by Diana Dark
This is an essay I wrote on Howl's Moving Castle and the underlying meanings within it.
Howl's Moving Castle
Animated films were once regarded as simply cartoons for children, and were not held in that high regard. Times have clearly changed when looking at the celebration of great works of art such as some of Studio Ghibli's most popular works; specifically examining Howl's Moving Castle. Loosely based off of Diana Wynne Jones' book of the same title, Howl's Moving Castle tells the story of a young girl named Sophie who is cursed into seniority and finds herself on quite a journey where she meets the wizard Howl while trying to find her own path and discover her true self amidst the chaos of the country she lives in. The story diverges almost entirely from that of its' origins at times, but Miyazaki takes what Jones had written and makes it entirely his own with different dialogue and setting changes, but most importantly in theme and meaning. Miyazaki's influence is easily seen in the film as his signature beautiful pieces of scenery are interlaced with the conflicting technology and pollution of the human-populated cities, which stand for commentary by Miyazaki himself on such things. The stories he creates, specifically Howl's Moving Castle, are not only wonderful for children as well as beautifully drawn, but are also laden with critique on humanity, war and politics, and what it really means to be good or evil using characters and settings as tools to show them.
In Howl's Moving Castle, Hayao Miyazaki paints an image of a society in the middle of a war which is shown as pointless in its' destruction of nature. The pointlessness is reinforced throughout the film via Howl's perspective of the war, the townspeople's shamelessly lackadaisical attitudes, as well as the stark differences between nature and the battleships used. Throughout the film, the warships are seen against the backdrops of beautiful natural landscapes, untouched by human kind until the aforementioned warships come along. "Its idyllic beauty marred by the choking smoke pouring from factories and from a steam locomotive, while menacing airships hover on the horizon. A beginning like that seems aimed at the struggle of post-industrial society not to be irreversibly polluted and dehumanized by its new technological wizardry; and, in fact, both the horrors of industrialized war and the dangers of losing oneself through an irreversible transformation play a role in the movie" (Burkam). There is also an obvious difference between the mechanical and dull greys, blacks, and browns of the ships, and the brightly colored, picturesque fields that lie beyond the cities. This difference is made to show how war only brings along death and destruction, as the airships crash into and destroy the natural fields, and the battleships pollute the seas once wrecked. These battles lay wreckage to the towns and the technology within the town pollute it as well, giving the cities a sometimes gray-dulled appearance, as smoke drifts from their trains and engines. Miyazaki shows his want for ecological change through these distinct images, as well as showing a visual transformation within the story. At the beginning, Howl's castle is old, grey, dull, and pollutant, and appears like a stain on the natural environment surrounding it. The flame that keeps it alive symbolizes the dependence on fuel for our technologies, and the way it affects our way of living. In the end, the castle becomes a home for the makeshift family and thus has a complete redesign in its structure. It becomes self-sustaining, powered by wind rather than fossil fuels, it is green and brightly colored, contains foliage, and floats silently through nature, rather than clanking noisily and disrupting the peace within the landscapes. The wizard Howl stands for many things throughout the story, most importantly he stands as a symbol for Miyazaki's opinion on wars in general. Howl frequently acts as the anti-soldier and comments on how useless all of the fighting and bloodshed is. In this war, the opposing kingdoms fight each other by forcing magicians to turn into monsters and battle each other, often ending in the destruction of innocent towns. Throughout the movie, Howl essentially fights fire with fire (or magic with magic in this case), trying to end the war by choosing no side but the people's, defending them from the destruction. Howl clearly hates the idea of war yet must join it in an effort to stop it, labeling those other magicians as "stupid murderers;" thus clearly stating that no matter how inadvertently, they