Howl’s Moving Castle: Miyazaki’s Missed Opportunity

*Caution: This article contains spoilers for both the novel and film adaptation of Howl’s Moving Castle*

Let’s get one thing straight: I love Howl’s Moving Castle, in its own way. I don’t think it’s a bad movie by any stretch, and in fact, I would argue that Hayao Miyazaki is one of the few film directors who doesn’t have a single bad movie under his belt (and probably the only one who’s directed a considerable number of films, having helmed eleven himself, with a twelfth on the way some time in the future). The only movie to come out of Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli that I would say is an outright bad movie is Tales from Earthsea, which was directed by Hayao’s son, Goro.

Point being, before it sounds like the contrary, I like Howl’s Moving Castle (my review of it stands at a 7/10 on my current grading system), but it is undoubtedly the most flawed of Miyazaki’s eleven features. A point that’s magnified by the fact that it was Miyazaki’s directorial follow-up to Spirited Away, which is a flawless masterpiece in animated storytelling. If you want to delve even deeper, Howl’s Moving Castle was really the only notable dip in quality in Miyazaki’s films. Again, that’s not to say it was a bad movie by any means, but when a movie follows up an unparalleled string of animated classics featuring The Castle of Cagliostro, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, Castle in the Sky, My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki’s Delivery Service, Porco Rosso, Princess Mononoke and, of course, Spirited Away, the shortcomings it does have are going to appear all the more prominent.

This is even more unfortunate because, having recently read the original novel of Howl’s Moving Castle (by Diana Wynne Jones) again, the book almost seems like it was tailor-made to be adapted into a Miyazaki film. It has the same strong character personalities, magical goings-on, whimsy and humor you find in a Studio Ghibli feature, albeit with a notably more British tone (which makes absolute sense, given that Jones was English). But even the British-ness of the novel could have been seen in a Miyazaki movie, considering that Studio Ghibli is one of the few anime studios that is willing to represent people and cultures outside of Japan itself.

While most of Miyazaki’s films are his own creations, Howl’s Moving Castle is in a minority of the director’s films which was based on an existing work (The Castle of Cagliostro was part of the existing Lupin III franchise, and Kiki’s Delivery Service was based on the novel by Eiko Kadono). Some anime fans (namely hipster podcasters) try to claim that Studio Ghibli doesn’t have the best track record when it comes to adapting other people’s work, though as evidenced by the fact that Kiki’s Delivery Service is one of the studio’s most beloved features, and films like The Secret World of Arrietty and other Ghibli adaptations were among the most acclaimed films of their respective years, Ghibli certainly hasn’t had any persistent issues when adapting other people’s works. Even Howl’s Moving Castle has a large fanbase, and Diana Wynne Jones herself loved the movie (we once again go to Tales from Earthsea for the one instance where the original author wasn’t happy with Ghibli’s adaptation).

But Howl’s Moving Castle slipped-up more so than Miyazaki’s other adaptations. While he still very much made Lupin III and Kiki his own with his takes on the material, Howl’s Moving Castle seemed like it needed very few changes to become a Miyazaki feature: It’s main character is a strong young woman named Sophie, who is transformed into an old crone by an evil witch (with the spell also preventing her from telling people about the situation, so she can’t simply ask a wizard like Howl to remove the curse). Howl himself seemed impossibly easy to translate to Japanese audiences, his description in the book fits the anime pretty boy archetype so clearly you’d think the novel were adapted from the movie. He’s a vain, perfume-wearing, effeminate wizard who obsesses over his looks to impress the ladies. The tritagonist is Calcifer, a fire demon who created and powers Howl’s castle, but he and Howl are in a similar situation to Sophie, suffering from a magical plight and being unable to tell anyone about it.

In terms of looks, Howl is the most accurately depicted in the movie, while Calcifer has seen the most change. In the book, Calcifer’s physical description is a little more detailed, being a face made out of blue fire, with green fire for hair and eyebrows, purple fire for a mouth, and small orange flames for eyes. In contrast, the film’s version of Calcifer is simply a traditional orange and red fireball with big eyes and a mouth. I don’t mind this change at all though. The multi-colored flaming appearance described in the book is interesting (and we get something of a glimpse of it in the film in one scene where Calcifer is performing magic), the simpler design of the movie makes for a more iconic character. And it’s always fun when a fantasy story’s most powerful character has such a simple appearance.

