I just finished watching Howl’s Moving Castle. The movie is based on the book by Diana Wynne Jones which I have not read but which I’ve seen enough praise for that I might have to go and order, especially since the movie left me feeling like a potentially great storytelling opportunity was squandered. Or, as Don says, “propaganda is the enemy of art.”
As Shamus already noted, it hits all of the Miyazaki themes, but as Don notes it is probably more due to Miyazaki taking liberties with the source material than any synchrony between Miyazaki and Wynne Jones. Miyazaki admits to this in a rare interview with Newsweek Magazine:
GORDON – Were you surprised “Spirited” won an Oscar?
MIYAZAKI – Actually, your country had just started the war against Iraq, and I had a great deal of rage about that. So I felt some hesitation about the award. In fact, I had just started to make “Howl’s Moving Castle,” so the film is profoundly affected by the war in Iraq.
As the interview makes clear, Miyazaki is (surprisingly, given his deep insight and reverence for children) a pessimist at heart about human society. I have my own issues with the Iraq war but the portrayal of the military in this film is simply a cartoon, which is I think rather ironic given that it’s anime.
Still, rather than just gripe about it at the meta level, I will make an attempt at discussion of the film. Read on…
The Witch of the Waste was a very familiar character. In many ways she reminded me of the sister witches in Spirited Away. One example was her huge (and variable-sized) head. When she peeks out her carriage window to taunt Sophie, fhe face is enormous, barely fitting out the window. Moments later when she steps outside her head is back to relatively normal proportion. Another similarity is that she turns out to be a sympathetic figure, not evil but having genuine emotion-driven motives.
The concept of liquid bodies is also a common theme. Howl himself turns semi-liquid as he despairs in his vanity, and the Witch of the Waste also seems to have a pretty fluid internal structure. Especially as the Witch climbs the stairs – she practically oozes around.
I actually found the curse on Sophie to be rather intriguing. In many ways the curse is just a manifestation of Sophie’s own self-scorn. When she is asleep, or she is confident of herself, or feeling pure happiness, she reverts back to her youthful self. For most of the movie in fact she is somewhere between her youth and her extreme age status, and I think that there is probably careful thought applied to her apparent age in every scene.
It is never made clear why Sophie loves Howl. At least, until he takes her to his sanctuary, she only sees his foolish, cowardly, and arbitary nature. She sees him at his worst after his tantrum – which causes her to lose her temper and then run outside the castle to cry in self-pity at her supposed ugliness (made manifest by the curse). I wonder if the real reason she falls for Howl is that she feels like she truly belongs and has a real role to play as a full member of the “family” (the housecleaning scenes being a true delight as she cycles through her emotions of determination, disgust, and then wonderment and excitement). Of course she is also a young girl and Howl a handsome bad boy, so that’s her initial feelings are really more likely to have been a simple crush, which subsequent events strengthened into a genuine bond. Howl makes it clear to her that he values her, and that she is what he fights to protect instead of running away; at that point the crush becomes something more tangible. It is interesting to note that the Witch observes Sophie “sighing” and thinks it is love; but at that point Sophie’s feelings for Howl are not really matured. That the Witch would mistake attraction for love is probably an insight into her character – needy of attention and vain.
Note that the Witch appears to be rendered feeble after the meeting at the castle, but retains her faculties enough to find the trap “worm” left by Sophie’s mother. The Witch is less of the waste than a total waste – she doesn’t really play any role in the story except to curse Sophie at the outset and then represent a small (but trivially overcome) challenge at the end. That Sophie is able to convince her to let go of Howl’s heart just by asking nicely is almost ludicrous, but it makes sense on one level if you consider that the Witch is ultimately a vain and attention starved child at heart, despite her age.
Ultimately the movie seemed to be about family. Sophie is advised by her sister to think of herself, but Sophie’s mother represents an extreme of that view. Sophie ultimately rejects her mother/sister’s path and finds genuine meaning and self-worth in her adoptive family with Howl. Ultimately it is Sophie who breaks her own curse at the end, because she has found her own place and recognizes her own worth. As Miyazaki says in the interview, it doesn’t matter what age she is, it’s who she is on the inside – and then her outside reflects that.