What is the Magic of ‘Howl’s Moving Castle’? (2005)
A girl who liberates herself through the spark of magic
This is a story of a peculiar society where numerous wizards stroll amidst the daily lives of ordinary citizens. It might even be referred to as a world where wizards have become commonplace. Could such a society only exist in a child’s imagination? Looking at a series of Hayao Miyazaki’s works, it seems not. If one believes they are a daring and reckless pig, anyone can potentially transform into one, and if one believes they can fly in the sky on a broomstick and work as a delivery service, anyone could do that too. Such is the world of imagination unique to animation. In the case of “Howl’s Moving Castle”, however, it’s a bit more complicated and the dimensions are intertwined.
The heroine of this film, Sophie, is an 18-year-old girl who makes hats at a hat shop. She seems to believe she will live her whole life performing such modest work with utmost diligence because she is not a beauty nor does she have any special talents. Perhaps, to give meaning to her life, where she must stand as the pillar of the family against her beautiful sister and overly flamboyant mother, she decided to brace herself in this way. She is transformed into a 90-year-old woman due to a curse out of the unreasonable jealousy from a strange old lady known as the Witch of the Waste. While it’s due to the witch’s magic, it may also be that what she had convinced herself of suddenly materialized. She’s swept away as if she had excluded youth, romance, and a turbulent life from her mind. It’s scary. But once she becomes a 90-year-old woman, she takes full advantage of her inherent prudence and firmness, kindness to everyone, and shines remarkably. But she is in fact an 18-year-old adorable girl, and her heart flutters when the young and dandy wizard Howl is kind to her. That is the real Sophie. Therefore, this story might be described as a struggle in the realm of imagination between the self who insists on being overly ordinary and the surprisingly romantic self. The 90-year-old self, which has been personified through excessive presumption, is taken back to the reality filled with the possibilities of being 18 through the passionate heart and dreamy power of the maiden’s self.
An Imaginary Yet Realistic World
Now, about that reality, it seems to be a mysterious world where some kind of assumptions have crystallized into a concrete image. It appears to be somewhere in 19th-century Europe, an utterly charming town. It’s the kind of cheerful and beautiful city, surrounded by captivating fields and mountains, that seems only to exist in the minds of Japanese who have long admired European culture. But at the same time, it’s a savage environment where wizards abound as in the Middle Ages. Just when you think elegant planes, like yachts, flit about the streets like taxis, a war breaks out whimsically one day. Gigantic, caterpillar-like steel bombers fly in and turn the charming city into ruins overnight. Watching this, we’re jolted back to our reality. Isn’t this, after all, the world we’re living in, not a fantasy in an anime? Didn’t they call this city Baghdad, I wonder?
Indeed, this world is both exceedingly fantastical and exceedingly realistic. Is it a dream or reality? Just as Sophie suddenly becomes a 90-year-old granny when she thinks too modestly of herself, if you assume something, it might invoke magic and change reality itself. That could truly be happening. When you think about it, the mystery is solved. We are accustomed to wars breaking out whimsically, even feeling like it’s the norm. That’s our reality, but could it be that we are all under some unreasonable magic spell, assuming that reality is supposed to be this way? Just as Sophie is determined to break the Witch of the Waste’s curse, I was made to realize that we also must break the spell covering this cursed world, a spell that normalizes war.
When I thought of this, I got a good hint from the depiction of the Witch of the Waste, who, far from being a terrifying, omnipotent, demonic being, is so aged that she’s almost senile. The American President Bush, for example, seems to think that there’s a detestable devil somewhere in the world that needs to be defeated. In reality, the devils may also be in a senile state, forgetting the curses they’ve cast indiscriminately and how to break them, wandering aimlessly around town. Sophie, being a solid and loving individual, might need to break the curse placed on her, but she decides not to defeat the Witch of the Waste, who has become such a helpless nuisance, but to help her instead. That touched me the most. Actually, that’s the way it is. She sets out for the moving castle where, say, Osama Bin Laden lives, but along the way, she helps a scarecrow lying on the side of the road. This seemingly unreliable scarecrow follows Sophie devotedly and ultimately sacrifices himself to protect Sophie and her companion, the fire demon Calcifer.
This climax is genuinely magnificent. Howl’s Moving Castle, which Sophie barged into and self-appointed herself as the cleaning lady, looks like an invincible fortress at first, but it appears to have a surprising weak point and begins to crumble at a touch. Howl, the owner of the castle who can use magic, is away fighting to protect his country from an attack from a neighboring country. The castle, falling apart and breaking down as it slips down the towering mountains, is finally braked by the scarecrow, who seems to be shaving off his own legs.
When Sophie hugs the scarecrow and gives it a thankful kiss, it transforms into a handsome young man. In truth, he was the prince of a neighboring country, cursed to be a scarecrow. It’s a classic trope in magical fantasy that a kiss from a loved one breaks a spell, but I was surprised by this, as I hadn’t thought the scarecrow was such an important character. Indeed, those who appear in seemingly insignificant roles might hold the key to war or peace. This prince, one of the people who risked his life to save the group, is jokingly told by the Witch of the Waste, “Go back to your country and stop the war,” to which he replies, “I shall do just that,” and flies off into the sky. The war might end immediately because of this. Science and technology can easily lose control and change for better or worse. It’s probably only steady, warm-hearted individuals like Sophie who can find a way to break what is considered an uncontrollable curse. Let’s hope for that.
Tadao Satou was born in Niigata City in 1930. He started publishing film reviews in “Film Review” and “Kinema Junpo” in 1950 and has since released numerous works in fields such as film, theater, and literature. His main works include “Fifty Years of My Film Reviews” by Heibonsha, “Pride and Prejudice – My Moral Learning Notes” by Poplar Company, “Hasegawa Shin Theory – What is Duty and Human Emotion?” by Iwanami Modern Paperback, “Japanese Film History” by Iwanami Shoten, and “Tokyo in Movies” by Heibonsha, among others. He is currently the president of Japan Film University.