Sophie’s appearance (as a young woman) is changed slightly, with her hair being brown in the film, as opposed to red from the book. Again, this change is fine and doesn’t affect anything story-wise. What isn’t so fine, however, is the changes made to Sophie’s character. Miyazaki has always excelled at making strong heroines, which is what makes it so baffling that his depiction of Sophie is Miyazaki’s most uninteresting main character, when her description in the book seemed as though Jones was aware of Miyazaki’s work at the time, and purposefully wrote the character for Miyazaki to adapt.

While Miyazaki’s interpretations of Howl and Calcifer are accurate (Howl being a whiny coward, and Calcifer always grumbling about how a powerful fire demon like himself deserves better), Sophie’s character seems barely touched upon. Granted, in the book she’s transformed into a 90-year old woman in the second chapter, but in the film, we know even less about her before she gets cursed.

In the book, we learn that in the story’s fantasy country of Ingary (which goes unnamed in the movie), Sophie is the eldest of three sisters, but in Ingary the eldest child is “doomed” to a simple life of inheritance, while the younger members of a family are told to seek their own fortune in life. Thus Sophie feels doomed to work at her late father’s hat shop her whole life, without being allowed to break away on her own.

While that’s a major factor of Sophie’s character in the book, the film shortens Sophie’s plight as the eldest child to a passing reference (“It’s what father would have wanted. I’m the eldest, I don’t mind.”). But this ends up affecting Sophie’s story arc. By downplaying Sophie’s position in life, and the fate her culture has seemingly decided for her, it also downplays her growth as a character when she seeks out her own destiny while under her spell (a spell which literally brings to life her fears of growing old in the same place she’s always been).

Also in the film, Sophie only has one younger sister, but the concept of the eldest child being doomed to a life of mediocrity could still work, so that’s alright. A movie has to omit some characters to account for running time, and the sister who was left out of the movie is also the one who didn’t return for the book’s sequel, Castle in the Air (which funnily enough has nothing to do with Miyazaki’s Castle in the Sky), so it’s not a major character omission.

The issue is that the film fails to properly show Sophie’s disappointment with her position in life. She looks sullen, but we never get the full extent of how trapped she feels in the film. So when she does become an old crone and shows some signs of change (“I seem to have become quite cunning in my old age!“), they don’t have the same effect as they do in the book.

With Howl and Calcifer being so beautifully realized, it magnifies how Sophie fails to connect as the driving force in the story. In fact, she rarely ever feels like its driving force in the movie, more like someone who happens to be witnessing its events (a concept which could make for a unique movie of its own, if that were the idea going in).

Compare this to Chihiro, the protagonist from Spirited Away. Within the film’s opening moments – which depicts her family’s drive to their new house – we learn who Chihiro is. We see that she’s a bit spoiled, more than a little apathetic, lazy, clumsy, and looking for reasons to complain. Within the span of a short family drive, we learn who this character is at the start of their journey, which makes the growth Chihiro sees throughout the film feel so profound. Sophie, sadly, doesn’t have that same effect. Whatever growth she has feels considerably less substantial.

Again, I don’t want to sound all doom and gloom in regards to Howl’s Moving Castle. It’s not like Miyazaki’s Sophie is unlikable, but for a filmmaker who’s known for making memorable heroines, Sophie is decidedly bland.

Miyazaki made some additional changes from the book, and while that may not sit well with purists, a movie making changes from its source material in some ways isn’t an inherently bad thing (in fact, Jones herself acknowledged ahead of time that she expected the movie to be different, because books and movies are different mediums).

These changes are mostly for the best in bringing Howl’s Moving Castle to the silver screen, as they trim down some sub-plots that may have worked in the book, but would have probably felt like detours in a two-hour movie. For example, in the book, Howl’s apprentice Michael is a little younger than Sophie (her actual age, not her transformed self), and there’s a sub-plot about him dating one of Sophie’s sisters (of course, with Sophie unable to reveal details that would expose her actual age, Michael is blissfully unaware of the relation). First of all, in the movie, the character has been renamed “Markl.” This was done out of necessity, given how the name Michael would be pronounced in Japanese. But they wisely kept the change for the film’s English version as well, which I very much appreciate, as Markl just sounds more like a wizard’s apprentice than a name as common as Michael.

