Howl's Moving Castle - an Analysis
- From: "Dave G" <davegullik@xxxxxxx>
- Date: 24 Aug 2005 11:12:21 -0700
Over the course of the last few months, I've read review after review
by critics and fans who watched Howl's Moving Castle and never "got
it". I've only read a few people's postings in anime newsgroups
where it was evident that the writer really saw the point of the movie.
Some fell into the trap of expecting it to be like the book. Others
wanted to understand the entire movie at one sitting. This movie is
easily Miyazaki's most subtle and complex, and I finally felt the
need to put into print an in-depth analysis that would put to rest a
lot of the misconceptions that the critics had about its plot.
This analysis goes into quite some depth and contains major SPOILERS.
It will only make sense if you have watched it at least once. My advice
is to read it only if you are completely baffled as to what is going on
in the movie, or you want to compare it to your own interpretation.
Like many true works of art, Howl's Moving Castle works on many
levels. By no means do I claim to understand everything about the
movie, so I offer this explanation as a starting point only.
Probably the most interesting place to begin is at a specific scene in
the middle of the movie. Sophie and Markl are taking a rare shopping
trip for food outside the castle. A war fleet has just pulled into the
harbor and the town's populace swarms to the shore to see it.
Sophie and Markl follow the crowd, but Sophie is cautious. Suddenly she
sees one of the Witch of the Waste's black minions and tries to make
herself inconspicuous. Then she observes that the creature is walking
around in plain sight but no one is noticing it. She says to herself
that must mean that it can't be seen by ordinary people.
I'm embarrassed to say that this flew right over my head the first
time I watched it, because Sophie never put it together that if SHE
could see it, then she must have magic powers herself! Not only that,
but in some ways she is the most powerful of all the magical beings in
the film. It is almost a paradox that, because she spends so much time
preoccupied with herself, she never realizes that she is causing her
These is of fundamental importance in the film. It shifts the emphasis
from Sophie being a victim pulled along by circumstances to her being a
This explains a great deal, but there is another scene that must be
re-interpreted in order to understand how her magic fits in to the
plot, and it happens fairly early in the movie.
Sophie and Howl have just finished making their first meal (over
Calcifer's objections) and they and Markl are in the process of
eating, when Howl asks Sophie what she has in her pocket. Sophie
doesn't know that the Witch of the Waste has given her a message to
deliver; a curse on Howl for jilting her years ago.
Howl easily nullifies the curse, but when Markl asks if it's gone,
Howl responds that it still remains, as there is a strong and ancient
magic he cannot overcome. Obviously, we all think that he's talking
about the curse he just erased. But, in fact, he's talking about
SOPHIE'S magic. He has broken the Witch's curse on Sophie, but
Sophie is now using her own, stronger, magic to keep herself old!
OK, so WHY would Sophie make HERSELF old? Because she LIKES being old!
There are many reasons for this:
1) Sophie has always FELT old. She dresses old and comments when
she's first transformed into an old woman that at least her clothes
finally suit her. She does this in spite of working in the fashion
industry, making hats, surrounded by people wearing gorgeous clothes.
This emphasizes how low her self-esteem is as a young woman.
2) Sophie makes it plain to her sister that she feels ugly, that no man
will ever love her, and that the best she can ever hope for is to live
out her life in the obscurity of the hat shop. So what is the advantage
to being young?
3) Sophie went through a frightening experience being accosted by the
soldiers. As an old woman, suddenly she has camouflage. She will be
treated kindly instead of being leered at.
4) This leads to the realization that, as an old woman, she has
suddenly gained respect! Old women are wise, can get away with much a
younger person can't, and can get willing assistance from others.
Besides, now she can pursue activities more suited to an older person,
admiring the scenery and taking her time.
5) Sophie concludes that, in effect, she has changed into a new and
better person. She is so attracted by this role that she realizes that
she must leave the hat shop in order to become in fact the person that
she looks like ("I can't stay here" she mutters to herself). If
she were to stay, her mother and sisters would pity her, or look down
on her as a burden, as the poor unfortunate young girl trapped in an
old body. This also offers an escape from the depressing responsibility
of running the hat shop for the rest of her life.
Now we can see motives behind her actions. She isn't really upset
about becoming old, because it's an escape from her miserable former
life, and a secure place to hide from her feelings and
Her leaving home now makes much more sense. She's not trying to find
a cure, she's escaping her old life, everyone she's known and
everyone who knows her.
