Review of Howl’s Moving Castle, Directed by Hayao Miyazaki
Howl’s Moving Castle tells the story of a young woman named Sophie, who owns a hat store in a European-looking town. War is coming to the kingdom. It so happens that Sophie meets Howl, a wizard, and the Witch of the Waste is immediately jealous that Howl seems to have taken an interest in her. The witch is not only Howl’s nemesis, but someone who tried to win his heart in her younger years. The witch casts a curse on Sophie, making her an old woman. Not knowing what else to do, though feeling more comfortable in her skin as an old woman than as a young one, Sophie ventures into the Waste to look for a way to remove the spell. It’s in the Waste that she comes across Howls’ moving castle, a pile of what looks like industrial scraps cobbled together on four mechanical legs, and smuggles her way in.
We soon learn that the king has summoned all the sorcerers in the land to fight on behalf of the kingdom. Howl is a pacifist at heart and interferes in the war by transforming himself into a large bird of prey and fights off strange creatures (it’s all quite confusing). Paralleling this war story is the budding relationship between Howl and Sophie while the story line of the Witch of the Waste whimpers behind, especially after she loses her power. In what felt like a rushed ending, Sophie saves Howl in an unexpected way.
After watching Howl’s Moving Castle, I was tempted not to write a review because the film is hard to get your mind around and arguably lacks a central story line In the beginning, you think the tale will be a typical good versus evil, with Howl on the side of good and the Witch of the Waste his arch-nemesis. But if you know anything about Hayao Miyazaki, the director, you know that his characters are famous for their moral ambiguity, with so-called “evil” characters being either misunderstood or victims of certain vices. Howl’s Moving Castle could be a love story, but that doesn’t seem to be the backbone of the movie, though it does develop the characters. There’s the issue of pacifism and the evils of war, but that acts as a backdrop.
There is also a plethora of themes to consider, none of which take center stage. These include people not being what they seem, beauty being a matter of the heart (Sophie is a plain-looking girl), and the transformative nature of love.
What I’ve concluded is that the story hinges on the fascinating juxtaposition of the mechanical and the magical. Howl’s Moving Castle is set in an odd world where mechanized warfare is paired with sorcery and Merlin lives during the Industrial Revolution. Howl’s castle is in itself an amalgam of these parts–part machine, part magical. The moving castle doesn’t play a critical role in the story line but takes center stage merely because Miyazaki’s creation is a wonder to behold, with his maniacal attention to detail. The narrative fails to meet the enrapturing quality of Spirited Away, but the artistry and intricacies of its magical world is up to par.
One of the benefits of watching films and reading books that reach for the creative heights is that it reminds us that our existence remains one imbued with great wonder. Our own Justin Hawkins has some good meditative thoughts on this in his article “A Puritan and a Biologist on the Appeal of Beauty.” We are attracted to beauty because it is a reflection of the perfection of beauty in God. In a similar way, we can appreciate creative films such as Howl’s Moving Castle because the creativity reminds us of the supernatural creativity evidenced all around us and encourages us to take note.