This seems a simple, well, more or less simple love story. Miyazaki based it on a children’s fantasy novel of the same name by Diana Wynne Jones. Poor little Sophie, who meekly feels she has to work overtime in her dead father’s hat shop, wins and is won by handsome, strong Howl, a powerful sorcerer who has a castle. Howl’s Moving Castle is this love story, but there’s a war on in the movie, and there was a war going on outside the movie. Miyazaki described to Newsweek his reluctance to accept the 2004 Oscar for Best Animated Feature. “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.”
It’s a love story, it’s an anti-war film, and I think it’s about integrating one’s personality and relationships while constrained by the power of others, in particular, wartime political power. That’s a mouthful. Just say, this is a movie about psychotherapy—kind of.
Miyazaki set this film in vaguely Germanic towns at the end of the nineteenth century when Freud and Jung were doing their thing, their flights of fancy, if you will. That might be one reason Miyazaki’s nineteenth-century has fabulous flying machines. Another: this is a nineteenth century of his imagination, and he is doing it in steampunk style, nineteenth-century ideas of what a flying machine would be like. Then, too, Miyazaki puts flying into all his movies. (Miyazaki’s father was an airplane engineer during World War II, working on the legendary Zero fighter plane, and Miyazaki likes to show flight and airplanes.) One of the towns in this movie has lots of the smoke we associate with industrialization and pollution, a contrast to the “Waste,” green and golden, and Miyazaki is strenuously anti-pollution.
Apparently Miyazaki based the look of the film on a visit to Alsace, in particular, Colmar, Riquewihr, and the Strasbourg Christmas market. The effect is sort of Germanic, appropriate for psychotherapy. In the manner of dreams, Miyazaki translates a lot of our customary metaphors like “heart” or “fire” or “walking on air” or “falling in love” into visual images (so notes Carol Amadio).
Psychotherapy—perhaps that’s why all the females in this film are mother-figures. Miyazaki was deeply attached to his mother in his childhood, and mothering plays a role in all his films. Then, too, motherhood shapes us like any sorcerer’s spell. Miyazaki’s mother-figures in Howl are all sexual beings. Three are or were attracted to Howl. The other two, Sophie’s real mother and her sister seem just plain cute and sexual.
Sophie’s actual mother is a flighty, flirty type, and not much of a mother, since she betrays her daughter’s whereabouts to the most powerful sorceress. Sister Lettie clerks in a bakery. She is, in another of Miyazaki’s verbal-to-visual metaphors, “sweet.” She is what girls are supposed to be in this kingdom, cute, pretty, and entrancing to men. Lettie is very much her mother’s daughter. Both are constrained by what American feminists call the “beauty myth”: with a woman, only beauty matters. Sophie is, so to speak, a different piece of cake.
Sophie (voiced by Emily Mortimer) starts out as the Cinderella of the hat shop where she works. It had been her late father’s, and she devotedly works overtime and has no life after hours as the other girls do. Sophie is another of Miyazaki’s plucky girl heroes, but with a difference. Early in the film a sorceress casts a spell on Sophie. The Witch of the Waste (shades of The Wizard of Oz) transforms this eighteen-year-old into a 90-year-old woman (now voiced by Jean Simmons) who won’t be able to tell anyone she is under a spell. Once transformed, Sophie becomes quite determined. She struggles up a huge hill to get the Witch of the Waste to turn her back. She ends up in Howl’s castle, where she makes herself into a furiously energetic cleaning lady. As the film goes on her age changes depending on the situation. For love she becomes eighteen again. For action she seems somewhere in her forties. And for managing Howl’s household her age varies all over. At the end she is young again, but with gray hair. “It’s the color of stars,” says the lovestruck hero. In the end, Sophie has both beauty and wisdom.
