As part of the BFI’s Studio Ghibli Season, Tori Brazier reviews Howl’s Moving Castle…
Howl’s Moving Castle, originally released in Japan in 2004 and nominated for the Best Animated Feature Academy Award in 2006 after worldwide distribution, is recognised as one of the most successful Japanese films in history. After Studio Ghibli’s huge international triumph with the Academy Award winning Spirited Away in 2001, films from the Japanese animation studio have received significantly greater attention from Western audiences- which seems fitting in the case of Howl’s Moving Castle as it is based on the novel of the same name by English author Diana Wynne Jones. This also serves to make Howl the perfect ‘first’ Studio Ghibli film for the uninitiated as, due to considerable artistic license taken with the story on the part of Studio Ghibli, the film contains all of the studio’s trademark fantastical whimsy- but alongside a more well-rounded and lucid narrative than others in its canon.
The film concerns itself with eighteen-year-old Sophie, a kind but meek milliner, who, after a chance encounter with the mysterious wizard Howl, finds herself cursed by the jealous Witch of the Waste and transformed into a ninety-year-old. Setting off on her own to find a way to break the spell, Sophie comes across a fellow victim of sorcery, and a friend, in ‘Turnip Head’ (a living but mute scarecrow) who takes her to Howl’s (moving) castle deep in the Waste. Here she makes further friends in Markl, Howl’s young apprentice, and Calcifer, a trapped fire demon who powers the very heart of Howl’s magical castle. Sophie and Calcifer agree to try and help each other with breaking their respective curses and Sophie decides to stay as the castle’s new cleaning lady.
A continuing background strand in the film is the brewing of a war between Sophie’s country and its neighbour, fuelled by the disappearance of the other country’s Crown Prince, and Howl’s apparent reluctance to involve himself in the battle as any of his various wizard aliases. He even employs Sophie in his scheme, sending her to the palace of the King as his mother to convince the King’s magic advisor of ‘her son’s’ cowardice. Director and studio co-founder Hayao Miyazaki, a pacifist, has stated that he was profoundly affected by the Iraq War during the production of Howl’s Moving Castle – this section of the film’s plot is separate to Jones’ novel. Sophie later discovers that Howl is indeed deeply involved in the war, transforming himself into a bird-like creature most nights, which gradually drains him of his humanity and powers.
When Sophie encounters the Witch of the Waste at the palace, who has been stripped of her sorcery as a punishment, she is provoked into unintentionally revealing her true feelings for Howl, the strength of which also temporarily reveal Sophie’s true self to the (now harmless) witch. It is then up to Sophie to free both Calcifer and Turnip Head from their curses, Markl from his stroppy master, help the Witch of the Waste redeem herself (because Sophie’s nice like that), save Howl from himself… and maybe avert a full-on war in the process. Hopefully, once done with all of this, Sophie may then receive help herself- although by this time she has developed immense strength of character because her outward change, as New York Times critic A.O. Scott notes, has afforded her “liberation from anxiety, fear and self-consciousness”. In other words, she’s pretty kick-ass.
Howl’s Moving Castle benefits further from regular Ghibli collaborator Joe Hisaishi, providing the film with a fittingly magical score and characteristic “eighties evoking” musical moments for the larger scale battle scenes. Howl can also be enjoyed in either the original Japanese (as at BFI Southbank) or in the dubbed English-language version, which features a treat of a voice cast: Christian Bale (in growly-moody Batman mode), Lauren Bacall, Billy Crystal, Josh Hutcherson, Blythe Danner, Jean Simmons and Emily Mortimer.
Throughout April and May, the BFI on Southbank are screening all the Studio Ghibli films. For more information, click here.