This review was originally posted on November 22, 2021. I had a busy week and didn’t want to leave you with nothing, so I figured bringing back an oldie would suffice.
I was originally planning on reviewing Castle in the Sky this week, as a way to celebrate its 35th anniversary. And while I do have HBOMax and could watch it at literally anytime – I decided to see it in the theater as part of GhibliFest. (Don’t worry I’m fully vaxxed.) But in a situation that could only be part of the ineptitude of non-anime fans, they somehow showed Howl’s Moving Castle instead.
The audience was a little confused but nobody complained. The theater offered refunds, but I don’t think anyone took it. A Ghibli movie is a Ghibli movie after all. Doesn’t really matter which one.
But…here’s the thing. Before last Sunday – I had never seen Howl’s Moving Castle in its entirety. I only ever managed to get the middle or end of the movie, and I never had a burning desire to watch it in full from what I had seen.
So when I finally watched the whole thing in one sitting I was disappointed that the film was still lacking in a lot of places. Honestly, I think the issue is Ghibli has such a unique style in their screenwriting, that it just doesn’t work well for adapting other works.
Howl’s Moving Castle is based on a book by Diana Wynne Jones/ Both the book and movie focus on young hatmaker Sophie, who gets a curse placed on her by the Witch of the Waste, and eventually falls in love with the Great Wizard Howl, who lives in the eponymous moving castle with his apprentice Markl, and fire demon Calcifer.
Sophie’s curse causes her to look like an old woman, though Howl either doesn’t mind or can see right through it. While her goal is to get rid of the curse, she never seems all too concerned with it. Instead, she’s worried much more about falling in love with Howl and the war ravaging her land.
Howl is constantly pursued not only by the Witch of the Waste, who is lusting after him but the king’s advisor who wants him to contribute to the war effort.
So the two must figure out a way to get their happily ever after. Or something like that.
A Not so Great Anti-War Narrative
While the war itself gets a heavy focus – we often see Howl participating in the war and mourning the witches and wizards forced to fight who are losing their lives. We see the destruction wrought on innocent civilians.
And we’re never given much context for why or how the war started. It’s implied by one line at the beginning that the war is due to a missing prince, whose name we never learn…And it turns out he had a curse placed on him and became a scarecrow.
The timelines just…doesn’t add up. It’s implied that the prince only recently went missing and the war seems to have been going on for a while. It just doesn’t make sense.
And while I know Miyazaki is a staunch anti-war activist and I agree that most wars are fought for stupid reasons…Making this war not seem to have any real cause and have it suddenly stop…kind of ruins what it was going for, in my opinion.
We don’t see a whole lot of propaganda in the movie, or reasons as to why these people are so eager to fight others. I mean…it doesn’t even have to be anything big. Just show a few flyers in the background or have the characters discuss what they think of the enemy. Here the enemies and soldiers are just faceless nobodies, not people who are likely just as much victims of the rulers’ whims.
If Madame Suleiman really thought it was just a silly war, she wouldn’t have been so keen on sapping away the magic of powerful wizards or sending them off to fight the King’s battles.
The anti-war theme is pretty heavy-handed. It’s very obvious that war is bad…but it’s such a childish explanation and interpretation in my opinion…We never get a sense of what false reality these people are fighting for and I think that would make the anti-war message less heavy-handed and sadder.
And it’s just weird to see this heavy antiwar narrative mixed with such an odd love story.
Howl’s Moving Castle is one of the few Ghibli movies that is explicitly romantic in its nature. One can make arguments for some of the other films but out of the most popular ones, this is the most romantic.
There’s no other way to interpret the relationship.
And I’m not usually a big romance person. I enjoy my ships but I’m not generally a huge fan of rom-coms or any media where romance is a huge focus. But I liked it here. I love Howl and Sophie’s dynamic. They have good chemistry, even when Sophie is an old woman. It just works.
But it’s one aspect of the movie I enjoyed a lot and I wish the romance had more time to develop organically and we got to see it grow more. Howl’s a flirt so his behavior towards Sophie isn’t surprising and it seems like he can see right through her curse – but I would have loved to see more of young Sophie and Howl interacting than just cursed!Sophie.
But it’s a major part of the story so…yeah.
I’m not a huge fan of romance but I like ships so I don’t mind the build-up but it can be hard to root for a couple when one appears to be in his 20’s and the other can be his grandmother in looks.
Can’t have everything I guess.
Not Ghibli’s Finest Fairy Tale
Ghibli films, or most films, to be honest, work best when they are simple. They can be in a couple of sentences: if you’re really good at film reviews, you can summarize a movie or series in one sentence.
But I struggle with that for Howl’s Moving Castle because there are so many little parts that never really connect with each other: there’s a missing prince, a war, Sophie’s curse, magic, and time-travel, kinda sorta.
Honestly, there’s just too much going on in this film. I’m sure the book is great and weaves together the narrative more cohesively – but this movie feels exactly like it’s trying to shove a 200+ page book into a movie that’s less than an hour and a half. I read the summary of the book and the movie share a lot of events, but the war is missing from the novel.
And I think the war narrative, as I mentioned earlier, while a signature of Miyazaki’s doesn’t fit in with everything else going on. I think if we had more time to spend on Howl and Sophie’s relationship, giving Sophie her power to “speak life into objects” from the book and gave the movie a villain, I would have enjoyed it more. Instead, it’s a muddled mess of half-baked good ideas that don’t go anywhere.
Also – I guess from another perspective, is that while there’s a happy ending (both in the book and movie) it feels weird for a Ghibli movie to have such an explicit happy ending. They’re usually bittersweet in some way.
I don’t think that Ghibli knows how to do and they all lived happily ever after fairy tale ending and that’s fine. In Spirited Away: Chihiro and Haku are separated and it’s implied that Chihiro doesn’t remember her journey. In Ponyo, Ponyo gives up her magic and becomes human. In Castle in the Sky, Pazu and Sheeta are forced to destroy Laputa and Sheeta’s necklace…and here, all the death and destruction ultimately gets ignored,d when Sophie and Howl kiss. It’s not bad…it just doesn’t feel right for some reason.
Howl’s Moving Castle is not a bad movie, nor is it Ghibli’s worst. (Out of what I’ve seen Earwig and the Witch earns that title. I think their adaptations are their weakest films. Ghibli is strongest when they’re not beholden to a text.) But it’s a film adaptation from a source material with a strong identity – and the film tried to slap its distinctive touch on top without realizing the two didn’t mesh.
Oh well. I’m happy I finally saw it – but it’s not going to be high on my re-watch list. Maybe I’ll read the book now.
And that’s the scoop!
Year of release: 2004
Length: 119 minutes
Producer: Toshio Suzuki
Director/Screenplay Writer: Hayao Miyazaki