Anyway, in the movie, Markl is just a young boy, which means the storyline with him and Sophie’s sister is dropped. And frankly, I just think it suits this story better to have a kid accompanying Howl and Calcifer as the third member of the moving castle crew.

A noteworthy-yet-inconsequential change from the book comes in regards to Howl himself. Despite the brunt of the story taking place in a fantasy world in the country of Ingary, the Howl from the book actually comes from the planet Earth. More specifically, he comes from Wales, with one of the four destinations of the magic portal of a door within the moving castle leading to his home in Wales.

In the book, we get to meet Howl’s sister, niece and nephew, and it gives us more insight into Howl’s history. It may seem like a major change for the movie to leave out this detail, but in all honesty, aside from adding a little something to Howl’s character, the concept of Howl hailing from Wales doesn’t really play into the main plot. It’s an interesting bit in the book, but it’s understandable why Miyazaki would leave it out.

Despite these changes, the earlier portions of the movie are actually pretty faithful to the book. The elderly Sophie becoming Howl’s cleaning lady. Calcifer’s meeting with Sophie leading to the two striking a deal to break each other’s curses (Calcifer, being a fire demon, is powerful enough to see through Sophie’s curse without needing explanation). Even the scene where Howl throws a tantrum over his hair color by summoning dark spirits and emitting green slime from his skin, all more or less play out as they did in the book.

Things play faithfully to the book at first, but then, the film version of Howl’s Moving Castle adds an element that ends up changing the second half almost entirely.

In the book, the land of Ingary is on the brink of war with a neighboring kingdom (Strangia, which also goes unnamed in the film), and Ingary’s prince – the king’s younger brother, Justin – has gone missing, which is a double problem because not only is he a missing prince, but he’s also the country’s best general. Additionally in the book, there is another wizard of comparable reputation to Howl named Suliman, though he too, has gone missing.

By the end of the book, we learn that the Witch of the Waste (the full title of the witch who cursed Sophie) is responsible for both missing persons, having magically rearranged their bodies – one’s head on the other’s body – and subsequently transformed both chimeras into other forms (one into a scarecrow, and the other into a dog who can briefly return to human form before turning into a different type of dog. Yeah, the book can get wonderfully weird). There’s also a character who appears briefly in a chapter or two named Mrs. Penstemmon, a royal wizard who trained Howl in magic, who ends up murdered by the Witch of the Waste.

These elements are changed from the book, and ultimately cumulate as the film’s most misguided element.

The war doesn’t take place during the events of the book, instead happening between the book and its sequel. It’s a looming threat, but it only gets a few passing references. In the movie, however, the war becomes the focal point of the whole thing.

In the movie, the war is happening because the prince of a neighboring kingdom has gone missing, and that kingdom blames the unnamed Ingary for the disappearance. In the film, the prince is still revealed as the true identity of the scarecrow (though in the movie, the prince wasn’t transformed by the Witch, and instead simply claims he stumbled upon the curse while traveling).

The change in the prince and his disappearance being the cause of the war aren’t too drastic of changes, but things get more complicated. In the film, the characters of wizard Suliman and Mrs. Penstemmon are merged into one character. This character uses the name of the Suliman, but is an elderly woman, Howl’s former teacher, and wizard to the king, like Mrs. Penstemmon.

Miyazaki’s Suliman becomes the main antagonist of the film. As we find out, she has influenced the king into going into war, as a roundabout way of recruiting Howl back into her services as a soldier under the king. I actually like the film’s Suliman as a character, but her sudden ascension to the role of primary antagonist creates problems of its own.

The Witch of the Waste is the book’s villain. Simple as that. Well, the Witch and her own fire demon (who, unlike Calcifer, has the appearance of a human woman). In the film, Suliman briefly mentions that the Witch had a demon at some point, but that’s the only reference of it. In the film, the Witch falls for a trap laid by Suliman, and is robbed of her magical powers. She becomes an afterthought. And that’s an important change because it reflects the differences between the book and film as a whole.

