It’s been six months since I’ve been talking about Studio Ghibli, and for that I apologise. A lot has happened! Weddings, funerals, and so much more. In any case, I’ll be finishing what I started at the beginning of the year.
2015 is the 30th anniversary of the founding of Studio Ghibli and, according to Hayao Miyazaki, it may also be one of its final years as a studio. Because this is one of my favorite films studios and Miyazaki is one of my favorite artists, who’s made some of my favorite films, I’ve decided to go through the history of Studio Ghibli one film at a time.
If you’re looking for the discussions of the previous weeks:
- Laputa: Castle in the Sky
- Grave of the Fireflies
- My Neighbor Totoro
- Kiki’s Delivery Service
- Only Yesterday
- Porco Rosso
- Pom Poko
- Whisper of the Heart
- Princess Mononoke
- My Neighbors the Yamadas
- Spirited Away
- The Cat Returns
This does, however, mean I won’t be discussing Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, which was made before the founding of the studio.
I’ll also only be discussing the Japanese audio version of the films, though that doesn’t mean the dubs are bad or not worth seeing. They’re just slightly different. I’ll also be discussing these with the assumption that they’ve been seen by you. So, yes, spoilers are below.
Howl’s Moving Castle by Hayao Miyazaki is one of my favorite Studio Ghibli films. It captures so much of what makes him great. It’s whimsical, funny, dark, beautiful, emotional, and full of so much love. Love of varying types as well. Familial love. Romantic love. The love between friends and even between enemies.
I firmly believe that Princess Mononoke is Miyazaki’s masterpiece, but this film feels more in line with the rest of the films he had made up to this point. Princess Mononoke was dark and showed a brutal version of humanity and our wilful destruction of the world around us. It shows the absurdity of life when Ashitaka becomes cursed for his good deeds, the brutality and greed of humanity as seen through the emperor and his agent, Jiko-bō, and how important choice is when Ashitaka and San choose one another but remain apart.
Howl’s Moving Castle is decidedly lighter in tone. It’s based on the book of the same name by Diana Wynne Jones, but also manages to differ in several important ways. But the film follows Sophie, a young woman who is not as beautiful or sought after or outgoing as her sisters and mother, so she sticks to the backrooms of the hatshop owned by her mother and makes nice hats for fancy ladies. Sophie is responsible, resourceful, and kind, and it’s her kindness, more than anything, that sets her apart. She’s almost unflappably kind and generous, even at her most frustrated. But her life would continue as a single woman who makes hats probably indefinitely had she not stumbled into two men who wished to do her harm in the back alleys of the city.
Howl, the great [and beautiful] sorcerer, comes to her rescue, setting in motion a sequence of events that would be soulcrushing to most.
The Witch of the Waste, another great sorcerer, shows up at Sophie’s hat shop and quickly insults Sophie, causing Sophie to refuse her service, causing the Witch of the Waste to lay a curse on Sophie.
In certain ways, this is similar to Ashitaka, whose curse is the result of saving his village from a rampaging god. Sophie’s curse is absurd and petty, yet powerful. She’s turned into a 90 year old woman, and remains so for the following 90 minutes, give or take a few.
With that, Sophie leaves the city, partly so no one sees what’s happened to her, but mostly to find a cure. She wanders off into the Wastes, where she discovers a scarecrow with the head of a turnip, whom she names Turnip Head, because what else would you call a scarecrow who hops after you and leads you to Howl’s Castle?
Howl’s Castle moves on legs and appears to be made of thousands of parts stitched and bolted together with no real rhyme or reason. It’s beautiful in its chaotic ugliness. It trudges along, spitting steam and jostling its parts, creating the kind of noises you’re used to seeing in movies like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Inside, it’s somehow worse. Dirty dishes are piled, everything’s covered in grime and spiderwebs. We meet Calcifer, a fire demon bound to Howl by powerful magic, who powers the castle. Despite its many protestations, Sophie bullies it into behaving and they strike a bargain, sort of a you-help-me-I-help-you deal. She also meets Markl, Howl’s young apprentice, who mostly ignores Sophie or treats her as a nuisance upon her arrival.
Of course, Howl arrives next and Sophie tells him that Calcifer has hired her as a cleaning lady.
Howl is as vain as he is beautiful, as petty and cowardly as he is powerful, and though Sophie is drawn to him, she’s also sort of repulsed by him. In the novel, this is where much of the humor comes from, and they share quite a bit of banter. In the film, it’s a bit more to the point, with regard to their relationship. Sophie sees him as a spoiled manchild, reckless and vain and lazy.
From here, Sophie goes on a cleaning spree because she just can’t handle the den of iniquity the castle appears to be. Merkl describes her as ‘A witch on a rampage’ but she manages to put the castle in some kind of order. The process managed to put Calcifer’s life in danger and mix up the potions in Howl’s bathroom. It’s also during this time that Sophie takes on a motherly relationship to Merkl.
As the film goes on, Sophie’s goodnature just draws people to her. She impossible not to like! She’s a sassy nonagenarian pushing all the boys in her life to be better people, to behave honorably and truthfully, but she also loves playing jokes on them.
It’s an interesting aspect, how becoming an old woman really brings out Sophie’s real personality. From the start, we get the impression that she’s extremely shy and used to being overlooked because she’s not as beautiful as her mother or sisters. She’s the frumpy quiet artistic girl and no one really cares much what she does. It’s so deep in her that she comes to believe it as well.
It’s only when questions of attractiveness and desire disappear that she’s able to flourish. She no longer cares much how she looks because she knows she’s a young woman trapped in an ancient body, so there’s no way for her to be beautiful, yeah? She stops worrying about how she’s perceived and just does what needs to be done.
