Film Review: Howl's Moving Castle

Updated on November 11, 2019
RachaelLefler profile image

I've studied anime, manga, and Japan for over a decade. My favorite anime/manga are sci-fi and seinen (mature).

Howl's Moving Castle is, in this writer's opinion, a breathtaking movie that should be counted among the best Studio Ghibli films. But I found that with time, interest in the movie faded. But I've never seen any movie come close to this in terms of stunning, painstakingly detailed animation. That's not all there is to this story though, it's not just a peak movie in terms of visuals, but worth learning from in terms of how to create a fascinating and moving story with emotionally compelling characters.

It's also, like many Studio Ghibli movies, a lesson in how to write good female characters, without objectification or demeaning sexist tropes. This is a love story that actually feels like it was written by someone who knows what it's like to experience love. A profound love, that changes your worldview and takes you beneath the surface of superficial appearances. Whether you want to know how to write a good story, if you're an artist looking for visual inspiration, or if you're just a person who likes good magical fairy tale romance stories, you should definitely check out this movie.

Plot Summary

Sophie is a young girl happily working in a hat shop. It's a world with both magic and early 20th century technology, and a war is starting. Sophie is cursed by a witch, turning into an old woman. As an old woman, she seeks out someone who can help her with her curse.

This leads her to Howl, a moody pretty-boy wizard. She decides to work for him as a cleaning lady. She's hoping that working for him will get her a chance to ask for his help removing her curse. She meets Calcifer, a snarky fire demon who lives in the hearth, and Howl's boy apprentice. Howl is caught up in a war he wants no part in. Sophie goes to the king, pretending to be Howl's mother, to try to convince the king that Howl would be of no use to the war.

I'm not going to spoil the ending, but there's a lot of magical thrills involved in the struggle to not only restore Sophie to her normal self, but to free Howl from his own curse as well.

Info

Title
Howl's Moving Castle
Year
2004
Studio
Ghibli
Producers
Toshio Suzuki
Director
Hayao Miyazaki
Writer
Hayao Miyazaki
Main Actors & Actresses
Chieko Baisho, Takuya Kimura, & Akihiro Miwa (Japanese Version); Jean Simmons, Christian Bale, & Billy Crystal (English Version)
Cinematographer
Atsushi Okui
Music by
Joe Hisaishi
Run Time
1 hour, 59 minutes
Box Office
¥23.2 billion US$236 million (worldwide)
MPAA Rating
PG
Awards
61st Annual Venice Film Festival: Osella Awards for Technical Achievement; Mainichi Film Awards, Best Japanese Movie Overall (Readers' Choice Award) ; Japan Media Arts Festival, Excellence Prize, Animation; Tokyo Animation Awards for Animation of the Year, Best Director, Best Voice Actor/Actress (Chieko Baisho), & Best Music; Maui Film Festival, Audience Award; Nebula Award for Best Script
Source Material
Novel by Diana Wynne Jones

Review

When people list their favorite Studio Ghibli films, this one is often overlooked. It's not that it's a bad film. It's that it came out later than other Ghibli favorites like My Neighbor Totoro, Castle in the Sky, Princess Mononoke, and Spirited Away. People are probably more likely to remember something fondly if it's less recent. Nostalgia goggles. Howl's having been made in 2004 makes it less nostalgic-feeling than other, older Ghibli films.

Miyazaki said this movie had anti-war messages intended as a protest against the American invasion of Iraq, which had just started at the time. At the time, I felt like my country had betrayed everything it once stood for. So the movie is sort of nostalgic for me. I was a teenager. My life has involved shuffling back and forth between places, much like Howl's. Howl never really feels free in a world where governments see brilliant minds as their tools for war. The movie's criticism of politics is artful, subtle, intelligent, and accurate.

But, does an anti-war movie have to be a bummer? No. The point of this movie, in Miyazaki's words, is to remind the audience that life is worth living. Calicfer's witty sarcasm, Sophie's compassion, the inner beauty of Howl's mind, the shockingly gorgeous domestic interiors - all things that together show that intended message. As such, this movie is a good lesson for any writer who wants to include any sort of moral, philosophical, or political message in their work. The lesson is show, don't tell. You don't need people staring directly at the camera, crying, and saying "War is bad!" Studio Ghibli is really, really good at this. They're good at making a beautiful, interesting story with charming characters first and foremost. Then, the moral of the story becomes a bonus for people who took the time to think about the movie. It's not exactly like the moral message is an afterthought though, you can tell from Howl's Moving Castle that the morality of the story influenced every artistic decision. But the great thing was that it was told through strong visuals and good storytelling, so it rarely felt heavy-handed. I knew that the War in Iraq was a bad thing. I still know it. But what this movie did was not simply show me that war was wrong, but it's more about having hope in the face of war. Not so easy when you're an anti-war person living in a country that's gone crazy all around you. This feeling creates a definite link between the problems of the past (Miyazaki's work shows clear influence of World War Two and its effects on Japan) and present.

This kind of story is not original, in fact it's an old-as-the-hills fairy tale trope. Lindsay Ellis, pop culture critic on YouTube, did a video [1] on this type of story, identifying the oldest version as Eros and Psyche. That story involved a human maiden married to the god Eros, a son of Aphrodite. But she was not allowed to look at him. Psyche faces many trials before her hard-won happy ending. As Wikipedia [2] says about this myth, "Marriage and death are merged into a single rite of passage, a "transition to the unknown". Lindsay Ellis says that the "magical monster boyfriend" trope also appears in many stories throughout the world, perhaps to help young women deal with the fear of the unknown when it came to arranged marriages and sex. The most notable example of this kind of story in our culture is the Disney animated classic, Beauty and the Beast. There is usually the promise of some magical reward for the young woman in the story enduring hardships, which is pretty standard fairy tale stuff.

Howl's Moving Castle is interesting because both parties are cursed. It's not just about a girl kidnapped and forced to live with a crazy powerful monster guy whose psychological bombs need defusing. It's also about Sophie dealing with her own issues, figuring out what she wants in life. Her curse of being suddenly old seems to imply that she already acts like an old woman, and the movie examines what she's missing in life. It's all the passion, vigor, and energy of youth. As she restores Howl's heart, deadened by being separated from the fire of passion, she's also helping herself get in touch with her own youth. So, in the original Eros and Psyche or Cupid and Psyche myth, we have a story where a girl literally goes through hell on behalf of her man. In this version of the story, we're treated to a more realistic and interesting picture of love - two people find each other, and help each other become better people. This movie "gets" romance in a way that so many other movies do not.

An emotionally moving masterpiece that everyone should watch at least once in their lives, I give Howl a 10/10.

Rating for 'Howl's Moving Castle': 10/10

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    © 2019 Rachael Lefler

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