are still murdering people in cold blood. When Howl is asked whether an airship in the sky is the "enemies" or their own country's he says "what difference does it make" and proceeds to crash land the airship and fight against whatever magicians-turned-monsters are on board. Once again Howl reinforces the idea of no side being the right, good, or just side. This is even further emphasized when taking into account the symbolism within the magicians or, the soldiers, turning into not just physical, but also mental monsters. Howl and his fellow magicians become a metaphor for what happens to soldiers during war. They give into this instinct to fight and no matter how just they believe their cause to be, they become predators, instinct-driven monsters, almost inhuman in their urge to kill or be killed. "Howl is a wonderful metaphor for what happens to soldiers--even anti-soldiers--in war. He fights only to defend others, especially those he loves, but the act of fighting is turning him into a monster" (Levi). The idea of the act of fighting turning one into a monster can be shown throughout many psychological cases that come from soldiers that return from war. Not only do they learn to kill in cold blood, they also develop mental disorders due to the stress put on them. The most common of these disorders would be post-traumatic stress disorder, which may leave them feeling inhuman, the way their mind reacts to situations without their consent, they'll feel a loss of control in their lives that will feel chaotic. This statement is enforced when Howl comments on the magicians that "After the war they won't recall they ever were human." This comment refers to the way war attacks them and scarifies not only physically, but mentally, and how damaged one can be from forcing that much trauma and destruction on one human being. In the film, the more often they transform, the less likely they are to return back to their human state, which emphasizes the lack of a return to normal human life that a soldier feels once back at home. Thus this commentary suggests that Miyazaki believes that war never has a good enough reason to defend their voluntary slaughtering of millions of innocent people, perhaps showing his post-World War II feelings. Miyazaki was after all, around 5 years old when the United States dropped bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which could have left a large impact on Miyazaki's opinion on westernization, war, and identity.
Hayao Miyazaki uses Howl's Moving Castle as commentary on the consumerist and materialistic society that surrounds places like Japan and the United States, as well as on westernization in Japan. Previously in this essay, it was mentioned that Howl symbolized many things for Miyazaki, and one of those things is westernization. Throughout the film there are several physical transformations that occur, one of those being Howl. At the beginning, Howl symbolizes westernization and materialism through his European appearance; tall, slim, blonde, white skin, blue eyes, as well as a more lavish way of dressing. There is a flashback to him as a child, which shows him with plain clothing and black hair which, when compared to Howl's appearance at the end, is almost identical. This complete reversal back to his childhood reflects the way Miyazaki often states that tradition lives on in children's memories; one just needs to touch upon them to recall it. "What I would like to do, is dig in deeper in the old, authentic native values that are embedded in the memory of mankind in Japan. I think they are still there in the memories of children's hearts, even though in today's lifestyles a lot of traditional values might have been lost. And that is why I want to reach out for children's thoughts, that we will be able to touch upon them" (Mazemaster). With this reversal to his original appearance, comes a change in his personality as well. There is wisdom in Howl towards the end where immaturity and shallowness once lied. Where Howl once stated "I see no point in living if I can't be beautiful" now he comes to recognize true beauty comes from within, not from solely physical appearance. There is also the fact that when he was a child he had a physical heart, but then it was stolen from him, and thus the appearance and the mentality changed. This is obviously a commentary on the heartlessness of society; where one fills the hole in one's heart with material wealth rather than love, respect, and family. Howl gains all these at the end once he has reverted to his original appearance and regains his physical heart.
