Howl’s Moving Castle – a mad fusion of steam-powered technology, contracts and curses, age-transcending love, and family comedy. It’s been my favourite Ghibli film for years, and may just be my favourite film in general even outside the category of animation.
So I went to see it at the theatre despite exam season – I just had to, because when do they ever have old Ghibli films in theatres? First time going to the movies by myself, and I don’t know if this had to do with my being alone, but the effect the movie had on me was phenomenal. Here are 10 things (I really struggled to narrow it to 10) about Howl’s Moving Castle that I will never forget.
10. Running Away from Home
This act really exemplifies both the easy-going and the eccentric aspects of Sophie. Well, if I can’t tell anyone around that I became 5x my age, then I just have to find a new place to be! Such matter-of-fact reasoning. Since it’s not like she’s looking for ways to break the curse at this point, she could have stayed in her city and allow herself to become the next urban legend. Yet, self-contained as she is, Sophie quickly decides that the only way out for her is to go to wherever fate takes her as long as it’s away from the city, with no plan whatsoever. The scene showing the hilltop view is just breathtaking. And of course, there’s Sophie with her huge block of bread and cheese… I personally adore the gigantic-chunks-of-food aesthetic in Ghibli films. Watching characters eat is always so heartening.
9. Sophie’s Voice
When she voiced Sophie, Chieko Baisho was 63 years old. While most dubs have separate voices for young vs. old Sophie, Ms. Baisho played the role alone. I love the earnest and refreshing quality of young Sophie’s voice. What impresses me the most is the transition scenes in which Sophie’s age changes during her speeches. Ms. Baisho took on the age transformations flawlessly. During those scenes, you can hear old Sophie, middle-aged Sophie, and young Sophie all within one sentence. What’s more? The voice actress even sang the ending theme. I have to say that the ED, 世界の約束 (Promise of the World) was never one that stood out to me until this most recent watching. It’s low-key and drawn-out, but so effective with its tremulousness, as I’ve realized, that I willingly missed my bus for the sake of sitting through the entire ending credits. Come to think of it, that reflects Sophie’s character as well – moderate but full of touching genuineness.
8. Family Dynamics
You first get the sense of family in the movie when Sophie, Howl, and Markl all sit down together for breakfast at the table. The addition of the Witch of the Waste (the wasted witch?) and Suliman’s spy dog, Heen, completes the unlikely family. Now they are a full set with all three generations and a pet puppy. Even as they live in a battered walking castle in the midst of war and chaos, and even though they aren’t even supposed to be friends with each other, the group carries on doing normal family things – having laundry days, tucking in the elderly, getting all excited for moving day… It’s Sophie’s domesticity that makes it all happen so naturally. Sophie is arguably one of the most traditionally feminine heroines in Ghibli films, as someone who gets dazed after a hot stranger’s rescue and volunteers herself as a cleaning lady. I don’t think it makes her any less powerful or less equal to Howl though (perhaps because Howl himself is someone even more in need of rescuing). The family set-up helps narrow the distance between Sophie and Howl even further by making them the designated parents of the household, which makes every interaction within the castle all the more endearing to watch.
7. The Nature of Magic
If Kiki’s Delivery Service is a film in which magic is a fun treat in a relatively normal community, in Howl’s Moving Castle, it is a full-blown force that dominates the entire kingdom, especially with its role as a war mechanism. From Howl and Suliman’s allusions to a wizarding academy, we get the sense that magic is highly systematized and perhaps even theoretically-learned. Despite so, how it functions is often still vague and inexplicable. It used to be something I was really confused by as a child: how does Sophie keep Howl from dying after nearly destroying Calcifer so many times? How does Sophie’s curse work anyways? And that time travelling part where Sophie shouts out to Howl from the past? But it seems like the older you get, you can actually grow to believe in magic more, in my case anyways. Strong passions and resolves are a form of magic that triumphs the most ungracious tricks. The idea seems much easier to accept after you stop being so preoccupied about whether things are cliches. The plain, human Sophie restores Howl’s heart and repels her own curse – if that’s possible, then nothing is truly un-magical.
6. The Epilogue
Here’s another something towards which my opinion changed over the years. I used to be dissatisfied with this ending – Howl becoming more human after retrieving his heart, Turnip turning back into a derp-faced prince, Sophie’s hair not going back to what it used to be… As a child, it seemed like nothing but loss and people being content with being normal. I guess I’ve become a viewer who’s satisfied by normality? With Howl regaining the heart that he gave away while it was still a the heart of a child, and Sophie restored to her youth for the most part, the two are finally fully equal to one another. Howl grows up and becomes less of a man-child, and Sophie is no longer a jaded soul too eager to give up her claim to love. There’s something elegant about their simple kiss; plus, they rebuilt the castle and now it’s a flying one, so not entirely ordinary after all?
