There are many movies from acclaimed Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki but few have as high a profile in the west as Howl’s Moving Castle. Adapted from an English novel by Dianna Wynne Jones, Howl’s Moving Castle is set in a land of wizards, witches, magical warfare, and demonic bargains. Yet the land itself is not the story. Instead, we follow Sophie, a shy hat maker who, after being cursed to look like an old woman by the feared Witch Of The Waste, finds herself working as a cleaning lady for an emotive and distant wizard called Howl.
For fans of the movies from Studio Ghibli, and Miyazaki in particular, Howl’s Moving Castle is a firm favourite. The movie is packed with his iconic touches. In particular, it is absolutely gorgeous to look at. The inventiveness of design is present from the flamboyantly dressed Howl (surely channeling a sexy Labyrinth-era David Bowie), ‘old’ Sophie creaking her way across the kitchen, or the ramshackle castle itself that strides the wastelands atop scrawny chicken-like legs. Every inch of the screen is packed with visual treats.
The movie deviates significantly from the source material by inserting a multi-territory war into the background. Miyazaki’s pacifist voice comes through with Howl’s refusal to fight. This feat is made all the more tricky due to him using several false identifies for both sides of the combat, all accessible through a magical doorway that, with a twist of the handle, opens out to many different places.
The insertion of a magical land at war leads to some dazzlingly animated set pieces, but has the side effect of constantly derailing the main narrative. It is Howl’s dynamic with Sophie, along with young apprentice Markl, and fire demon Calcifer that provide the kind of bouncy dialogue that is an endless joy. Moments that take away from this often flounder.
As a protagonist, Sophie somewhat lacks her own agency. Unlike other Ghibli female leads (Kiki in Kiki’s Delivery Service, or Shizuku in Whisper Of The Heart) her growth is defined in how she drags the reticent Howl out of self-indulgent depression by virtue of loving him, which in itself happens rather fast. This is a love story that pops up quickly and without fleshing out characterisation enough to make it feel genuine. Instead, Miyazaki has plenty to say about age as Sophie’s transmutation to old lady frees her from the worry that she has, in her own words, ‘never been beautiful'. Sophie’s cracking bones and newfound belligerence does her much better than her young self’s meek politeness.
Another masterstroke of the movie, and a typical Miyazaki one at that, is the absence of any real antagonist. At the start, you’d be forgiven for thinking the vain and malicious Witch Of The Waste will torment our heroes after cursing Sophie. Yet in the second half this massive and overbearing woman is reduced to a doddery old lady herself and treated with kindness, even reverence. Such a switch up halfway through frees the plot of a ‘good vs evil’ vibe and instead gives room for Sophie and Howl’s enjoyment of each other’s company to flourish.
Howl’s Moving Castle suffers from being a bit too long and lacking the usual depth that Miyazaki’s movies had peaked with the preceding Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away. The source material and war sections are at odds with each other and Sophie could do with a journey of her own beyond ‘love’.
Even with these narrative complaints though, the sheer flourish of animation is enough to sweep anyone off their feet. Whether it’s a peaceful moment by a lake surrounded by flower beds, firebombing by steampunk dirigibles, or reality bending magical battles, Howl’s Moving Castle, like The Cat Returns, fills your mind up with wonder and have you coming back to fall in love over and over again.
Words by Michael Record