From that point on, the film seldom resembles the book. Again, that in itself isn’t a bad thing (Who Framed Roger Rabbit, one of my favorite films, is vastly different than the book it’s based on, and is all the better for it). But the change ends up robbing the film of its magic and wonder.

As soon as the film’s version of Suliman is introduced and the Witch’s role in the story is demoted, the film becomes all about the war at hand. Howl reluctantly fights battles at night (despite never officially joining the king’s army), we see towns going up in flames from bombings, and we are repeatedly told over and over again about the horrors of war, and how unnecessary the war in the film is.

Now, any Miyazaki fan knows what the acclaimed director was going for with this change. Miyazaki is a noted pacifist, it was really only a matter a time before he made a movie whose main theme was an anti-war one, and he made no secret of his disdain for the Iraq War (he famously skipped the Oscar ceremony where Spirited Away won for Best Animated Feature out of protest). I certainly can’t blame Miyazaki for incorporating something he feels so strongly about into one of his movies. But there’s a time and place for things, and while the film’s 2004 release may have seemed like the time, Howl’s Moving Castle just wasn’t the place for such an anti-war theme.

It just makes the film feel disjointed. This is a fairy tale that’s supposed to be about a girl being transformed into an old hag, and how she ends up changing a self-centered wizard for the better. But then it pulls a 180 and becomes all about the travesties of war. Again, I don’t fault Miyazaki for making an anti-war movie (in fact I’m inclined to agree with him), but everything that makes Howl’s Moving Castle feel special is dashed by its sudden tonal shift. The film even seems to forget about its original premise, with Sophie inexplicably becoming young again by the end, before she even frees Howl and Calcifer from their contract. The story becomes so engrossed in the war aspect that the main plot fades into the background, before it’s abruptly resolved out of seemingly nowhere.

One of Miyazaki’s previous films, Porco Rosso, was set between both World Wars, and has a much subtler yet far more affective anti-war stance. And Miyazaki’s later film, The Wind Rises, a biopic about Jiro Horikoshi – an actual, real-life designer of warplanes during WWII – isn’t as focused on war as Howl’s Moving Castle, and that film had a much more appropriate opportunity to be. Yet it’s Howl’s Moving Castle, a wondrous fairy tale set in a fantasy world filled with eccentric character likes Calcifer and Howl himself, that Miyazaki saw fit to turn into his most overt ant-war picture. And it just doesn’t mesh.

Now, the book isn’t perfect, either. It’s a wonderful read, filled with unforgettable characters and humor (in fact, the book was my introduction to the idea of comical fantasy in literature outside of parody). But the book does keep too many loose plot threads up until the very last chapter, which resolves so much in such quick succession I wonder if Diana Wynne Jones had reached the eleventh hour of a deadline (it’s not that the events of the final chapter are bad, just that they should have been more spread out, but instead feel rushed. Basically it’s like the final episode of Samurai Jack). And the Witch’s aforementioned plot of making chimeras of people has a motivation that kind of comes out of nowhere, as she wants to use the different pieces of Suliman and the Prince Justin (and plans on topping off her golem with Howl’s head) in order to create what she perceives as a “perfect being” and to appoint him the new king of Ingary, with herself as the queen. Up until the final chapter, the Witch of the Waste seems like a powerful and feared sorceress who doesn’t have any greater agenda, she just uses her power for petty vengeance on people she thinks have wronged her one way or another. So the reveal of the motivation for her plot feels kind of random.

Still, while it may have its flaws, the book at least feels like a concise vision. And Jones excels at explaining the elements of her fantasy world with little exposition, something which Miyazaki usually has down pat as well. But when adapting the book into a film, Miyazaki seemed heavily distracted by the outside world, and it ended up hampering his vision for the film.

