I love almost all of Hayao Miyazaki’s works, but my first reaction when asked to write about this one, of all things, was surprise. Specifically, “Howl’s Moving Castle.” Knowing that Takuya Kimura was doing the voice of Howl and being enthralled by the construction of the castle, I looked forward to its release and immediately went to see it, but my impression of “Howl’s Moving Castle” was, “This is the most incomprehensible of all.”
There were several points that I found incomprehensible. First of all, Howl’s direct involvement in the war. I don’t understand what role that plays in the story. I think it has some impact on Howl’s character development, but the war scenes are too intense for said character development, and even though there should be some message, I couldn’t quite see it. By the way, there’s no scene in the original where Howl matches the door dial to black and flies into the flames of war.
Also, the reason for Sophie being transformed into an old woman is not clear in this work. In the original, the reason is clear and is revealed later. Sophie, who is withdrawn and hardly speaks her mind, living a modest life of constant patience, however, has a very strong meaning in the process of becoming a frank, open, and action-oriented woman through becoming an old woman.
Normally, “aging” can become a curse for women. How many things use “aging” as a threat to rush women to be “younger, beautiful forever”. The messages that are emitted daily imply that if you’re not young, you have no value as a woman, if you become an old woman, you have only a boring life waiting for you, love is out of the question, and it’s certain that no man will look back at you.
The curse of “it’s over when you get old” is binding women. Despite this, the film takes this and turns it on its head. As an old woman who doesn’t care about the eyes of men, how much freedom can you express? How freely can you speak? How freely can you behave? Sophie, who was young and because of her youth was possessed by the curse of an inferiority complex that said, “I’m not the kind of girl who gets attention from men”, “I’m neither beautiful nor particularly talented, I’ll just grow old working in this hat shop”, becomes a woman who can act on her own intentions when she loses her youth and ages. It’s not that “Sophie is poor because she has become an old woman”, but that if she didn’t become an old woman, Sophie wouldn’t have been able to break the curse she had cast on herself. The Witch of the Waste, who thought she was cursing Sophie, actually lifted one of the curses that Sophie was under.
I also have daily moments when I think that the life of an old woman seems free and enjoyable. Like the old woman who snaps a pack of four yogurts in half in front of the supermarket and hands it to her friend, and the other woman who, saying “Oh, are you sure?” accepts it. I’m sure they were having a conversation like, “Shall we buy it? But four is too many” inside the supermarket. There are also old women who will just start a conversation with you if they happen to be sitting next to you in the theatre. Even in department store customer service, the service provided by older women is interesting. They serve not with the usual flattery, but with genuine comments like “That color suits you better,” giving a thumbs-up.
Their honesty is dazzling. Their straightforward kindness is dazzling. And every time I encounter such brightness, I feel reminded of how young women, like myself, tend to put on airs and are restrained by some invisible force in our everyday actions.
It’s symbolic that Sophie, even when turned into an old woman by a curse, remains young while she sleeps. In other words, it could be interpreted that Sophie wasn’t so much “cursed to become an old woman,” but had initially confined herself to a life much like that of an old woman, and merely became the physical representation of her mental state. That’s why, in her unconscious state, Sophie appears to be her actual age. It may be that her heart had been like that of an old woman, and the curse simply made this visible to both herself and others. The fact that the curse is lifted when she becomes honest about her feelings of love seems to me a pretty straightforward development.
Returning to the topic, I want to touch on another “point of confusion.” That is, the part where Howl eventually falls in love with Sophie. I thought I might understand if I read the original work, but even after reading it, I still couldn’t understand, and this seemed more fantastical to me than anything else that happens in the story. Because I don’t understand this part, I can’t empathize with the story, and I don’t feel satisfied after watching it. I do think, “It’s nice that everyone, Calcifer, Markl, and Turnip Head, became happy,” but I’m not convinced about when and at what point Howl fell in love with Sophie. Maybe returning Howl’s heart means he can truly love someone, but the fact that this person is Sophie feels too convenient for someone like me who knows too much about reality. Indeed, Sophie is unique in her understanding of Howl’s daily life, which is marked by helplessness, disarray, and neglect. This is a stark contrast to his charming facade as a womanizer. Even so, Sophie nurtures feelings for Howl, fully aware of these aspects. In a way, she truly comprehends Howl.
