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Howl’s Moving Castle: a film for adults

Maryam Maruf
22 September 2005

Grandma Sophie

Last week I saw Howl’s Moving Castle, the latest anime gem from that “god of animators” Hayao Miyazaki. Next week I will be experiencing something rather less enjoyable: my 25th birthday. Each time I contemplate this impending doom I soothe myself by thinking of Sophie, the inspirational heroine of Miyazaki’s wonderful film, a mere 18-year-old who is cursed by the evil Witch of the Waste and transformed into a 90-year-old woman.

If you’re worried about growing old, it really doesn’t get much worse than that, and after all, as Sugar Kane – the ditzy heroine of Billy Wilder’s imperishable Some Like It Hot, played by Marilyn Monroe, would doubtless agree – a quarter of a century isn’t as bad as 90, and it still leaves plenty of time to snare hapless millionaires and / or saxophone players.

Some Like it Hot - band practise

Poor Sophie, like Sugar, often gets the fuzzy end of the lollipop. Quite early on, both are distanced from their peers – peroxide blonde Sugar for being too glam and dizzy, brunette Sophie for being too plain and responsible. Both spend a bulk of their screen time in a strangely closeted environment on a moving vehicle, and most conspicuously fall in love with the wrong guy (who actually ends up being the right guy, and also likes to disguise himself).

But that’s where the similarity ends. Sophie is most definitely not from Billy Wilder’s black-and-white universe, nor is she a budding ukulele-playing starlet, but from an industrial town in a war-torn kingdom. Created first in the novel by the prolific English novelist Dianna Wynne Jones and adapted very freely by Miyazaki and his company Studio Ghibli, this gothically westernised kingdom is full of witches and wizards who wield unrivalled power.

Bird Howl and Sophie

The wizard Howl is mighty among these, and often uses his aliases Pendragon and Jenkins in different parts of the kingdom, or whereever his moving castle lands. So, a bit like Tony Curtis’s philandering Joe, he hates being tied to one place – and especially to one girl. The dashing Howl builds a reputation as “devouring the hearts of pretty young girls,” which isn’t very nice “even if it is a metaphor”. Sophie after a long unexciting day at the millinery where she works, stumbles across his path, and falls hopelessly in love after he scoops her up and flies across the city to her home.

Witch of the Waste

Unfortunately this catches the attention of the Witch of the Waste, a glamorous madame in sleek black with sweeping green eye-shadow and one of Howl’s spurned lovers. In a calculated jealous rage, which I am sure only witches are capable of, she curses Sophie to old age. And possibly the worst thing of all, the curse forbids her to say anything about it. She is forced to suffer in silence the fact she is an 18-year-old girl trapped in the body of a 90-year-old woman.

But this of course is the most liberating thing, as Sophie is no longer burdened by youth, and has no choice now but to be old and like it. Suddenly she is pragmatic and resourceful, and after befriending a scarecrow, finds herself in Howl’s moving castle living with Markl, Howl’s young apprentice, and Calcifer, the neurotic fire-demon who motors the castle and is bound to this role by another unspeakable curse.

Grandma Sophie soon becomes indispensable, and learns to fight the horrible magic placed upon her. In the end she regains her youth, but her hair, now a stylish bob, remains grey (“starlight”) – she becomes ageless. By this time, Howl has already declared his genuine love for her, they rebuild the castle, which had been destroyed, and sail off into a glorious sunrise.

Along the way, they tame the Witch of the Waste, and Sophie manages to break the curse placed on Calcifer (which was also on Howl). Madame Suliman, the head sorcerer who marshals the wizards and witches during the war, abruptly declares the end of the conflict – as if she had the power to do it all along. The action gives the audience another insight into the imperious and fickle life of the powerful wizards, where war is perilous but mostly whimsical.

Sophie looks out onto the battle

Sophie and the Witch of the Waste are archetypal Miyazaki leading ladies – a young girl and an old woman, reflecting variances of wisdom and folly, beauty and ugliness, spirit and cowardice, selflessness and greed.

Howl’s Moving Castle was described at the 2004 Cannes film festival as being the film with the biggest “anti-war message”. Miyazaki comments that production started on Howl at the start of the Iraq war, and that it had a “great impact on them.” Nigel Andrews from the Financial Times, who met Miyazaki at the 2005 Venice film festival describes Howl’s Moving Castle as a “blend of innocence and apocalypse.”

Though Some Like it Hot is probably the most unlikely comparison you will ever see, it seems that reviewers and writers are compelled to compare Howl’s Moving Castle with other western staples.

Calcifer

There is a tendency to look at Miyazaki’s Japanese “otherness” with another kind of more familiar otherness. Roger Ebert detects strains of The Wizard of Oz (without the “fraudulent wizards”), Nigel Andrews sees parallels with Lewis Carroll. A writer for the New York Times compares the “purity” of Miyazaki with the mini-machismo of American youth TV, and the age-youth story with Peter Pan.

Some have also commented on the loss of “authenticity” with the English dubbed version. On this issue, Miyazaki himself says: “when you watch the subtitled version you are probably missing just as many things. There is a layer and nuance you’re not going to get. Film crosses so many borders these days. Of course it’s going to be distorted” (this in the director’s first one-to-one interview in ten years, with Xan Brooks at the Venice festival).

Critics have also complained about the convoluted plot, and that in future Miyazaki should stick to more straightforward enterprises. Toshio Suzuki, Ghibli’s executive managing director affectionately describes Miyazaki’s approach when faced with a problem as: “find a breakthrough by coming up with a much greater problem!”

But Miyazaki himself has also become a revered semi-mythical character who it was once said “gives interviews as often as Michelangelo paints cubist art.” A story that is now legend the special post-1997 contract deal by which Disney will distribute Miyazaki’s Ghibli-made films to a western audience got off on the wrong foot – when the Disney chief Harvey Weinstein meddled with the release of Princess Mononoke, and Miyazaki’s producer sent him a Samurai sword with the message: “no cuts.”

The last word belongs to Hayao Miyazaki:

“Children’s souls are the inheritors of historical memory from previous generations. It’s just that as they grow older and experience the everyday world that memory sinks lower and lower.”

Sophie and Markl

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