Okay, I know I’m sounding incredibly negative here. I repeat that I think Howl’s Moving Castle is an enjoyable movie: it’s fun and imaginative, filled with stunning visuals and a fantastic musical score (courtesy, of course, by Joe Hisaishi, whose work alongside Miyazaki probably makes them the only director/composer duo more wonderful than Spielberg and John Williams). For those who love imaginative worlds, stories and characters, Howl’s Moving Castle provides a unique experience. The problem is that its imagination may be wondrous, but its execution is only adequate, whereas most of Miyazaki’s films tell stories that are as excellent as their ideations. Howl’s Moving Castle could have lived up to Miyazaki’s unrivaled resume of animated classics, had Miyazaki set his thoughts on war to the side and saved them for another day, and instead focused on Sophie and her story.

Now, it’s also no secret that Studio Ghibli’s adaptation of Howl’s Moving Castle was originally going to be director Mamoru Hosada’s debut outing for the studio, before he dropped out and Miyazaki stepped out of retirement (again) to take the reigns. Some might argue about the “what if?” scenario had Hosoda directed the film instead. While Hosoda is one of the better anime directors of today, I don’t think he would have done a better job with Howl’s Moving Castle. I’ve enjoyed Hosada’s films, but his movies have a more – for lack of a better word – “anime feel” about them, which I don’t think would have meshed with Howl’s Moving Castle, whereas Miyazaki’s films have a more ethereal fantasy aspect about them, which feels more in tune with literary fantasy like Howl’s Moving Castle (or even the works of Tolkien, of which Miyazaki is a big fan), and less like an “anime movie.”

But that’s why the shortcomings of Howl’s Moving Castle speak so loudly. Reading the novel again, the story of Howl’s Moving Castle may as well have been gift wrapped, topped with a bow, and hand delivered to Miyazaki. It just made so much sense. So for it to be Miyazaki’s weakest film by a wide margin is kind of disheartening.

I love Howl’s Moving Castle, in its own way. But it’s the one Miyazaki feature that, when reflected upon, I can’t help but imagine what could have been had he approached it with the same imaginative purity that made Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke such treasures. Oh, what if?

Howl’s Moving Castle Review

Howl's Moving Castle

It’s a true testament to Hayao Miyazaki’s mastery of animated cinema that his 2004 film, Howl’s Moving Castle, is probably his weakest effort, and yet still stands head and shoulders over many other animated films. Though it loses its focus and the story can be flimsy at points, Howl’s Moving Castle is still a highly imaginative and beautifully animated treat.

Howl’s Moving Castle, loosely based on the novel by Diana Wynne Jones, had something of an interesting production. Originally set to be director Mamoru Hosoda’s debut film for Studio Ghibli, Hosoda dropped out of the project early on. Ghibli’s most iconic director, Hayao Miyazaki, decided to take up the reigns of the film and continue his filmmaking career, after having previously retired upon completion of Spirited Away.

It’s perhaps because of the rougher production, and the fact that it followed such an opus as Spirited Away, that Howl’s Moving Castle falls considerably short when compared to some of Miyazaki’s other works. But it still showcases the legendary director’s unique filmmaking and storytelling abilities.

Howl’s Moving Castle takes place in a fantasy world of wizards and magic. A young woman named Sophie lives a simple life running the hat shop her late father left behind. But Sophie’s life changes forever upon a chance meeting with the wizard Howl. A rival of Howl’s, the blobby Witch of the Waste, harbors unrequited feelings for the young wizard, and grows jealous of Sophie. Thus the Witch of the Waste casts a spell on Sophie, aging her into a 90-year old woman and unable to tell anyone of her curse.

Howl's Moving CastleThe now-elderly Sophie travels to the Wastes to search for her younger sister (who is more understanding and level-headed than anyone else in Sophie’s life), but along the way, she encounters an enchanted, turnip-headed scarecrow, who leads her to Howl’s castle, a colossal machine made up of houses and scrap metal that walks on four metallic talons, and is a character in its own right.

The castle is not only home to Howl, but also to his apprentice, a young boy named Markl and, most importantly, a powerful fire demon called Calcifer, who powers the castle’s movement and can see through Sophie’s curse. Calcifer is under a curse of his own alongside Howl, and makes a bargain with Sophie that if she can find a way to break his curse, he’ll break hers in return.

Howl's Moving CastleThe setup is, for the most part, excellently done. The big drawback of the opening being that we probably don’t get a lot of time to know Sophie enough as a character before her transformation, but the rest of the story builds up nicely. However, later parts of the film begin to lose the story’s original focus, and the film seems to be at odds with the story of the original novel, and the story Miyazaki wants to tell (this perhaps could be the reason Miyazaki usually creates his own stories, instead of adapting others).

