I decided to watch a Studio Ghibli film I hadn’t seen yet and give my first impressions of it. So I watched Howl’s Moving Castle, which had the misfortune of being released at a time when my interest in anime (and movies and television in general) were at a low ebb. It also had the misfortune of being the Hayao Miyazaki film that followed after Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away. I’ve long internalized the idea that people found Howl to be vaguely disappointing, and perhaps if I’d seen it back in 2004, I’d have agreed: compared to its immediate predecessors, it is a disappointment. But those movies were arguably two of the greatest ever made. Howl is merely a good movie, but appreciated on those terms it is quite good (maybe even great).
Anyhow, the movie is set in a fantasy world reminiscent of late 19th century Europe. A lot of hubbub is made about an impending war between two vaguely defined nations. Our hero is Sophie, a somewhat withdrawn milliner who happens to briefly cross paths with the wizard Howl. This leads to her running afoul of the jealousies of someone known as the Witch of the Waste; she puts a curse on Sophie that ages her into an old woman and prevents her from disclosing what has happened. Ashamed, Sophie flees her home and is eventually picked up by the eponymous castle, which also includes Howl’s apprentice, Markl and a fire spirit named Calcifer who keeps the engines running. Howl turns out to be a vain and selfish man, and his castle is enough of a sty that Sophie appoints herself as its cleaner. Of course it’s also up to Sophie to thaw Howl’s heart and fall in love with him.
The central flaw of the movie is in its overlap of somewhat contradictory narrative impulses. Princess Mononoke, for all its fantasy, was fundamentally grounded in a central geopolitical conflict; Spirited Away, on the other hand, gave itself entirely away to surreal, fairy tale logic. Howl tries to do both: we’re given to believe that the aforementioned war is central to the story, but it feels like it belongs to an entirely different movie than the more intimate one which is concerned with the whimsical goings on at Howl’s castle. It’s hard for Miyazaki’s anti-war themes to stick when the stakes are so abstract and ill-defined that we have trouble caring (I suspect that Diane Wynn Jones’ original novel has more space to flesh these things out).
But inasmuch as it centers around Sophie, I think the film acquits itself rather well. The “true love overcomes all obstacles” aspect of it may not be the most original or daring thing for a children’s movie to do, but it’s nevertheless heartfelt.
More interesting is the movie’s treatment of old age, which is far more nuanced than the setup suggests. It creates problems for Sophie, but also seems to grant her a curious freedom, no longer feeling bound by the societal pressures put upon her as a young person. It also creates a bit of an inversion of gender stereotypes seen in pop romances: Howl is the beautiful one (and admittedly his fashionista ways are more than a little relatable to me, as is his seeming inability to keep his home sanely organized), while Sophie is given the allowance to be less than stunning.
Anyway it’s rare in pop culture, which is often so youth-obsessed, to have an elderly protagonist (even if by way of a magic curse). It makes perfect sense to want to tackle it in the context of a children’s movie: childhood and old age are the phases in life where we are more vulnerable and at some removed from the norm (though as someone who is only in his early thirties, I speak somewhat more speculatively here). As adults, we don’t always like to be reminded of these things, and we sometimes place such a high importance on being useful, productive and autonomous that we can even actively resent those that aren’t.
But I digress. Howl’s Moving Castle may underline the transitory nature of youth, but it has quite a pretty face. I don’t think even Spirited Away quite matches its visual splendour. The castle itself is a marvel of animation, and everything from the ornately designed backdrops to the variety of surreal and at times grotesque supernatural beings has such a stunning attention to detail. Even the war scenes are almost perversely beautiful in their striking ember colours. I’ve heard some complaints about the movie’s languid pace, but when it looks this good, I can appreciate the extra running time.
I’m glad I watched it. Part of me regrets not giving it the time when it was new, but I feel that visiting it now, with different expectations and a different perspective, has afforded me more enjoyment than it would have in my teenage years. I already want to watch it again and see how my thoughts on it deepen.