Thoughts On: Howl's Moving Castle - With Essence Of Oz


Howl's Moving Castle - With Essence Of Oz

Thoughts On: Howl's Moving Castle (ハウルの動く城, 2004)

This is a film we might as well sneak into the...
A young girl is forced into a world of demons, wizards, witches, spells and adventure when she's cursed, transformed into an old woman, and all as war breaks out across her country.

I don't talk about animation much here, but only because I could talk about it endlessly and want to cover as wide a range of films as possible. But, at long last, I feel it's time for a Hayao Miyazaki film. Studio Ghibli, Disney and Pixar, as I've said many times, are probably the greatest thing about modern cinema. All of their films are of equal visual and subtextual complexity. They are very rarely kids films in the sense that they are just good fun. As is clear to anyone who's seen a Miyazaki film, Ghibli productions are daring, unflinching and indisputably mature. I only need to cite Grave Of The Fireflies here. It's with their deeply emotional themes of childhood, neglect, loss, maturity and sorrow that complex moral narratives are constructed. Now, I could talk about the three production companies alone for ages here (maybe we will another time), but let's jump straight into Howl's Moving Castle. I've seen this film many times, but only the subtitled version once. I'd much prefer to watch the film in the language it was constructed for and upon, but the version's hard to find. As a result, I'm primarily going to be talking about the dubbed version released by Disney. Despite loving this film and Miyazaki's in general, I've got to start with criticism. Firstly, the sound design in this film isn't great. The action based sequences (especially with the wars and bombing) aren't very immersive. This is because it feels like there's huge gaps, way too much silence, visuals that aren't producing sound. This is unfortunate because sound is a filmmakers the greatest tool in conjuring up verisimilitude. We can look at Michael Bay here. For all the stupid, over the top visuals he produces, when we see a robot smashing another in the face we are made to hear the resounding BOOOM. We may see a mush of CGI, but can suspend our imaginations slightly as sound makes us believe that the mush of pixels has weight. Make all the jokes you want about explosions and fire, but you feel the chaos of his pictures whether you like it or not. This is what Howl's Moving Castle lacks, it could have been fixed with a more consistent soundtrack or score though. Even without complex sound design, music fills gaps, producing emotion where basic sound isn't forcing a reaction. The other problem with the sound comes with dialogue. This is the primary reason I don't watch Anime. Character and situation are not balanced well. You get amazing fight sequences, spectacular visuals, astounding worlds in anime. Everything is amped up, blown out of reality and into fantasy. This is why millions, billions even, love Anime - fantasy. But, with the amping up of situations, comes a loss of true character in speech. The dialogue is bad in other words. Some of this probably has something to do with translation, and some of this has to do with Disney (in some films - Spirited Away for example) demanding more expositional dialogue. This translates to characters narrating action which is a key staple of bad writing. So, whilst dialogue is definitely the weakest part of Miyazaki's films, it's apart of his style and nuance (as is in Anime) and so can be overlooked.

The specific criticism I used to have with this film were to do with plot. There's an awful lot going on that seems unnecessary in this film. What's worse us that characters seem to act with a lack of rationality. In Howl this is kind of understandable as he's clearly a childish, somewhat bi-polar, character. But, the extremes to which this film goes to not explain or show the many 'whys' or 'hows' can be frustrating. I found myself enjoying the film a lot on first watch, but being annoyed by clear ex machinas and questionable character decisions. The ending in particular made little sense. Howl decides to join the war because... reasons, when all he had to do was move the castle (which Sophie does anyway). And then there's the whole bit with the house falling apart, off cliffs, time travel, everyone surviving and happy endings. I almost felt cheated on the first watch, but one of the last images of all the main characters (Sophie, Howl, Calcifer, Turnip Head, Witch Of The Waste, Marukuru) on the last slab of the house hit me - hard. I clearly saw characters from The Wizard Of Oz. There was the scarecrow, the witch, the idea of heartlessness (Calcifer) and cowardice (Howl) and even Dorothy and Toto - Sophie and the dog thing. More than this it hit me that both films are about houses being taken to strange lands, about magic, evil, witchcraft, treachery, growing up and home. After the first watch I was convinced that the films were one and the same with similar, maybe identical characters, plotting and meaning. However, this is not true. Both films are very similar in terms of themes, plot and character, but only to a certain degree. The best way to look at Howl's Moving Castle is as a film deeply inspired by The Wizard Of Oz. This means that there are similar plot lines and character traits, but that they were all used so that an original story with a message of its own could be constructed. So, what we're going to do here is brush the surface of this film. We're going to clarify the links to Oz by looking at the beginning, a few characters, a few key moments and then the lasting message of the film. In my recent essays (check out the Film List) I've been diving deep into films, trying to whittle out all the details I can. I like doing this, but I believe that films also require personal interpretation. I'd like to give you a few ideas, leaving you with the tools to watch the film and decipher exactly what it means to you here. So, without further ado let's go.