First and foremost, a sub-plot in the film involves a war that breaks out between the kingdom where the film takes place (known as “Ingari” in the novel) and a neighboring kingdom. If a war already sounds misplaced in an adventurous family film about a girl being turned into a hag, you’re right. The worst part is what starts as a sub-plot eventually takes over the film, and Sophie’s deal with Calcifer is largely forgotten in the middle of it.

Miyazaki has been outspoken about his pacifistic ways, so if he wanted to make an anti-war movie, then more power to him. The problem is that this wasn’t the film to do it with. Even his later film, The Wind Rises, which focuses on a historical figure in the times just before WWII, doesn’t deal with the subject as much. What starts off as a fantastic and whimsical journey of growth in Howl’s Moving Castle ends up feeling confused amid the devastation of war.

Howl's Moving CastleThe film’s other notable flaw is, sadly, Sophie herself. Hayao Miyazaki is famous for creating strong and memorable female characters, yet Sophie is something of the exception to that rule. Though her elderly self shows some strengths in small doses, she as a character ultimately feels like a mere moving piece in the story, as opposed to its driving force. Miyazaki was clearly more fascinated with Howl and Calcifer’s characters, and while they end up being memorable, Sophie, the supposed main character, doesn’t leave much of an impression.

This is in stark contrast to most of Miyazaki’s heroines. While Kiki of Kiki’s Delivery Service, Chihiro of Spirited Away and their kin carried their stories, Sophie just seems to be plodding along in the narrative.

Howl's Moving CastleWith that said, I don’t mean to sound too negative towards the film. Aside from Sophie, the characters are a fun parade of personalities: Howl is humorously effeminate and conceded, Calcifer is bitter about being reduced to performing chores for Howl, and even the despicable Witch of the Waste, with her blob-like neck and unfounded arrogance, leaves an impression.

The film also boasts some of the most exquisite animation of any Ghibli film and, by extension, any animated film. The character designs stand out with originality, their movements are fluid and complex, the backgrounds are richly detailed, and the film creates many memorable moments that could only be created through animation (one scene in which Howl transforms the inner rooms of the castle is a wonder to behold).

Howl's Moving CastleThe titular castle itself is one of animation’s great places. Its outward appearance makes it equal parts character and location, and its inner workings – with portals that lead to different parts of the kingdom – are pure imaginative delights. Calcifer perhaps catches the eye the most, being a perfect combination of the simple (he’s a fireball with eyes and a mouth) and the complex (he’s animated as believably as sentient fire ever could be).

Howl’s Moving Castle can also claim to have one of the most memorable soundtracks in the Ghibli library, with composer Joe Hisaishi pulling out all the stops with a score that echoes European influences and captures the magic of the film’s images.

It should also be stated that Howl’s Moving Castle is a great film to watch in either its native Japanese language track or its English dub. Like many of the Studio Ghibli films, Howl’s Moving Castle’s English-language version was provided by Disney. In this case, it was directed by Pixar’s Pete Docter (the filmmaker behind Monsters, Inc., Up and Inside Out), and includes voices from Emily Mortimer and the late Jean Simmons as young and old Sophie, respectively. Lauren Bacall provided the sinister vocals for the Witch of the Waste, and Christian Bale – who was cast largely due to his love of Miyazaki’s films – provides both mystique and lightheartedness to Howl’s voice. Once again, however, Calcifer probably steals the show with the voice of Billy Crystal, whose performance here rivals that of his Mike Wazowski from the Monsters, Inc series.

On the whole, Howl’s Moving Castle is a delight, with staggering imagination and enough heart and humor to live up to its gorgeous visuals. Its main character is sadly underdeveloped, and its storytelling can’t match Miyazaki’s other works, so for those accustomed to the director’s films it may feel a bit flat by comparison. But by its own merits, it is still a fun and unique cinematic experience that provides good entertainment and depth all these years later.

It may not be up to par with Miyazaki’s other films, but being a “minor work” amid such giants is hardly anything to be ashamed of.

 

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