However, I don’t particularly feel like Howl is moved by those aspects of Sophie. There are romantic scenes, and I understand that he treats Sophie special, but rather than love, it seems as if Sophie just happened to be the right woman to marry and share his life with. It seems as if Sophie, rather than as a woman, was more suitable as a family member that Howl would choose. Especially with Markl or Calcifer, her role as someone who can get along well with Howl’s cohabitants seems very significant.
I wrote that Howl falling in love with Sophie is a fantasy, but there is a very strong reality in Howl choosing Sophie as his family. Typically, when a womanizing man who seems head over heels in love with women chooses a marriage partner, that’s what happens. They choose a woman who can get along well with their family, who will properly take care of them and their family, a woman who can handle practical matters. If you take a very cynical view, I think that’s why Howl chose Sophie. It seems as if I can hear Howl’s voice, in a Kimura Takuya-like tone, saying “Maybe it’s about time I settled down.”
If I had watched this when I was much younger, I might have thought that Sophie’s devotion got through to Howl, and it paid off. However, I know all too well that devotion does not work in love, and maybe I know too much. Devotion is effective in deepening love, but it is futile to be devoted, even to the point of giving your life, to someone who does not reciprocate. The other person does not feel anything, and even if you are the one being served, your heart is not moved. That Sophie played a mother-like role in Howl’s castle probably made her the most convenient reason for Howl to choose her. Personally, I don’t trust in motherhood, and while I can understand and appreciate the maternal aspects of Ghibli heroines during the movie, I lack maternal inclusiveness in myself. I am confident that even if I were to have a child, such a thing would not sprout from anywhere, so I assume motherhood itself is a fantasy. The theory that Sophie was chosen because she has a maternal side fits best, but even if that is the correct answer, I cannot convince myself with that theory.
I wish that things like love and romance wouldn’t bring in aspects such as motherhood or practical skills. I want romantic love to be a pure desire. I want this person, I want to connect with this person, I just like them for no reason, I want it to be something like that.
However, lately, I’ve been wondering if my own ideas are not, in fact, fantasies that are far removed from reality. Everyone, almost unconsciously, seeks partners who are convenient for them or provide benefits, and might just be mistaking those feelings for love. Perhaps we just call our feelings, which are calculated to desire a partner who considers our interests, as ‘love’ or ‘affection’. In reality, could there be no such thing as ‘love’ or ‘romance’ that truly exists without any calculations?
When I think about it in this way, “Howl’s Moving Castle,” despite being set in a world where fantasy magic exists, is perhaps a depiction of reality through the filter of fantasy, more clearly and illustratively. Likely all fantasy stories play a similar role, and this film is no exception. That’s why, I think, the scene where Howl goes to war is added, greatly changed from the original story, and a new message is embedded there.
When I watched the movie without understanding these nuances, I was greatly thrilled in the opening scene where Sophie is taken by Howl for a walk in the sky, and I could fully understand Sophie’s love for Howl. Howl, as voiced by Kimutaku, is nothing short of amazing, despite being a bad boy, his narcissistic playboy charm was utterly alluring. Perhaps it wasn’t a point that I ‘didn’t understand’, but maybe I found it too realistic and therefore boring that Howl ultimately settled down with Sophie.
It’s brutally realistic for someone as splendid as Howl to choose a woman for pragmatic reasons. I’d have preferred it if he was distracted by an incredibly beautiful or enticing woman and chased after her in infatuation – I could give up on him easily then. But to ultimately choose a woman who’s suitable as a family, not for love or such… Well, I could make bacon and eggs, and I could clean, but could I interact with Calcifer as an equal, or engage normally with Markl…? My desire to ‘be thought well of’, to ‘be liked’, to ‘be thought of as a good woman’ would probably interfere, and I don’t think I could act so naturally.
When I think about it that way, what Sophie gained by turning into an old woman might have been the form of a truly ‘natural’ woman, free from trivial desires and pride that often bind women, I now realize.
Amamiya Mami – Born in 1976 in Fukuoka Prefecture. Her book “Letting the Girls Become Obsessive, Fixated, Compulsive” published in 2011 became a big topic, and the term “Kojirasate (Obsessive, Fixated, Compulsive” was nominated for the buzzword award two years in a row. Her books include “Intending to Stay Single Forever”, “Girls, Take Arms”, “Living in Tokyo”, “Welcome to the No-Confidence Room”, “Is it a Loss to Live Seriously?”, and others.