With the upcoming release of Miyazaki’s 12th (and possibly final) film, How Do You Live?, we at Flixist will be taking a look at Miyazaki’s career over the decades. By going through each of his films starting from the pre-Ghibli days, we’ll see how the man has evolved as an artist and helped shape the landscape of anime for generations to come. This is Miyazaki Marathon!
When watching Miyazaki’s filmography in release order, it’s incredibly interesting to see how much more serious his films became after Kiki’s Delivery Service. Miyazaki didn’t turn into a dour, world-hating sourpuss or anything, but he stopped chasing nostalgic feelings of days since passed and started taking a critical eye on the failings of the present. Even if Porco Rosso is set during the 1920s and Princess Mononoke is placed hundreds of years in the past, their messages applied to the current struggles that Miyazaki saw in the world. It really should be no surprise that Howl’s Moving Castle would also tackle contemporary subject matter.
Released in November of 2004 in Japan, Howl’s Moving Castle was developed as a way for Miyazaki to voice his dissatisfaction with the Iraq War. Famously at the 75th Oscars, Miyazaki boycotted the ceremony and did not accept his academy award for Spirited Away. While the official answer from Studio Ghibli was that Miyazaki was busy working on Howl’s, he was actually so enraged by the United States’ invasion of Iraq that he refused to travel to Hollywood. In an interview with the LA Times in 2009 for Comic-Con, Miyazaki stated, “The reason I wasn’t here for the Academy Award was because I didn’t want to visit a country that was bombing Iraq.”
With this information in mind, it’s no wonder that people often overlook Howl’s Moving Castle. One of Miyazaki’s goals with the film was to create a movie that would be poorly received in the United States. That sounds like self-sabotage, but it was his way of protesting what he felt was a destructive and awful decision on the part of the US military. Miyazaki may have also been very pissed off that John Lasseter of Pixar helped push Spirited Away to immense success with Disney’s extreme marketing campaign, but that isn’t directly reflected in Howl’s.
The very concept for Howl’s Moving Castle is taken from the novel of the same name by Diana Wynne Jones, but much like Kiki’s Delivery Service, that was just a starting point for Miyazaki. Where the novel focuses on class struggles and gender norms, Miyazaki’s film tells a tale of love, personal loyalty, and the destructive nature of war. On paper, it sounds just as layered and majestic as Miyazaki’s previous efforts, but it seems as if Miyazaki’s rage over war may have caused him to write too simplistic of a message.
The main protagonist of Howl’s Moving Castle is Sophie, a young hat maker that is complacent with her lot in life. While her sisters constantly tell her she is pretty and shouldn’t be stuck inside knitting hats all day, Sophie is fine with her daily tasks. You get a sense that something is brewing within her, but her timid nature prevents her from ever speaking out of turn. Very shortly into the film, there is mention of a traveling wizard named Howl that steals the hearts of beautiful women but ultimately rejects them for not being his ideal match. Unknowingly, Sophie had a run-in with Howl, but put the notion out of her head as she doesn’t believe herself to be pretty.
One night after returning home from visiting her sister, Sophie encounters a rather rotund woman that basically forces herself into Sophie’s shop after closing. When Sophie asks her to leave, the woman reveals herself to be the Witch of the Waste and curses Sophie with old age. There is no particular reason for this curse other than the witch having a black heart, but nonetheless, Sophie rapidly ages to 90 and is now forced to discover some way to reverse this evil magic.
While it’s not readily apparent from this scene, one of the main themes of Howl’s Moving Castle is that of old age. As I stated before, Sophie was very soft-spoken in the introductory moments of the film. When she becomes old, suddenly she speaks her mind without worrying of the consequences. Sophie is less timid and more willing to set the record straight now that she has the wisdom that comes from being elderly. In a career retrospective in 2013, Miyazaki stated of Howl’s, “I wanted to convey the message that life is worth living.” Typically, films show old age as a curse (i.e., how Sophie’s aging starts), but this film turns it into a positive.
While traveling to meet wizards and witches, Sophie encounters an animated scarecrow that is stuck in a bush. She initially believes it to be a walking stick, but she helps free the scarecrow and dubs him “Turnip Head” due to his… well, head made of a turnip. While she isn’t fond of turnips, Sophie offers him compassion before moving on with her journey and Turnip Head shows that same compassion in return. He appears when it starts raining to hold an umbrella over Sophie’s head and even guides her to the titular moving castle.
Taking a brief pause from the thematic elements of Howl’s, the headlining homestead is one of the more breathtaking pieces of animation Miyazaki has crafted. While Studio Ghibli would transition to all digital animation with 1999’s My Neighbors the Yamadas, Miyazaki hadn’t completely embraced it until this film. It is readily apparent that Howl’s home is a 3D creation, but it blends so seamlessly with the rest of the artwork that it never looks off-putting. The way this was achieved was by animating the film digitally, but then touching up backgrounds and characters by hand afterward. All of the characters were also hand-drawn prior to being scanned, retaining their analog qualities.
When Sophie finally enters the castle, we’re properly introduced to Howl and he comes off as a bit self-obsessed. He’s often off doing some kind of work we’re not privy to, but he delegates tasks to his animated fire puff Calcifer and a young boy named Markl. Sophie asserts herself as the new caretaker of the home and proceeds to clean the ever-living hell out of the place. Eventually, this results in Sophie shuffling around some of Howl’s beauty products and he nearly melts into a pool of self-doubt when his blonde hair changes colors. He even utters the line, “What’s the point in living if you aren’t beautiful?”