We'll start with the set-up of the film. Like in The Wizard Of Oz there's reality and then a move into fantasy (Dorothy's imagination) with the shift into colour. There is no colour change in Howl's Moving Castle, but there is a move into fantasy, into Sophie's mind. What the set-up of the film does is establish themes, essentially clarifying all to come. In the first few minutes we get to learn that Sophie's life isn't great; she works in her mothers hat shop, never going out much. We learn that she's quite an isolated character on the whole. Then comes the myth that is Howl: the evil wizard that will eat the hearts of beautiful girls. This, by our experience of the film, is a lie, a simple setting of mood and tension around Howl's character. But, this is also a metaphorical moment that can't be overlooked. Howl is a hero figure, a cast-out, devilishly charming, young man with a lot of power - everything teenage girls lose their minds over. But, because he's a figure almost too good to be true, he's demonized. What has been set up here is a theme of childhood and sexual awakening. This is emphasised with the constant flirting that happens around Sophie with her sister and mother. Sophie is socially reclused in all sense of the term. This is what the film sets up with the opening before moving toward fantasy. This point is ambiguous, but I think the moment Sophie is stopped by soldiers and saved by Howl is the moment her imagination starts to project itself onto the screen. She fears men, seeing them as nothing more than sex driven monkeys (which is how quite a few behave in the film). So, when Howl saves her, this idea of aggressive men is quashed, and explains why Howl tells her 'they're not that bad'. Sophie has a slight fear of men which prevents her from interacting with them, but with Howl, with an ideal man, comes change. This turns the flight they both go on as a metaphor for exhilaration, of reaching new emotional grounds. However, there's a turn back to reality after this, allowing the first act to end. It's with the second act that we step fully into a metaphorical world of Sophie's mind. Because she doesn't consider herself grown up, she fears older women (especially in respect to other men). This is why the Witch Of The Waste comes into the picture. She is like the wicked witch in Oz as she's an oppressive force upon childhood, but more than that she is an idea of ruin in Sophie. The Witch has spent her life pursuing Howl (the concept of a perfect man, a teenage hearth-throb). To Sophie this is what she will become if she chooses to waste her own life. Not only will she be outcast (shunned by other women) but miserable. This is also why, out of jealousy, the Witch curses Sophie. She's forced (forces herself) to grow old, to inherit a mature perspective. In short, this is what gives her the confidence to leave home and stumble upon Howl.

It's at this point that the war intensifies. However, war is a mere metaphor. It is never truly explained why the country is at war, and whilst Miyazaki uses this element of the film to comment on pollution, industrialisation, violence, whilst projecting anti-war ideals, the primary use of the war is to reflect the inner turmoil of Sophie's character. This will all be explained in the end though. What happens during the bulk of the film is Sophie warming toward an idea of family, despite dysfunctionality. She learns to look after Howl, the house and the kid whilst developing her own personal strength as a woman. This is seen with the re-introduction of The Witch Of The Waste. Sophie refuses to become this woman, she refuses to pursue Howl's heart for nothing more than material or sexual gain. Here, the film introduces an idea of family and acceptance, giving reason as to why the Witch is embraced by the end of the film. This parallels The Wizard Of Oz also as Dorothy uses male characters (the guys from the farm) to teach herself ideas of friendship and care. It's also here where Miyazaki adopts the main idea of The Wizard Of Oz. In Oz the Lion needs courage, the Tin Man a heart, the Scarecrow a brain. In Howl's moving castle, characters also need to look for their heart, courage and sense. You can see elements of the Lion, Tin Man and Scarecrow in all characters (Howl especially). Many traits are put into singular characters, however, so Miyazaki can construct a more complex narrative in terms of Sophie's perception of herself through the characters she constructs (Howl, the Witch, The Scarecrow--everyone). The final character parallel here is of the Witch of Kingsbury (Madame Suliman) and the Wizard of Oz. It's here where both narratives introduce an Emerald City, an ideal place controlled by harmlessly corrupt individuals. Why the witch in Kingbury is important however will come with the ending though. But, the main ideas of the second act are family and home. Just like in Oz, Dorothy learns 'there's no place like home', Sophie too has to find out where she belongs. Remember here that this is all speculative. Sophie is going on a journey toward wanting to grow up into a wife, mother, homemaker. I know some would criticise this as it seems misogynistic with women having their place in the home under patriarchal forces and so on, but I completely disagree. Sophie simply wants her own family - as most women do. This is what she discovers over the course of the film. She finds strength in being able to manage not only her own life, but care for those she loves. It's in this idea we can see Howl as a father/husband figure and Marukuru as their kid. The other characters represent the internal struggles Sophie inherits with maturity and a husband or lifestyle desired by others (the Witch as both a mother-in-law figure and an ex of Howls).