So when Howl breaks the curse, Sophie is unaffected, her own magic
keeping her comfortably old. But she isn't perfect. She reverts back
when she falls asleep, and, when it suits her, she can become younger
enough to do a strenuous job (many times you see her walking much more
upright and with fewer wrinkles). Now you can see why the Witch of the
Waste was surprised that Sophie was able to climb the stairs, as she
made herself just young enough to manage it. She also can become
younger inadvertently when she stops feeling sorry for herself and
becomes concerned for another, or when she is feeling especially secure
in another's company.
Interestingly, Sophie never catches on to this. She is so preoccupied
with self-preservation that this all happens without her conscious
Several people have interpreted Sophie's transformation back to her
younger self as the product of love overcoming the Witch's curse. In
fact, it is love that must persuade Sophie to STOP using her magic to
I haven't seen this explanation on ANY critic's review of the
movie. It dramatically affects the way you interpret Howl's behavior.
He falls in love with her early in the film, after seeing her in her
natural state while asleep, and admiring her spirit when she is awake.
You can see several places where Howl makes an effort to help her come
out of her "old" cocoon. The scene that reveals this the most is in
the garden that Howl brings her to. Although she's delighted with the
whole thing, and Howl thinks he's made good progress, he gives a
grimace of disappointment when she reverts back to her secure old self,
once again avoiding intimacy.
I thought it was interesting that when she finally turns back to her
younger self at the end of the movie, she keeps her gray hair. Although
this could be interpreted many ways, my personal favorite is that
Sophie does this to show that she has incorporated the peace, wisdom,
and security of her older self permanently into her new life.
Most reviewers don't comment much on Calcifer, but what he is and how
he got there is also important.
We see in a rather confused flashback what Sophie experiences when she
observes Howl as a young man. It takes some puzzling to realize what is
happening here. Calcifer is a shooting star. We can see the stars
falling and fading away as they die once they have landed. But Howl
catches Calcifer and swallows him, and Calcifer remains alive because
Howl has given him his own heart.
This is a trap for both of them, and neither of them know how to get
out of it. Calcifer is forced to do Howl's bidding as a servant for
the rest of his days, but Howl's fate is that he must safeguard
Calcifer or he will die himself. Essentially, they are the same being,
a fact that Suliman tried to show Sophie in the palace.
When Howl needs his heart back from Calcifer, it is Sophie's job to
do it. Calcifer knows that she loves them and will do whatever she can
to keep both of them alive. Since she has no conscious control of her
magic, it's pretty iffy. But she's able to accomplish what Howl was
not: to keep Calcifer alive by magic only, without the aid of a human
heart. This is another clue that Sophie's magic is stronger than
An aspect to consider is that Howl might not be able to mature or
really love without his heart back. Certainly the book implies that. In
the movie, though, Howl is clearly reaching out to Sophie many times
before the end, so perhaps his getting his heart back might be
interpreted as his attaining the ability to commit to a single person
instead of "stealing girls hearts" as he is reputed to do by
But why did the Witch of the Waste give Sophie the heart back? She'd
been pursuing it for years, if not centuries, and professed to hating
Howl every minute.
I think there were several reasons:
1) When it finally came down to it, the Witch was still in love with
Howl, and was finding it hard to do the final deed of killing him.
2) It was obvious that Sophie loved Howl, and killing him would hurt
Sophie terribly. Since Sophie had shown her such kindness when she was
down and out, and the Witch had now come to care for her, this would
have been the ultimate betrayal.
3) The Witch realized that Sophie loved Howl more than she ever did
herself in the past. It made her feel petty and her quest to get
You note that I have not mentioned the war. Adding the war was perhaps
the most fundamental departure Miyazaki made from the book. We should
not be surprised that Miyazaki uses this film, as he has in so many
others, to express his own anti-war attitude, showing how it turns
innocent people into monsters. However, the strong imagery and frequent
wartime activities throughout the movie are a red herring, as it was
never more than a plot device to add tension and to portray Howl in a
heroic light. Both Howl and Sophie must be exposed to danger for the
love they develop for each other to blossom, and the final settlement
of the war comes about only to give the now-happy couple the peace and
security they both crave.
I hope you've enjoyed my analysis and will use it as a guide to watch
Howl's Moving Castle again with new understanding. It is well worth
the effort. I highlighted only what I thought were the more critical
parts of the movie, essential to making sense of it all. There's a
great deal more to discover, and I look forward to numerous more
I hope you'll leave a comment as to whether you found this helpful and
add any additional observations you think might enhance the enjoyment
and understanding of the movie.
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