What is True Beauty?


When I watched “Howl’s Moving Castle” in a movie theater, I was first struck by the beauty of the color of the sky. The freshness of the clear blue, even the color of the puffy clouds looked sweet and delicious. I have never seen such a blue sky in other animations or in the real sky. I wondered if it might be similar to the scenery of the flower field with the River Styx, which you supposedly see when you have a near-death experience. It’s like heaven, and from there comes the “moving castle” with an impossible form, descending in a tumultuous manner. It’s irresistibly humorous. The words “going beyond imagination” apply because it is too far removed from reality.

My favorite scene is when Sophie time-travels to Howl’s childhood through the broken door after the castle collapses when Calcifer is doused with water. Young Howl swallows a shooting star and pulls out the heart of fire that becomes Calcifer from his own body. It’s a contract of life using magic. The meteor moving across the lake like a skipping stone is beautiful, but young Howl is attempting something very dangerous. What drove him to such an extent? Because he said he lived alone in his childhood, I wonder if such loneliness nurtured ambition and turned his heart to the pursuit of magical power. The power of the shooting star, which steals the hearts of its targets and eventually transforms them into monstrous forms, is frightening. But in this scene, it makes you feel a sacred power. Swallowing the light, Howl purifies his soul and brings it out of his body. The soul, rather than being protected within the body forever, struggles and trains in the outside world, is purified, and finally returns to Howl. 


I remember Director Hayao Miyazaki mentioned in a documentary program during the release of this film that he chose actor Takuya Kimura because “Howl is cool, so I asked someone equally cool like Takuya Kimura.” I remember being impressed by this statement. When I heard it, I thought, “That’s quite a simple reason.” However, when I actually watched the film, I could completely understand the director’s words. The act of giving voice to Howl, who appeared so gallantly in his first scene, accentuated his vanity in a way that only someone with truly beautiful features could achieve. 


In this film, Takuya Kimura thoroughly erased his own image and portrayed Howl. Despite having such fame and a well-established image, he didn’t make himself noticeable; instead, only “Howl’s voice” was present in the film. The image of a “voice that exudes a natural and cool aura, hiding a hint of naivety and intensity deep within” suited Howl perfectly. When Howl murmurs “If I weren’t beautiful, there would be no point in living”, Sophie screams back “I’ve never been beautiful”. This exchange clearly shows the difference in values regarding beauty between the two. Surprisingly, the aesthetic values do not depend so much on the person’s beauty or ugliness. Howl is too arrogant, and Sophie belittles herself too much. This gap drives the story energetically.

Sophie is suddenly transformed from a girl to a ninety-year-old woman by the magic of the Witch of the Waste. However, she recovers surprisingly quickly from this shock. While saying that she is tired from climbing stairs with her decrepit body, she actually feels relieved to have become an old woman. She might think that being an old woman suits her strangely mature character and appearance, but the deeper part of her psyche is actually involved.

Originally, Sophie lacks confidence in her plain self. She makes glamorous hats full of decorations as a milliner, but she herself wears a worn-out hat with almost no decorations. Being overshadowed by her beautiful sister and mother, she lives her life without complaining while making her presence feel thinner. She might feel happier becoming an old woman, cooking and cleaning for Howl and Markl. Being relied upon increases her sense of presence, and she might find it relaxing.


A part that makes me feel sorrowful about Sophie is her apparent need to go beyond the role of a “mother” and become a “grandmother” to find comfort. The household chores she performs for Howl and Markl are the role of a “mother”. If she dislikes being seen as a romantic partner, she could have just transformed into a middle-aged woman, a “mother’s generation”, when the spell started to break. But perhaps, in Sophie’s mind, she has the image of her active mother who neglects her children, and she cannot feel at ease unless she becomes a “grandmother”. She can’t feel affection from her mother, who deceives Sophie with lies for self-preservation. A timid subconscious that feels pain unless she is completely withered like a grandmother is subtly visible.

Sophie’s spell softens depending on her mood, and she often reverts to her girl form when she is unconscious, asleep, or her feelings are excited by her love for Howl. But the moment Howl tells her she’s beautiful, she suddenly turns back into an old woman. “The good thing about getting older is that you have less to lose,” she says dazzlingly. While it’s unnatural to obsess over youth, it’s also unnatural to obsess over aging, which makes the viewer question. Therefore, when Sophie struggles in her young form for the sake of Howl and her newly formed family, it seems most fitting for her to be herself, and one can’t help but cheer for her to have confidence.

