Studio Ghibli: Important Themes in ‘Howl’s Moving Castle’

Screenshot of Howl and Sophie from ‘Howl’s Moving Castle’. Copyright goes to Studio Ghibli.

Hey! Hallie here!

If you’ve seen the last post on this blog, you already know that my sister and I recently visited the Hayao Miyazaki exhibit at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures. As a huge Ghibli fan, I nearly cried at multiple points and I really can’t recommend it enough. Ever since, Ghibli has been taking up most of my brain space. Primarily ‘Howl’s Moving Castle’ as it’s my favorite film and the museum trip resulted in my obsession with not one, but two books on its creation. So why not dive into the deeper themes that I love in this film? I’ve talked about some of the things I’ll discuss here before, but never at this detail so hopefully I’m not repeating myself too much. Let’s get into this!

War:

We’re starting out with the most obvious of the themes here. Miyazaki is known for two prevalent themes throughout most of his movies. One is the importance of nature and the other is the pointlessness of war. This movie does less of the first within the main plot, but it does a whole lot of the second. In fact, it’s one of the largest differences between the movie and the book. The original book includes almost nothing about the brewing war in the background. Prince Justin’s kingdom is expecting an imminent war and Howl is recruited to help, but Howl’s only recruited to help find the missing Prince Justin (technically Turnip-Head although that’s more complicated in the book). All the time Howl spends at war in the movie is instead spent hitting on women in the book, hence where his reputation for eating hearts comes from. And that mysterious doorway? In the book it leads to his home town in modern-day Wales. But in the movie, it leads to the location of an active war. All of it ties back to the root of Howl’s heartlessness. In the book, Howl is unable to truly love anyone because of his lack of heart. But the movie condemns war by making Howl’s participation in the war the main result of his lack of heart. What’s most interesting about this, though, is that Howl doesn’t even join the war in the movie. He actively hides whenever an attempt is made to recruit him. Instead, he fights back against anyone who fights in the war. But the fact that he participates at all, even when fighting against the war, still turns him into a heartless monster. The fact that not even the good guys get a pass on what they do within the war very clearly shows how morally wrong Miyazaki feels war is at a base level. Though that’s easy to tell even without Howl considering all of the horrific imagery of burning villages, destroyed battle ships, and troubling propaganda raining from the sky that we see at other parts of the film.

Self-Confidence:

Sophie is my favorite character in any Studio Ghibli film, and part of that is because of the way she learns to empower herself throughout ‘Howl’s Moving Castle’. Sophie starts out the film constantly degrading herself. When she looks in the mirror she pulls her hat over her eyes because she isn’t pleased with how she looks. When Lettie warns her that Howl could have eaten her heart, she argues that he only eats the hearts of pretty girls. And she doesn’t just criticize her own appearance. She doesn’t allow herself to pursue the things she enjoys because she feels she’s only destined to lead a boring life. She works at the hat shop only because she’s the eldest daughter and feels obligated to, despite Lettie encouraging her to find something to pursue that she enjoys. This is even supported by the book, which adds the world-building mechanic that eldest sisters are never expected to go on any kind of adventure because of their obligations to their families. However, when Sophie becomes an old woman we see her begin to embrace her true feelings and desires because of her new old age. She scolds other people, including Howl, when they annoy her. She does what she wants regardless of the protests of others. She even talks back against the Witch of the Waste. As the movie progresses, her self confidence turns her into a younger and younger woman. At the beginning of the spell she appears hunched over and heavily wrinkled, but towards the end of the spell she stands straighter and her wrinkles become fewer. And in moments where she’s unafraid to be herself, including the moments where she stands up against Suliman while defending Howl or when she’s completely enamored by the flower garden, she turns completely young again. It’s only when she starts to doubt herself or talks poorly about herself that she reverts back to an old woman. And by the end of the film, her confidence is solidified. In essence, she saves herself from the spell put on her by learning to love herself. I adore her character development for taking this approach.

No Villains:

The only true villain in this movie is the war. Not even the character who represents the war, Madame Suliman, is truly a villain. Madame Suliman’s a complicated character. She isn’t in charge of the war occurring, but she does enforce the rule that all magic users must participate. She removes a lot of problems from the main characters’ shoulders by returning the Witch of the Waste to her original age and stripping her of her powers, but the way she does so is definitely morally ambiguous. Howl remembers her fondly as his teacher, but she also sends underlings to attack him and spy on him. And despite being the instigator of most of the violence in the movie, she opts to advocate for stopping the war immediately after Howl and Sophie overcome the obstacles she put in place. Similarly, the Witch of the Waste is clearly not completely evil. Despite being the initial party working to attack and spy on Howl, plus putting the spell on Sophie, we begin to see more from her once Sophie decides to pity her after her powers are stripped away. In refusing to leave her defenseless and opting to take care of her, Sophie befriends the Witch of the Waste. The Witch of the Waste doesn’t always reward Sophie’s efforts with good behavior. She still shows a worrying hunger for men’s hearts and she does steal Howl’s heart at the end of the film. But she also gets rid of the bug Sophie’s mom plants (though it weakens Calcifer), she frequently comforts Markl when he’s scared, she offers Sophie advice, and she gives Howl’s heart back to Sophie after seeing the trouble she’s caused. Miyazaki was adamant that the villains of this film be given redeemable qualities too, and the result is a beautifully hopeful view on how complicated humans can be.

These are only some of the main themes I’ve come to fully appreciate as I’ve dived deeper into the making of ‘Howl’s Moving Castle’. There are so many gorgeous aspects of this film that make it incredible to watch over and over again. Ghibli hardly ever disappoints when it comes to deep stories and well developed characters. To be honest, I could go through my favorite themes of many Studio Ghibli films, so don’t be surprised if you see posts like this in the future!

Don’t do anything fun until I get back!

Hallie

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