The Witch of the Waste (Lauren Bacall, “I was born to play despicable”) begins as a Junoesque woman who commands a troop of sinister, varyingly hatted blobs who serve as her footmen. In modern slang, she is a cougar who hankers after the handsome young Howl. She pushes her way into the hat shop where Sophie is working alone, insults her, and transforms her into a 90-year-old. Why? Because earlier, Howl had rescued Sophie from a couple of soldiers menacing her, and Sophie had fallen in love with him. The Witch of the Waste is jealous. As the film proceeds another sorcerer, Suliman (who also had a thing with Howl), turns the Witch of the Waste into her true age, ancient, and takes her magical powers away. Even so the Witch of the Waste remains just as lecherous, trying to hang on to Howl’s heart and flirting with the recovered missing prince at the end. Her lusty hankerings contrast with Sophie and Howl’s true love.
Suliman (Blythe Danner) is the most puzzling of these mother-figures. An attractive older woman, she is the Royal Sorceress, the real power behind the throne. (The king seems a bit of a twit.) Her spells overpower the spells of the other sorcerers, Howl and the Witch. She makes the two elderly ladies, Sophie and the Witch of the Waste, climb an exhausting flight of stairs, while she is confined to a wheelchair. She can’t be worn out as they are. She was once attracted to Howl; he was her apprentice (as Haku was Yubaba’s in Spirited Away), but now she is his more powerful antagonist. She creates a watchdog, cute, wheezy Heen, really a spy dog, to follow Sophie and Howl. She doesn’t mind, though, when he doesn’t do her bidding and helps the young people. It was she who she apparently started the war, conducts it, and stops it on a whim. She remains in power, spells and all, at the end.
Jungian analyst Hayao Kawai suggests in his definitive book, The Japanese Psyche: that the Japanese ego, i.e., consciousness, is female (unlike the Western ego, which is male). The Japanese, he feels, see things from a feminine point of view. Until the defeat in World War II, masculinity and patriarchy disguised this underlying femininity, but in folk and fairy tales “female heroes” (like Miyazaki’s) took the active role. So here. Glamorous as Howl is, the real power rests with Sophie and, above all, Suliman. The women are powerful, the men much less so, except for Howl.
Calcifer (voiced by Billy Crystal) is the magic fire demon who powers Howl’s castle. He is what confronts Sophie when she first enters the castle. Like all the major characters, he operates under the constraint of spells. He has to stay at the castle and work. He operates it, producing warmth and hot water and moving the castle here and there, indeed holding this ramshackle structure together. Like Sophie, he cannot describe his spell. He agrees with Sophie, though, that each will try to free the other. But he is also an ordinary fire for whom water is deadly and who needs to have fuel in order not to die. And if he dies, Howl dies. This is the first hint of who Calcifer really is.
Howl himself (Christian Bale) begins as immature and cowardly. He throws a tantrum when Sophie mixes up his hair dyes and begins to spew green goo everywhere in his frustration, almost extinguishing Calcifer. He explains to Sophie that, out of cowardice, he fled the Witch of the Waste and for the same reason won’t meet the king (really, the formidable Suliman). Even so, he turns himself into a monstrous bird to fight the enemy’s bombers. His blob-opponents are wizards who have lost their human form to war forever (personality constrained by power). Calcifer explains that it takes energy for Howl to transform himself into his bird-form and back. If the energy runs out, he won’t be to be able to get back to human form. (That’s what happened to the blobs.) Sophie is not the only one given to self-sacrifice.
The film becomes even more mystical when Sophie goes through a portal that lets her witness Howl’s childhood. There, she sees him catch a falling star and swallow it. Then the star emerges from his chest as Calcifer. He, we now understand, embodies Howl’s heart. If Calcifer dies, Howl dies. Back at the castle, the Witch of the Waste grabs the Calcifer/heart: She wants to own Howl’s heart, another metaphor made visual. But Sophie gets her to give it up, love outweighing selfishness. She presses the flickering flame/heart into Howl’s chest. Calcifer escapes, and Howl revives to deliver a happy boy-gets-girl ending.