In contrast to Sophie, the ones burning with an extraordinary obsession for youth and beauty are the Witch of the Waste and Howl. The Witch of the Waste is a person with a strong desire to obtain beautiful things rather than wanting to remain beautiful herself. She, who loves young hearts, could be seen in the real world as someone who, bluntly put, remains sexually vigorous despite aging. Even when her youthful magic is forcibly broken by Suliman, transforming her into an old woman that seems a bit cunning, she is still infatuated with Calcifer and remains obsessed with Howl’s heart.

When the Witch of the Waste finally returns Howl’s heart that she had desperately wanted, due to Sophie’s plea, I was more moved than when Howl revived or when the war ended. Even though she stole it, she returns the heart to Sophie from a somewhat superior stance, saying “Take care of it.” I was as happy as Sophie, who thanks the “old lady”. It made me like the Witch of the Waste even more, realizing that people can grow even in their later years, if they desire.

Howl is the type of person who wants to remain beautiful. It’s somewhat pitiful that he never lets his dignified smile fade, always maintaining his external appearance and being unable to easily reveal his true self. He appears like a prince and helps Sophie, but in reality, he just involved her in his own affairs. Furthermore, Sophie was completely dragged into it despite having no connection to it whatsoever and was ultimately turned into a old woman. Even when summoned by the king, he sent Sophie in his place because he didn’t want to go himself. Unlike the ideal prince, he has quite a weak side to him.


But, watching his relentless pursuit and efforts for beauty, I think, “His passion to sincerely continue pursuing external beauty is also an inner beauty.” The intensity of his temperament that does not accept war, and the fact that he has the fiery power that moves Calcifer’s castle, reveals that Howl, the owner of Calcifer’s heart, is also a passionate man despite his cool appearance. He not only has high ideals for his own beauty but also high ideals for a society without war. He jumps into the battlefield, destroying planes loaded with bombs. It’s not wrong, but it’s mistaken. That’s because, in the end, it’s the same as participating in the war.

The war ends, and he finally returns to his family where he can relax and discard his armor. But the memories and scars of battle don’t simply disappear the moment he opens the door to his home, they linger. The darkness accumulates while not being fully healed, and eventually changes his personality, rendering him unable to return from his war mode. Of course, Sophie was able to realize that Howl needed to quit before this happened, probably because she loved him, but also because she had the “mother’s eyes” that noticed the state of others without being too engrossed in herself.


While Howl relentlessly pursues the beauty of his own physical appearance, Sophie, when she wants to be beautiful, starts with cleaning. She seeks the beauty of life by arranging her environment. What was interesting is that even though Howl created a beautiful house with magic, taking into consideration Sophie’s preferences, she didn’t become overly attached to it. On the contrary, when she saw Howl working hard to support and protect his family, she even went as far as saying, “Howl is more like himself when he’s pathetic,” in an attempt to diminish his enthusiasm for battle. She left the beautiful house to show him that she didn’t desire a state where only the appearance or form of a family or a home was beautiful. Sophie realized that true happiness lies in a state where the entire family lives and cooperates together, even if they are worn out and running away.


Both Howl and Sophie had biases in their values of beauty, but if the two of them were together, they could compensate for each other’s deficiencies and live happily while maintaining their individualities. The reason both of them wanted their own families might be because they woke up to the joy of compensating each other. Seeing their smiling faces at the end, one feels that the real beauty lies in peace, where creatures with flaws gather and create friendships.

About the Author: Wataya Risa was born in 1984 in Kyoto Prefecture. She graduated from Waseda University’s School of Education. She made her debut by winning the 38th Bungei Prize in 2001 with “Install.” In 2004, she won the 130th Akutagawa Prize for “I Want to Kick You in the Back.” In 2007, she won the 6th Kenzaburo Oe Prize for “I Feel Sorry for You.” Other works include “Giving Dreams,” “Tremble All You Want,” “Hot as Ginger,” “Open It,” “Indignant Death,” “Earth’s Game,” and “Walking Closet.”

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