Howl’s Moving Castle (2004) is an adaptation from the book, by Diana Wynne Jones (Odell & Le Blanc, 2009). It is said that the idea of adapting the novel into a film appealed to Miyazaki because of the castle; the castle as Odell and Le Blanc (2009) put it “is clearly a designers dream” (p. 126). A mesh of machinery and many parts of homes the moving castle is a large wandering mess held together by magic. The master of the castle is Howl, a wizard, who according to rumors is loved and feared. According to Odell and Le Blanc (2009) real world events diverted the film from the novel original form. In a 2005 Newsweek interview Miyazaki said that the film was “profoundly affected by the war in Iraq”. In the novel there is no war, Sophie has magic, Sophie’s sisters have a larger role, and Howl has a love interest other than Sophie. Even with Miyazaki’s changes the film remains rooted in fantasy; with a wizard, a witch and curse that changes Sophie’s appearance. In this world magic is accepted as a part of life, and is feared and well as valued. Odell and Le Blanc (2009) call Howl’s delightful and frightening. It is delightful to watch Sophie and Howl walk on air over the town as a parade takes place below. And it is frightening to watch parts of that same city explode and go up in flames when the war reaches them. As the film has darker moments and deals with love, it was not meant for children, but teens and young adults.
In the 1990’s and 2000’s Miyazaki’s career is full of anthropomorphism, zoomorphism, and metamorphosis, though his most recent films have a heavier emphasis on metamorphosis. A main theme in Howl’s Moving Castle is change and metamorphosis (Odell & Le Blanc, 2009) “a regular feature of Miyazaki films”. Metamorphosis in the film is caused by magic. Sophie is turned into an old woman after the Witch of the Waste curses her. The spell or curse is tied to Sophie’s lack of confidence and how she feels about herself (Odell & Le Blanc, 2009). Upon her transformation into an old woman Sophie decides that her cloths (a plain and conservative high collared blue dress) finally suit her. As an old woman Sophie becomes more free and confident, because as Odell and Le Blanc (2009) put it “because she has nothing to lose” (p. 126). Sophie speaks her mind to the King’s witch (Madame Suliman) and the Witch of the Waste, without a second thought. After Howl throws a temper tantrum due to his changing hair color Sophie first tries to be positive, that does not help, so she berates him, still nothing, and in the end she helps him, again. While working in the castle and growing closer to Howl, Sophie learns to put aside her appearance to get things done and help the people she cares about. As Sophie learns to put age and beauty aside and accept herself for who she is her appearance changes back to the young woman she was. In Howl’s Sophie first morphs into an old because of her lack of confidence and she morphs to her proper age when she becomes confident.
Howl and Markl are also able to change their appearance due to magic. Markl uses magic to transform himself into an old man when Howl is gone, to earn respect from customers. Since this change is only physical it is not metamorphosis. At one point during the film Howl pretends to be the King, changing his appearance with his magic, to check in on Sophie when she meets with Madame Suliman. By turning himself into the King (and with Sophie around) Howl feels confident enough to say how he feels about the war; however this is not Howl’s metamorphosis. Howl’s metamorphosis happens when he becomes the big black bird, which happens multiple times throughout the film. Each time Howl uses the magic to shift himself into the giant bird it becomes harder to shift back. The first time he collapses in a chair and groans in pain as the feathers fall away. Odell and Le Blanc (2009) mention that the inability to change back from the monster form equates to losing his humanity or soul and that this loss shows that magic comes with a price. Odell and Le Blanc’s conclusion makes sense, in the movie Howl and Calcifer mention how the sorcerers’ that changed into monster will never become human again because they were not strong enough. Another time Calcifer (the fire demon) tells Howl’s, he’s gone too far and soon he will not be able to change back. At the end Howl has transformed too many time to change back on his own, he is a giant black bird with vacant eyes, but somehow Sophie and Calcifer manage to save him.