The other males are less important. Markl is a cute five-year-old who has an unexplained place in the strange household of Howl’s castle. Like Sophie, his age varies. When he needs to he can don a perhaps magical cloak with a big gray beard and pretend to be fifty. It is he who cries triumphantly, “We’re a family now.” And I suppose it is indeed children that make a couple into a family.
A final male—the king doesn’t really count—is Turnip-Head the scarecrow (more shades of The Wizard of Oz). He is infallibly and supernaturally helpful first to 90-year-old Sophie, then to all of them, but finally he loses his pole. (Yes, Dr. Freud, I noticed.) But then Sophie kisses him, and he is (spoiler alert!) revealed to be the missing prince that the war is about (Crispin Freeman). He is yet another character who was caught in a spell and released through a kind of therapeutic process (a “corrective emotional experience”).
Even Howl’s castle goes through a kind of therapy. It is, after all, the title of the movie and, in a way, its central character. (Certainly the most memorable.) Changing all the time, it consists, I read, of 80 moving parts. It has a couple of portholes for eyes and a gate below for a mouth and even, at one point, a great lolling tongue coming out of that mouth. It has legs, at first four, then two. They are bird feet like those of the Howl-monster. It is, in short, vaguely humanoid, vaguely like Howl. “It can’t stand without Calcifer.” As Carol Amadio astutely suggests, “The castle is actually Howl, it has different faces and lots of baggage which makes it heavy, it moves around to keep hidden [—these are] metaphors for a man who presents different faces to the world and keeps his true self hidden because of past hurt.”
Calcifer is the heart in Howl’s Castle. (A saying: “The hearth is the heart of the home”—another of Miyazaki’s verbovisual metaphors.) The ever-changing castle with its varying pieces and vaguely humanoid look stands for all the multifarious activities of Howl or any human being. I agree with Amadio: Howl’s castle (which lumbers along like a human body) with Calcifer the heart inside stands for a human being, any human being. What we need and the arc of the film is to get that body/being in order, the heart willingly inside, not forced, and the exterior various but ordered and functional. At the end the castle has become a home, complete with lawn and flag out front and a balcony on which Howl and Sophie can have the traditional end-of-film kiss. At the last image, the castle flies away, echoing Howl’s airborne rescue of Sophie when she was menaced by the two soldiers, walking on air, another verbal idea translated into the vision of a dream.
Howl’s castle symbolizes personal identity. It is multi-faceted as shown by its several pairs of “eyes.” It includes all kinds of things and activities that combine and change and are created or abandoned. The final unmasking of Turnip takes place on the last remaining fragment of the castle. The castle finally becomes a home. (Another saying: a man’s home is his castle.)
I’ve suggested that this film is about becoming who you really are: finding your true identity, a kind of psychotherapy. These characters’ true identities differ from those imposed on them by various sorceries (including motherhood?). And they find their true identities in a characteristically psychoanalytic way, by losing the false selves, disintegrating, and then rebuilding. Sophie, Turnip-Head, Calcifer, and the Witch of the Waste all do this clearly enough, but Howl does it most explicitly. He begins by being vain and cowardly, his heart displaced into Calcifer. But then he regresses to childhood (the scene where he swallows the star), and Sophie brings him back by giving him his heart again, his ability to love. “A heart is a heavy burden,” says Sophie. Howl ends up as Freud might put it, able to love and to work. He is no longer childish, but an adult brave and loving, master in his own house. And that house, Howl’s Moving Castle soars above the warships down below it.
If Princess Mononoke is about live and let live, and if Spirited Away is a concerto on greed, Howl’s Moving Castle is about power and the problem of becoming who you really are when hemmed in by power. Where regular movies might address such issues realistically with realistic human actors doing realistic human things, anime takes on such issues playfully. We need to view these films as we would read a fairy story or a folk tale. We need to find our inner ten-year-old. The god of theater (therefore, I suppose, the god of film) was Dionysus, who was equally the god of wine and drunkenness, laughter, and in general disorder, as in the wildly playful and unrealistic images of Hayao Miyazaki. Enjoy!