Howl’s Moving Castle (Hauru no Ugoku Shiro) is a 2004 Japanese feature-length anime scripted and directed by Hayao Miyazaki. The two-hour movie was based on the 1986 YA fantasy novel, Howl’s Moving Castle, by Diana Wynne Jones. (If you’ve read the book, be advised, the film is quite different from the novel.) Miyazaki’s animation was later dubbed into English by Pixar’s Pete Docter and distributed in North America by Walt Disney Pictures. (Note: this review is on the original Japanese version with English subtitles as seen at KissAnime.)
Howl’s Moving Castle contains all the elements of a classic fairy tale: a plain-looking but industrious young woman, a handsome prince, a wizard, a witch, and an enchanted castle. Moreover, the movie is flavored with Miyazaki’s imaginative style and exquisite attention to detail, transforming an ordinary fairy tale into a captivating and surrealistic experience. The anime also contains elements of historical steampunk; i.e. the Victorian-style costume designs and Jules Verne-style flying machines.
The setting of this fantasy adventure is an unnamed European country patterned after Strasbourg, France, which in real life is located in the Rhine valley bordering Germany, between the Vosges Mountains and the Black Forest. As in all of Miyazaki’s works, the natural world is beautifully represented in Howl’s Moving Castle. The realistic mountain scenery and lakeside landscapes are absolutely breathtaking. But despite its serene surroundings, the kingdom is on the brink of war following the disappearance of a Crown Prince.
On the outskirts of town wanders a mobile castle owned by Howl Jenkins Pendragon, a “heartless” wizard rumored to steal (and eat) the hearts of pretty young girls. The shape-shifting, time-traveling castle, which walks on giant chicken feet, can change in response to the whimsical will of its master and various situations. The reason Howl lives in a moving castle is supposedly because that will make it harder to find. Howl is on the run from the king’s sorceress Madam Suliman (who wants Howl’s strength for the war effort) and the Witch of the Waste (who is after Howl for herself).
At the beginning of the movie, an 18-year-old hatmaker named Sophie has a brief encounter with a handsome young man (could he be the magical Howl?) on a narrow city street when he saves her from being accosted by two soldiers. That night, the jealous Witch of the Waste comes into Sophie’s hat shop and insults her, saying: “What a tacky little hat shop. I’ve never seen such tacky little hats. Yet you are by far the tackiest thing here.” When Sophie orders her to leave, the witch spitefully turns her into an old woman. At first Sophie takes it rather matter-of-factly and keeps telling herself to “stay calm.” Later on, though, her frustrations come out in a cleaning frenzy.
Sophie sets out by herself to find Howl’s castle, hoping that he will know how to undo the spell. While trekking through the countryside (which isn’t easy when you’re an old lady), she helps a turnip-head scarecrow that had fallen down, and in turn he guides her to where the castle is hiding. Howl isn’t home, but the place is a mess so that’s when she decides to clean it up, much to the chagrin of Howl’s young assistant Markl, and the fire-demon Calcifer (who is the source of all the castle’s energy and magical power).
As it turns out, the wizard Howl is also under a spell and not quite what he seems. But he can see right through Sophie’s spell to realize she is the girl of his dreams – although he doesn’t let on right away because he is too preoccupied with himself and his problems. Besides, deep down he’s just an insecure coward.
Howl’s Moving Castle emphasizes a couple of themes that are personal to Miyazaki: the joy of flight and the futility of war. His father was the director of Miyazaki Airplane, which made parts for Japanese Zero fighter planes during World War II. But experiencing nighttime bombings as a young child in July 1945 left a lasting impression on him. So while Miyazaki has always had a fascination with flying, he has long been a fervent opponent of militarism. In the movie, Howl refuses to help either side and instead sabotages both armies – yet it’s not just for pacifist reasons as he says “I’ve had enough of running away, Sophie. Now I’ve got something I want to protect. It’s you.”
Howl’s Moving Castle was a delightful anime to watch, and even though the plot becomes a bit complicated and hard to follow, at least it has a happy ending. The moral of the story, of course, is that appearances can be deceiving or “don’t judge a book by its cover.”