This becomes especially interesting when, due to Sophie’s cleaning, Howl accidentally dyes his hair. This tiny crack in his beautiful façade causes him to collapse and give up on life. So petty and shallow and vain is Howl that he doesn’t see a point to living if he can’t be beautiful. Which, to Sophie, is about the cruellest thing someone can say, given that she has never once in her life seen herself as beautiful, but has always seen herself as the least of her family. Despite this, she helps Howl get over it. She finds that she must mother these helpless children of Howl’s Castle.
But we see the hollowness of beauty in this. We see how questions of beauty have held Sophie back and how they’ve corrupted Howl’s vision of the world. A man so beautiful and powerful who becomes insanely depressed at the simple thought that someone would now find him less appealing than before.
It’s kind of hilarious, sure, but it’s more than that, I think.
Which brings me to the war,which is unique to the film. Throughout the film, we see airships dropping bombs on cities, destroying the lives of thousands, if not millions. The king has summoned two of Howl’s fake identities to fight for him in the war. The king has been using sorcerers of the realm as weapons, which effectively turns them into monsters. We’ve seen Howl fly through the battles as a sort of hideous gigantic bird with his human face, and it’s this that the king wants. He wants to use the power of the sorcerers as a weapon against the neighboring kingdom who, he believes, kidnapped his son, the crown prince.
With the invasion of Iraq by the US in 2003, Miyazaki became a vocal critic. As we’ve discussed, Miyazaki is a pacifist, and very vocal about it. Having grown up in wartorn Japan and seen the wreckage of his nation caused by bombs and soldiers very strongly influenced his worldview. He sees it as monstrous and hideous.
For a film based on a children’s book that doesn’t contain a war, it seems odd for Miyazaki to throw in such a weighty element, but I believe it’s something he simply couldn’t help, and maybe even partly why he came out of retirement to make the film. He was watching the US destroy a nation and had to say something, even if it was hidden in a film made for children.
But this implicit critique of the US is, I think, evident in the focus on the shallowness of beauty. I mean, that’s also an element of the novel, but I think Miyazaki is telling us something more than the simple lesson that attractiveness doesn’t equal correctness.
Howl’s Moving Castle is also the most Western of his films, in that the setting and characters and narrative reflect a more Western view of the world. This sets it apart from the rest of his films. Even Porco Rosso, which takes place in Europe, feels more Japanese than it does Italian.
And so this film that feels like it was made for a Western audience, with a Western aesthetic, and a more Western narrative form seems to contain both implicit and explicit critiques of Western ideology. The idea that might is right. The intense focus on attractiveness. The idea that the aged lack value.
What we see in Howl’s Moving Castle is the failure of war to resolve anything. We see how beauty seems to corrupt those with it and those who desire to have it, like the Witch of the Waste, who uses all her magic and power to try to stay young and attractive or to control it or steal it from those who do possess it, like Howl. We see how the person who ends the war, who saves the day, who saves Howl and the Witch of the Waste and the lost prince is an old woman with creaking bones and no obvious skills.
Of course, this is part of what makes her magic. Sophie saves Howl through love, which becomes a magic more powerful than the curse the Witch of the Waste laid on her, or even the magic that bound Calcifer and Howl together. Because Howl is the boy who swallowed the star that was Calcifer, that star, that demon known as Calcifer became Howl’s heart, and also the source of his immense power. Only a force larger than all of that could break the spell, and it comes from Sophie, from her love for Howl and Calcifer, and her desire to make things right.
We glossed over how Sophie came to love Howl, but it was through his kindness, and probably also through his roguishness, because who doesn’t love a good rogue? Especially a beautiful one! Because, though beauty may only be skin deep, it is what catches the eye, what makes us cross the room just to say hello, just to be near that person. But that beauty is nothing if there’s nothing underneath it. And what Sophie discovered in Howl is a kindness, vulnerability, and hope far deeper than any of us expected.
Because Howl fights in the war, but not as the king intended. He fights to stop the bombs, to end the killing. Much like Ashitaka, Howl wants an end to violence but the only solution he sees it a violent one. So he destroys the airships, he kills the other sorcerers who have turned themselves into monsters. In fighting, in violence, Howl becomes trapped as the ugly monstrous bird.
It’s Sophie who brings him back to humanity and back to the living, and it’s Sophie who finds a nonviolent solution that ends the war.
Namely, she’s able to turn Turnip Head back into the prince, which is kind of a cheat, I’ve always thought.
But I’ve never been dissatisfied by it either.
The film starts with whimsy and it ends there. In between, we have a lot of humor and a lot of darkness, but the film remains a relatively light one, despite the war and the violence.
Howl’s Moving Castle, like all of Miyazaki’s films, is about choice and it’s about people. Because it’s people who must deal with the wars of kings. It’s people who die beneath the bombs while kings and their like live on to send more to die. The king is largely absent from the film and it focuses on people who must live in the world that becomes increasingly defined by the powerful.
Howl must choose to fight for what he believes in, rather than hide away. Because hiding didn’t stop the bombs and it didn’t end the war. Sophie must choose to live on, despite all that’s taken from her, and in choosing to live on, she finds her youth again, and she even finds love.
So while Howl will never be Mononoke, it stands as one of Miyazaki’s best films, and I think it’s the last of his greatest period of filmmaking, which began with Spirited Away. Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, and Howl’s Moving Castle are not only his greatest films, but they remain some of the greatest animated films ever made.
It’s a delight to be able to watch them again and share my love of these films with all of you.
Next week, we’re moving to Tales from Earthsea, Gorō Miyazaki’s first film, which is based on the novels by Ursula K Le Guin.