This brings us to the end. Sophie falls in love with Howl and Howl in love with her. It's during the realisation of this Sophie gradually moves away from being an old woman. She doesn't have to see herself as old and decrepit to be mature - her idea of adult isn't so distant anymore. As she grows into the role of a responsible adult, her body transforms into a younger woman, symbolising Sophie's acceptance of herself. It's in the end that Howl is also given his heart back - by Sophie. He lost his heart as a child to handle the way in which the world treats him. As an idolised figure, he must disconnect himself, This is a convoluted idea but is made clear with the re-introduction of Sophie's mother just before the third act. As she steps into Howl's castle she says that she can 'barely recognise the place'. This may be because she thinks she's in the same flower shop she used to own, but this makes no sense at all as we know she knows all about Howl, Sophie, the castle and so on because she's deceiving her own daughter for the sake of a new husband. What this says about her character is that all she wants is other men, that she is helpless without them. From here it's reasonable to infer that Sophie's mother knew a Howl - a first love, a teenage heart-throb - and also that she knew Howl's castle. This is why she says 'I can barely recognise the place'. Here the movie really opens up. Sophie doesn't want to become her mother. That is what she fights against. Moving closer to the end, Howl decides to protect Sophie and the house when they could just move. This makes little sense until we understand that Howl is falling love with her, and so wants to settle down (subtextually). His going into war is a symbolic gesture. But, what does war symbolise? To understand that we need to come to the very end of the film. The Scarecrow transforms into a prince. This prince has something to do with the war, maybe it's because he was thought to be lost or captured that it all started - and makes clear why he can end it all. But, what the prince really symbolises is the two types of men Sophie may fall in love with. There's the literal prince who'll give her all she wants (material gain), or the man she desires and has fallen in love with. The war is a projection of the battle going on in her head. She could be like her mother and pursue the men for material gain (her new husband being really rich) or like a naive teenage girl and pursue pure sexual gain that'd get her in trouble (how she saw Howl in the beginning). This allows us to see parallels between Sophie's mother and sister in The Witch Of The Waste and the Witch (Madame Suliman) at Kingsbury. Sophie doesn't want to be like either of these women, and so, we have war - inner turmoil.

This brings us to the very end of the film. Sophie travels through time to understand Howl's character, to understand that he, nor his home or the family she has made for herself is perfect. This is why the house falls apart and the Scarecrow save them at the end. Sophie has endured the battle of her mind, and is faced with a decision. Will she go with Howl or the Prince? An easy question answered, and this is because Sophie realises that she isn't destined to be like her mother or sister - she has her own unique (slightly dysfunctional) family in Howl and his castle. And that's the film in a nutshell: self-discovery and an acceptance of the imperfect; not being afraid to make mistakes, to put your neck out for love, family or happiness. This is why the house flies away in the end. Whereas this is a terrifying image in The Wizard Of Oz, Sophie isn't afraid of insecurity, because such is life. There are no guarantees, but we get on nonetheless. Sure, there's no place like home, but only because that's where we belong. The main difference between Oz and Howl's Moving Castle here is the pursuit and acceptance of home. Sophie belongs in Oz; Dorothy, Kansas.

So, tell me what you think of Howl's Moving Castle in the comments below. What does the film mean to you? Are there more parallels to The Wizard Of Oz? What Studio Ghibli film should I look at next?

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1 comment:

Ariadne said...

Also, she throws water on the witch.