’s a scene when Sophie travels back in time, per sé, and witnesses the event. All it really did was show me the mechanics of how it happened, but with nothing but visuals, it doesn’t tell me why Calcifer and Howl chose to be bound together.
Calcifer floated down from the sky as a magical glowy thing. Howl caught him and ate him. Then Calcifer was reborn from Howl’s heart. Okay? Why did they do that? I know Howl spoke to him beforehand for a little bit, but Calcifer is still a glowy, alien-like object that fell from the sky. Howl is also old enough that I assume he should be beyond the “put random objects in my mouth” phase of childhood. Though the book may or may not have been more explanatory about this binding between them, I do not think the reasons in the movie are not made explicitly clear, and considering that it’s the basis of the characters, that’s really problematic. As far as I’m concerned, neither of them had motivation or reason to do this.
I could nitpick this movie all day if I really wanted to. I can certainly see the appeal behind it and why it has such a wide fanbase, but that just makes me expect more from it. Unfortunately, Howl’s Moving Castle fails in some very large ways.
Tsunderin: Howl’s story and the story that Miyazaki wants to present his audience with seem to be at odds with each other and even without the limitations of film, I’m not sure the differences could be reconciled. What people love about this story—what I love about this story—is that it’s a romance set in a fantastical world that borders on the normal and both characters grow from having the other in their life. What Miyazaki wanted to present to us was an anti-war message. However, as Ace brought up, this subplot was largely untouched aside from the very broad, unimportant message that war will cause damage.
I know you all are probably sick of this comparison by now, but again the lack of impact of this message seems to be another one of Nausicaa’s many echoes. War is bad, yes, but war is not a black and white topic on its own. As director, Miyazaki had the power to give reason to the war. To give the audience something to attach an emotion to whether it be based on the rules of Howl‘s universe or something drawn from real life.
As it stands, the destruction that plagues Sophie and Howl’s relationship barely seems related to the war because we have no information on it. What I’m saying is it wouldn’t matter if those bombs that dropped on Sophie’s shop were due to the war or due to magical bomb monsters: the reaction would have been the same. You can say, “war is terrible and shouldn’t happen,” but if there’s no emotional connection, no information on anything pertaining to it, you may as well be saying “wow, getting hurt sucks.” It’s not a powerful message.
There’s nothing wrong with trying to tackle large issues like this in children’s media (or pre-teen media, as the case may be). In this case though, Miyazaki lost the focus on his message and in turn caused the events of the film to flow somewhat unskillfully.
Yet it still remains that after all of this I love Howl’s Moving Castle. I can’t exactly give credit for what Ghibli tried to do, but I can give them credit on presenting a story in which characters of different ages have the potential to be respected and even feared. Truthfully, after reading up on Jones’s story, I mourn for the more faithful adaption that we’ll never have, but I’ll still enjoy watching Sophie and Howl’s story unfold on the big screen for who knows how many more times in my life.
Spoilers: it will be many.