Flight and flying machines are not central to the story of Howl’s Moving Castle, like they were in Kiki’s or Porco Rosso, but both are still present and notable. There are several methods of flight in the film. There are large airships that drop bombs on the towns and hold morphed wizards. Small airplanes are seen flying over-head throughout the film, what these planes do are a mystery. In the market and at the royal palace are smaller aircraft’s, these crafts look like large air gliders; but they have two seats, a steering wheel, and the wings move. Howl’s castle also has small dragon-like wings that allow it to soar amongst the clouds at the end. Not only do aircraft’s allow for flight, magic does too. Towards the beginning of the film Howl and Sophie walk on air, to escape from the Witch of the Wastes henchmen. Throughout the film Howl changes into a big black bird, which gives him the ability to fly. Sometimes Howl only grows wings, like in the meadow to aid in Sophie’s escape from the battleship. In Howl’s Moving Castle flight equals power. The warring nations have airships that they use to destroy each other. The small glider-like aircrafts are owned and used by the royal family and the soldiers. And Howl’s bird from comes from his magic, which is rumored to be powerful.
The film has a very strong western influence. The story starts off in a very European town, that Sophie lives in. The riverside town has cobbled streets, the roofs of the houses or shops are red or brown (some are thatch). The buildings are a mix of Timber Frame and Victorian and are close together. Outside this city are snow-capped mountains, forests and lakes (reminiscent of the Swiss Alp’s); this area is where Howl’s castle hides. Howl’s castle is connected to a seas side city, where Howl is known as the Wizard Jenkins. The streets here are also cobbled and the buildings are mostly Timber Frame and are worn from the wind. Another place Howl’s castle is connected to is the royal capital, where Howl is known as Pendragon. This city is full of Victorian and Gothic architecture that tower over fountains, squares, courtyards and automobiles. One of the few times food is seen in the film Howl, Sophie and Markl have an egg and bacon breakfast, which is a very western.
Howl’s like most Miyazaki films has a strong women. Sophie is a hard worker, who stays at the hat shop to close up, when other women leave to gossip. Another example of Sophie being a hard worker is when she decides to clean the castle. She makes the main room sparkle and cleans up all the ash from the fireplace. Sophie is also determined. When she starts cleaning the castle she does not stop until the entire place has been cleaned from top to bottom. At the end of the film Sophie determined to help Howl. She closes the portal and moves the castle, even though she was told it is not possible. Even though Sophie has an identity crisis (Odell & Le Blanc, 2009) she is still a strong woman and when the identity crisis is over she is even stronger. The identity crisis allows her to become “more free and confident” (Odell & Le Blanc, 2009, p. 126). Sophie is also compassionate; she takes in the Witch of the Waste and cares for her when her powers are stripped (Odell & Le Blanc, 2009).
There is very little Japanese influence in the film and Miyazaki’s typical environmental theme is lacking. Something Japanese that is obvious is showing respect for his elders. Once Sophie is transformed into an old woman and young man offers to help her down stairs. Markl helps the Witch of the Waste move around when Sophie takes her in. The landscapes, as always, are still breathtaking and highly detailed, but the environment and nature are not really commented on. Meadows are varying shades of green so that each blade of grass is discernible and pink and white flowers are scattered to provide color and life. Wildlife darts among the trees and lakes, bringing the aerial views of the landscape to life.
Howl’s Moving Castle utilizes CGI as well as Miyazaki’s typical hand drawn animation. According to Odell and Le Blanc (2009) the most CGI was used on the castle itself. Even though the castle was animated by computer programs it still seems like Miyazaki drew the patchwork castle by hand, which means the CGI use was very subtle. As alluded to above the scenery still has the painter like qualities that Miyazaki films a known for. Shading, in paintings provides depth. The shading of the castle, scenery, and even peoples’ clothing bring depth to the cels and make the come to life. The color palate, like many of the films before are summery, with a lot of blues and greens.