Film & TV Web Exclusives Film Reviews Muse

Retro Review: Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)

Sophia Andrews Gamarra reviews the early-2000s Studio Ghibli classic, whose whimsical fantasy is tempered with strong anti-war themes.

Article Thumbnail

Image Credit: Optimum Releasing

Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Starring: Chieko Baisho
Length: 1h 59m
Rating: U

In the film, we follow Sophie, a shy milliner transformed into an old woman by a witch, who finds work as a cleaner in the ‘moving castle’ of Howl, a handsome wizard, in hope of reverting the curse. It was adapted from the Dianne Wynne Jones 1986 fantasy novel and alludes to its British source material through the characters’ names and the setting, although the latter is visually eclectic, brightly coloured, and more of an amalgamation of various European schools of architecture. One particular benefit of seeing this film on the big screen is that it showcases beautiful landscapes, originally hand-drawn and painted. Although there are depictions of grand palaces and streets, the most visually stunning scene comes when Howl shows Sophie his childhood home, surrounding by greenery and rolling hills. This exemplifies the film’s charm; instead of the fantastical and otherworldly, Howl’s Moving Castle gives praise to the small, often overlooked beauties in life.

The film follows in the tradition of Studio Ghibli whimsy, where various strange creatures appear at random moments, with little explanation. The plot meanders like a dream, in how at times it doesn’t seem to follow, but there is always a sense of something more to be discovered. For some, this seems too random and incoherent, but in a world of popular films setting up their own future sequels and prequels through lengthy scenes devoted to heavy-handed exposition, a film that allows its secrets to come to light gradually is particularly refreshing.

Howl’s Moving Castle also differentiates itself from standard children’s films (arguably a genre to which it doesn’t belong) in that its characters are permeated with a moral greyness; some are antagonistic, but they are not necessarily ‘bad guys’. The Witch of the Waste does not seek to destroy the world; she only curses Sophie out of cruel pettiness and after she loses her powers, she becomes a harmless old woman whom Sophie takes care of. Sophie herself is not a protagonist with amazing powers or renowned for stunning beauty (she spends most of the film as an old woman), but she is simply a kind and generous person. Furthermore, the film has loud, visually stimulating sequences, such as Howl’s attack on the warring armies (against the backdrop of a bombed city), but it also has quietly humourous moments, such as when the aged Sophie and the Witch struggle up a long flight of stairs, or when Howl has a tantrum over his badly dyed hair. It does not pander to its audience through relying solely on visual spectacle, as it balances it with unexpectedly humorous and ‘ordinary’ moments.

Despite the otherworldliness of Howl’s Moving Castle, the director Hayao Miyazaki’s stance on war is clear. The film is set during a war that echoes the two World Wars; we see it from Sophie’s perspective as an ordinary citizen, watching ships being waved off by cheering crowds who then experience a hailstorm of bombs. We learn very little about how it started and who is fighting who, highlighting the disconnect between the powers controlling the war, and the masses who endure its devastating effects. When the film was released, Miyazaki was clear about the links to his opposition to the Iraq war, and the evocation of this creates a jarring parallel with reality. Howl’s Moving Castle utilises a universal narrative concerning love and kindness to treat a complex issue of contemporary politics (and the baggage of its historical context) with a withering simplicity. The film concludes with the King’s advisor Madam Suliman, after failing to capture Howl, nonchalantly accepting her defeat and resolving to end the war; Miyazaki emphasises its futility by demonstrating how those in power can end it with a snap of their fingers.

I would recommend Howl’s Moving Castle as a particularly good film, even within the collection of Studio Ghibli classics, for how it manages to confront its contemporary politics while transcending them in the universality of its central themes. It is an adaptation that makes the source material entirely its own, and a film that truly is ‘for all ages’, a common claim of most children’s films that is not often lived up to.

Editor's note: This film was screened at City Screen York as part of their Vintage Sundays strand.

Latest in Film & TV