The Beginner’s Guide to Anime, No. 138 – Howl’s Moving Castle

Howl's Moving Castle 1

Once again we look at another Studio Ghibli film to be shown on Film4 over the festive period. This is actually one of the most famous Ghibli films, directed by Hayao Miyazaki and nominated for an Oscar.

Howl’s Moving Castle, released in 2004, is a loose adaptation of the Welsh fantasy novel of the same name by Diana Wynne Jones. Originally the film was not going to be directed by Miyazaki, as he had announced one of his many retirements around this point, but the original director Mamoru Hosoda had left the project suddenly, so Miyazaki was brought into complete it.

The film begins with a young hat-maker named Sophie, who lives in a country which is currently at war. Walking around town one day she encounters the wizard Howl, a man who is rumoured to steal the hearts of girls. When Sophie returns home she encounters an enemy of Howl, the Witch of the Waste, who places a curse on Sophie that she cannot mention to anyone else: Sophie is magically transformed into an old woman.

Looking for a cure Sophie leaves home and enters “The Wastes” to find a cure. While on her trip she encounters a magical scarecrow she names Turnip Head who guides Sophie to a place where she can find a cure: Howl’s castle, which is a gigantic machine on legs that roams around the country side. She enters and encounters the other occupants such as Calcifer, a fire demon forced to provide the heat and fuel for the castle; and Markl, a boy who works as Howl’s apprentice.

Sophie learns that the castle’s front door can magically connect to other buildings and discovers that Howl works as a wizard under numerous aliases for both countries who are currently at war. However, Howl is not interested in fighting. When Howl learns of Sophie’s arrival, Sophie claims that Calcifer has hired her as a cleaner, so she lives in the castle. As the story progresses, Howl plans to use Sophie to help him escape from the fate of having to serve in the war, while Sophie herself keeps trying to find a cure for her curse.

Perhaps the most notable aspect of Howl’s Moving Castle is the artwork. The image of the moving castle itself is perhaps one of the most famous images in all of anime, alongside the Totoro from My Neighbour Totoro (No. 39) and images from the Oscar-winning Spirted Away (No. 42). Spirited Away itself also has in important part to play in this film, because Howl’s Moving Castle was the next film Miyazaki directed after his Oscar-winning success. As stated, Howl’s Moving Castle was also nominated for the award, but it lost to Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit. Also, Howl’s Moving Castle had an impressive English dub cast, featuring performances from Jean Simmons as Sophie, Billy Crystal as Calcifer, Lauren Bacall as the Witch of the Waste, and Christian Bale as Howl.

It should also be pointed out for those who have only read the original novel by Diana Wynne Jones that Howl’s Moving Castle is not a faithful adaptation of the book. While the novel is set in a traditional fantasy kingdom, the film’s setting is more akin to a steampunk world. Also, many of Miyazaki’s recurring themes appear here that don’t appear in the book. The movie was made near the time of the Iraq War, so the pacifist Miyazaki included a war in the film with Howl not wanting to fight in it. No such war appears in the novel.

Howl’s Moving Castle is certainly one of Studio Ghibli’s more impressive works in terms of visual impact. The differences in the plot between it the novel may put some people off, but other than this it is still a great film.

Howl’s Moving Castle is released on DVD and Blu-Ray by Studio Ghibli. It will be televised on Film4 on Christmas Day at 13.20.