5. Sophie’s Mysterious Age Changes
The anticipation of Sophie’s age transformations keeps me on the edge of the seat every time she’s involved in a dramatic speech. I get all anxious during the wait, because there’s something disconcerting about these transformations (especially if it’s a switch from young to old). The skin, body shape, and height are simply too different between young and old Sophie that watching one morph into the other becomes unsettling, and I can’t help but feel horrified for Sophie, who never even notices anything when she changes. Even her personality undergoes a dramatic change, as is evident from Sophie’s many “one nice thing about getting old” lines. Yet, while dreading these scenes, I can’t help but want them to happen. The confrontation with Suliman is probably the most satisfying, while the change from beautiful to shriveled when Sophie protests to Howl that she’s not beautiful is the most heartbreaking. Even though we figure out pretty early on that Sophie becomes younger every time she puts her heart into something (especially if that something relates to love), the transformations remain largely unpredictable, and the appearance changes also come in different degrees, sometimes very subtly.
4. The Castle
Seriously, what would this list be without the castle? This insane concoction is unbelievable. I love the steampunk feel of the main body and the fact that it actually has a face (or multiple faces, depending on how you look at it), and especially how this medley of metallic junk (sorry Howl) is elevated by the title “castle.” It makes train whistles, it pants (?), it walks on four spindly legs. The space inside the castle is even more remarkable than its appearance. If you think about it, the interior compartments barely match what it looks like from the outside. Many of the doors open to weird locations or dimensions – so far, we get to see at least three different houses that the castle pretends to be from the outside, one hellish sky that Howl flies into in his bird form, one treasure-coated tunnel inside Howl’s room, one secret meadow, Sophie’s old house. And it can keep changing whenever its master wants!
3. Romantic Development
Ghibli films starring kid couples are cute, but I am partial to Howl’s Moving Castle’s more mature tone. The atmosphere for romance is there from the very moment Howl swoops down to “save” Sophie in the alley, which is made possibly because both of our leads, for once, know what romance is about. I especially love how opposite yet compatible the two are in their personalities. Aside from the neat age contrast (Sophie being old and Howl staying a child because of his heart), Howl is a dramatic, flirty romantic while Sophie is practical and sincere. You can say that there are many cliches as this romance progresses, with Howl’s self-destructive desire to protect and Sophie’s “love overpowers all obstacles,” but the way the two naturally come together in the dramatic series of events is something I really adore. In particular, I was struck by how unhesitatingly sincere Sophie sounded when she shouted that she loved Howl to the half-demon Howl in his room-cave. Neither of the characters are shy about the chemistry growing between them, but neither really dwells upon the idea during the film. As a result, the romance is always smooth and refreshing. I don’t care if you call it a cliche – love is timeless and I’ll still watch the hell out of it (>y<).
2. Howl’s Magnetism
Sorry Sophie, I really like you too, but I am too susceptible to Howl. He may just be one of the most charismatic beings I’ve seen in anime. Clearly, lots of care was put into animating each turn of his head or movement of the wrist. I have never seen anyone single-handedly crack eggs with such grace (Gordon Ramsay, you’re out). Sure, he’s undeniably a shallow and cowardly guy at least in the beginning, but he does change, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a man showing vulnerabilities. In fact, he has this androgyny in him both in terms of appearance (definitely the appearance) and personality, and that’s something that kind of attracts me. It’s that mix of vulnerability and assertive charisma, coupled with a deep voice and occasional pensiveness, that earn him an enduring fangirl population.
1. The First Flying Scene
Alas, the shoujo in me is stubborn and this scene never fails to make me squeal a little in delight. Howl and Sophie are pursued by the Witch of the Waste’s blob-men in the alleys, and just when they’re cornered, Howl suddenly goes for a vertical swoosh into the air with barely enough warning. Every time, my reaction of bewilderment is just like Sophie’s as the magnificent main OST starts playing and Howl tells her to move her feet like she’s walking. This scene is the essence of the entire movie – vibrant, glorious, and flutter-inducing. There are several flight scenes in this movie, as there are in most Ghibli films, and while each is brilliant in its own way, none of them awakens the waku-waku in me the same way.
So that concludes my list. I’m afraid I got a little dramatic as it went on (it is my favourite film after all). Ah, how I wish they’d put up more Ghibli films in theatres. If you’re reading this, feel free to share some of your thoughts on the movie too!