In 2001 Spirited Away won an Academy Award. In 2004 Howl’s Moving Castle was nominated. Could lightning strike twice for a Japanese animation? Unfortunately not. It lost out to Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (good grief), but perhaps something stuck in the craw about the film: it was a deliberate critique of the invasion of Iraq, with a strong anti-war message.
Director Hayao Miyazaki has strong pacifist beliefs, and expected Howl’s Moving Castle to be poorly received in the States, but it actually turned out to be another worldwide hit, mainly because it’s completely brilliant, but also I suspect the parallel went over the top of the heads of many viewers.
He who fights monsters should see to it that he himself does not become a monster. And if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.
That’s Friedrich Nietzsche, from Beyond Good and Evil, and it applies strongly to Howl here. He is trying to stop a war, and in fighting it he is in danger of losing his humanity. In some respects we are in similar territory to Princess Mononoke, although the message is delivered with far less subtlety here, and no balancing factors. In Princess Mononoke the motivations behind the conflict are shown with shades of grey, but in Howl it is simply a monstrous, generally distant event. The movie is based on a novel by Diana Wynne Jones, and the war stuff is really beefed up in comparison with the book, but Miyazaki always likes to put his own stamp on things.
Fortunately the war is a relatively minor part of the film, which mainly centres around a girl named Sophie who is turned into an old lady by the magnificently named “Witch of the Waste”. When she seeks help she finds a scarecrow that is able to jump around on its pole (she names him “Turnip Head”), and Howl’s Castle, which is a magnificent steampunk creation that can wander around the landscape on legs. It can also take on other aspects or identities, with a portal door that opens out into different places, including a town house. It is powered by a sentient fire named Calcifer, who is completely hilarious, voiced in the English dub by Billy Crystal. In fact, the voice work is of the highest possible calibre, with Lauren Bacall completely sublime as the Witch of the Waste, Blythe Danner as Madame Suliman, Christian Bale as Howl, and Sophie played by two actresses: Emily Mortimer and the legend that was Jean Simmons. This is an incredibly astute move, and actually one that is only present in the English dub. The Japanese original has one voice actor for Sophie.
Sophie’s transformation into an old lady is handled with incredibly subtlety and positivity. It might take a couple of viewings to appreciate how cleverly it is portrayed as she progresses through the film, starting off with her behaving like a slow, tired old lady who needs to walk with a cane, and gradually walking less hunched and regaining her youthful energy as she finds her place in the world. Exactly when and how the curse is broken is open to interpretation. She may eventually be renewing it herself, and it may be tied to her feelings. She starts the film full of insecurities and ends it full of confidence and with a heart brimming with love and youthful energy. Howl’s Moving Castle is about one young lady finding her self-esteem, and discovering where she belongs.
The great thing about all this is the positive way in which it portrays old age, and that’s something very important for Studio Ghibli in particular. The studio has a track record of portraying old ladies in a grotesque manner (and there is still some of that here, with the Witch of the Waste). In fairness the portrayals have been often positive, but the art perhaps betrays a certain horror with the aging process. This is different, with Sophie the object of two men’s affections (they can see beyond her physical appearance), and almost immediately gaining the confidence to do and say what she wants that comes with old age. Miyazaki said that he “wanted to convey the message that life is worth living”. He certainly did that with considerable style here.
He also has another very strong message, which integrates beautifully with the anti-war theme: the importance of compassion. Miyazaki simply doesn’t have one-dimensional characters in his films. There is only one irredeemable, moustache-twirling villain in the entire Ghibli range, in Laputa. The Witch of the Waste is given a chance at redemption, and Sophie shows her kind-hearted nature when she decides to care for the very person who originally cursed her. It’s one of those moments where we might lack understanding as a viewer, and think: why is she having anything to do with her? Until you realise that Sophie’s kindness is just the thing that both of them need. Forgiveness heals. And just as Miyazaki doesn’t have one-dimensional villains, he doesn’t have one-dimensional heroes as well. Howl might be amazing, but he is far from being flawless, and needs Sophie to show him how to put other people first, rather than descend into his own dark little world, turning into a puddle of goo in the process. Howl’s Moving Castle is about a family coming together. It might be the strangest family ever, but love and kindness and compassion was all that any of them needed. It makes them invincible.
Is Sophie young, or just young at heart? In the end, it’s exactly the same thing.
My Studio Ghibli rankings so far, again simply to help anyone trying to decide your purchasing priorities, but the top 9 in particular are all completely magnificent:
- Spirited Away
- The Cat Returns
- Whisper of the Heart
- My Neighbour Totoro
- Laputa: Castle in the Sky
- Kiki’s Delivery Service
- Howl’s Moving Castle
- Only Yesterday
- Porco Rosso
- Ocean Waves
- Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind
- Princess Mononoke
- Grave of the Fireflies
- Pom Poko
I’ll leave you with the trailer for the Disney dub of Howl’s Moving Castle. Next time we will be looking at another novel adaptation from Studio Ghibli: Tales from Earthsea. RP