That focus on vanity is a way Howl protects himself from the truth of his situation: he is slowly becoming a monster to stop the war that is raging on around him. We’re finally at the part where Howl’s Moving Castle tackles its anti-war message and this is where the movie stumbles a bit. The overall theme can be summed up as “War is bad.” It doesn’t ever really evolve from there, though that likely isn’t the point. Sophie’s nation is embroiled in a pointless conflict where a neighboring kingdom is looking for a missing prince. They want Howl to use his powers and fight for their side, but Howl simply wants an end to all armed conflict. While Sophie, Calcifer, and Markl are busy during the day, he is off destroying warships as a monstrous owl in an effort to save everyone.
It’s not hard to read into this as how Miyazaki viewed the US’ invasion. The antagonist of the film (if you want to call her one), Suliman, is the embodiment of the American military-industrial complex. At the behest of the king, she sends out troops to bomb faraway nations in an effort to find some unnamed prince. It’s not hard to imagine he is the embodiment of the WMDs that America claimed the Middle East had, even if we do eventually meet him. Suliman doesn’t care about the lives she is destroying, so much so that she even sucks the power from the Witch of the Waste while Sophie is visiting her.
See, Howl was invited to the kingdom to discuss potentially joining the battle, but Howl sends Sophie in his stead. On her way to the palace, Sophie runs into the Witch and initially refuses to help her walk up the massive staircase. She does offer some words of encouragement, but after speaking to Suliman and learning that the sorceress has drained the Witch of her powers, Sophie offers her shelter in Howl’s castle so that she can stay safe. Her old age has given Sophie the compassion she needs to help even those that have wronged her, unlike a certain warring nation.
From here, the film starts to repeat these themes and its story suffers a bit. We already understand that Howl is walking on the razor’s edge, Sophie is stronger and more beautiful as an old woman, and war is evil. The story doesn’t do much to evolve here and it leads to a final act that feels a little rushed. A couple of points show Sophie revert to her younger self as she asserts her new confidence, but that’s never fully explored. There is a beautiful wrinkle added to the story, however, in the form of a time loop. While time skips and such can often be a cheap way to tie up loose ends or purposely convolute the plot in order to hide weaknesses, Howl’s Moving Castle gives you a reason to rethink your entire perception of the film.
During a sequence where Calcifer’s power is weakened and Howl’s home is destroyed, we see Sophie enter a door through the black realm that Howl would visit while doing battle. Instead of being taken directly to conflict, she actually travels back in time to when Howl was a young boy. In the majestic field of flowers that Howl gave to Sophie, we see Howl give his heart to a falling star. This star, as it turns out, is Calcifer and Howl has made a deal with him. Sophie doesn’t have much time, though, and starts to get sucked back to the present. Before departing, she shouts out to Howl and he looks over. She tells him to wait for her in the future. Then, she vanishes and Howl is left alone.
Suddenly, that line earlier in the film when Howl spots Sophie and says, “There’s my girl,” makes complete sense. The entire story of Howl’s Moving Castle was a series of events where Howl was looking for the love of his life while Sophie was trying to help him escape his fate. All those women Howl rejected? It’s because they weren’t Sophie. The curse Sophie suffered that led her to Howl? It was done to save not only him but herself and even the Witch of the Waste. Calcifer constantly asking Sophie to break his bond with Howl? It wasn’t to free himself but to free Howl.
In my opinion, the true message of Howl’s Moving Castle isn’t simply that “war is bad.” Miyazaki was angry about the Iraq War and wanted that to be made clear, but he took the opportunity to juxtapose war against a beautiful love story to show that even when your nation makes absent-minded and horrible decisions, life can still flourish. There are maybe too many ideas at play that don’t quite correlate to this theme, but then life is messy. Not everything we do is clearly defined as good or bad.
Howl, for instance, is overall a good person. His heart was in the right place (both literally and figuratively), but he did bad things. Life doesn’t work like a typical movie where there are clearly defined villains and heroes. While Princess Mononoke handles this subject with more subtlety and grace, Howl’s Moving Castle nonetheless expresses the same idea. We all make mistakes, but that doesn’t prevent us from deserving redemption.
Even Suliman, who you could claim is evil when you first see her, stops her pointless war at the end of the film. Turnip Man, as it turns out, was the lost prince and the compassion Sophie showed him caused him to rethink his stance about his “enemy.” Sophie’s kingdom was always claimed to be evil, but as the prince learned, he was mistaken. He vows to convince his father to end the conflict, though Suliman had been spying on them the whole time. She is surprised by the compassion in Sophie’s heart and decides to end the war.
Now, the situation in Iraq was not a simple one that could be resolved with compassion. Miyazaki was right to be angry about it and a lot of our current economic issues can be attributed to the United States’ obsession with death-dealing, but the invasion of Iraq was the outcome of systematic problems in the US that had been boiling for quite some time. President George W. Bush didn’t decide on a whim to just invade a country and Howl’s Moving Castle doesn’t really detail why its conflict started in the first place. At the end of the day, though, war directly impacts the people that aren’t making decisions. Joe Schmoe down the street making bread isn’t out there wishing death to his enemies or killing people while living his life, yet his life gets ruined because one ruler decided it was time to decimate his home. That is the aspect Howl’s captures.
Maybe because of this string of darker, more contemporaneous films, Miyazaki’s next project would pivot back to a happier time in his life. For our next column, Jesse Lab will be taking a look at Ponyo, a film that tones down its message in favor of cheerful imagery.