The fantasy genre has a special effect on audiences; many of the most popular book series, as well as their critically acclaimed film adaptations – such as “Lord of the Rings” and “Harry Potter” – belong to the genre. There is something special about becoming lost in a fantastical world with magic and otherworldly creatures. Hayao Miyazaki’s “Howl’s Moving Castle,” originally released in 2004, is no different, and it remains one of Miyazaki’s best films, with a compelling story, a well-developed fantasy world, and excellent visuals to boot.
Based on Diana Wynne Jones’s 1985 novel of the same name, “Howl’s Moving Castle” follows a milliner named Sophie Hatter, who has been turned into an old woman by the Witch of the Waste. As she searches for a cure, she stumbles upon a moving castle belonging to a wizard named Howl, where she goes to seek shelter. While inside the castle, she meets a fire demon named Calcifer, who negotiates a deal with her: if she can break him and Howl from the contract that they’re in, then he will lift the curse that has been placed on her.
Many of Miyazaki’s films have political undertones, such as environmentalism in “Princess Mononoke” and “Nausicäa and the Valley of the Wind.” In “Howl’s Moving Castle,” anti-war sentiments are weaved into the storyline, which came in part from Miyazaki’s opposition to the Iraq war. Throughout the film, it’s established that Sophie’s kingdom of Ingary is at war with another kingdom, who believes that Ingary is involved with the disappearance of their prince. In the beginning, the war is only mentioned in passing, and the actual fighting is hardly shown at all, making it quite easy to forget. As the film progresses, however, the violence intensifies, culminating in Sophie’s kingdom being bombed during the climax of the film. Miyazaki’s portrayal of war is incredibly honest, and he makes no effort to try and hide the horrors that innocent civilians face during wartime.
In addition, the heart of Miyazaki films always lies in their characters, and “Howl’s Moving Castle” is no exception. The film has incredibly well-developed and multi-dimensional characters. Sophie is an excellent protagonist; she’s kind, but strong-willed, and her headstrong, witty disposition is wonderful to watch as she bonds with the inhabitants of Howl’s castle. The titular Howl is a quirky, eccentric character, whose lighthearted demeanor is used to mask his true, cowardly self. It’s a joy to see Howl become more vulnerable throughout the film, as he comes to accept his love for Sophie and grow as a person thanks to her influence. Other notable characters include Markl, a young boy who lives in the castle as Howl’s apprentice, the Witch of the Waste, who is initially an antagonist but quickly joins Howl in his castle once her power is taken from her, and Madame Suliman, a highly-skilled mage and the primary antagonist of the film.
On a visual level, Miyazaki’s distinct animation style particularly shines in “Howl’s Moving Castle.” His soft animation style perfectly suits the fantastical world of Ingary, and many of the film’s environmental and nature-focused shots have become iconic moments for fans. The music, composed by Joe Hisaishi, is another memorable part of the film. The melody of the opening theme, “Merry-Go-Round of Life,” plays as a recurring motif throughout the film, and it’s fascinating to see how it appears in a more tense scene versus a more tranquil scene. The ending theme, “The Promise of the World,” is a beautiful reflection on love and life, and ties into the film’s themes of accepting old age and change. A personal favorite track of mine from the soundtrack is “A Walk in the Skies,” which plays during the iconic scene where Howl and Sophie walk through the air.
If you have not seen “Howl’s Moving Castle,” I highly recommend that you do, as its powerful themes and story remains timeless, and its anti-war sentiments are particularly relevant in today’s socio-political climate.