Studio Ghibli's films often show similar themes being told through different situations and character settings. Spirited Away and Howl's Moving Castle both show certain similarities thematically; specifically in identity and consumerism. In Spirited Away, the main character, Chihiro, has to remember her name and identity in order to not forget herself and be permanently stuck in the world of the spirits. However, throughout the story, she finds her true self in this journey, learns wisdom and the power to follow her heart and her own path. This is similar to the protagonist of Howl's Moving Castle, where Sophie must find her own way and separate from her family (as Chihiro does) to find herself and understand what she really wants from the world. This journey of self-discovery is also evident in the way both characters help both Haku and Howl, respectively, to recover their identities that they had lost. In this way it seems as though Miyazaki is urging for a rediscovery of traditional Japanese culture, as Haku and Howl are both symbols of people who have lost their history and need help to recover it. Perhaps, unintentionally or not, Miyazaki has placed himself in the role of Chihiro or Sophie, heroines of the story who help piece together the physical and metaphorical hearts of these men. Also consumerism is something that is clearly commented on many times throughout both films. In Spirited Away, Chihiro's parents become pigs after quite literally "pigging out" on food, showing this selfish greed rampant in society. More important in the plot however, is the idea of No Face, who consistently consumes food and throws money at people until it literally makes him sick. Chihiro helps him return to his original self as she did Haku, and he regurgitates all that he devoured. One might say that No Face is a symbol for the way society force feeds people until their craving becomes insatiable and they rely on materialistic goods to keep them going. In Howl's Moving Castle, the society in which Sophie lives in is an entirely gluttonous one, full of lavish clothing and overwhelming amounts of things; decorative goods, unhealthy sweets. When Miyazaki wants something to be obvious, there tends to be many bright colors associated with it. Materialism in Howl's Moving Castle is rampant; Sophie's mother and her need for latest fashion, the restaurant where her sister works, Howl's bedroom, and the town centers in general. Miyazaki tends to add a surplus of things to look at when pushing for the idea of consumerism and the effect is purposefully overwhelming in that way. Bright colors, tons of useless items littering the screen, jewelry, feathers, glitter; all these things are infused in scenes when blatant materialistic wealth is being shown, making it a clear and obvious proclamation on the state of society.
Another familiar theme within Studio Ghibli's films is that of the line between good and evil being a very blurred one. Miyazaki believes that not everything is black and white, and that the way society separates characters into good versus evil is not an accurate portrayal of human existence. Miyazaki is famously quoted as saying "You must see with eyes unclouded by hate. See the good in that which is evil, and the evil in that which is good. Pledge yourself to neither side, but vow instead to preserve the balance that exists between the two." This balance is deemed essential by Miyazaki in proper characterization. Not everyone is truly good or truly evil, and with the proper motivation and circumstance, anyone could swing either which way. This is perfectly exemplified in Howl's Moving Castle by the Wicked Witch of the Waste who begins the movie as the main antagonist, cursing Sophie and being as limiting as possible throughout the story. However as she has her magic taken away, Sophie sees through to her soul and realizes that she is not a truly bad person. It was just the circumstance the witch was placed in, as a demon of greed had taken over her heart, but once free from it, she becomes an integral part of the patchwork family Sophie and Howl unintentionally build together. Because it is the removal of the witch's magic that begins the change and a demon that caused the greed, this implies a comment on situational evil which Miyazaki comments on. "This idea that whenever something evil happens someone particular can be blamed and punished for it, in life and in politics, it's hopeless." (Scott). This idea of there being no simple answer for who is to blame resides in the way one views cause and effect. If one event causes another, which causes another, life is a cycle of events causing each other. In this case, who is really to blame for Sophie's curse; the witch because she caused it, Howl because he shunned the witch, or the demon who gave her greed? If continuing with the metaphor of magic representing war or weaponry within wars, this could be commentary on characters being inherently good but with the right conditions, situations, items in possession, any characters could be evil. Once the witch is removed from her magic, she becomes an almost grandmotherly figure to the child, Markl, and in the end makes a decision that most villains would not do. The witch had finally gotten what she wanted; Howl's heart, but in the end, she willingly chose to return it to Sophie, and redeem herself. Redemption arcs are familiar to most people, as many characters in both film and books go through them, which really shows the human capacity for forgiveness. Sophie embodies this idea of forgiveness, and shows that if people can be redeemed, they must have good left in them, despite past decisions made. Many of the characters in the film undergo changes physically and mentally; Howl, Sophie, the witch, turnip head, and it shows that everyone has a chance to change and develop oneself and society.
Studio Ghibli and Hayao Miyazaki create works of art that are not only thoroughly enjoyed by children, but loved by adults for its' mystic portrayal and commentary on deeper topics such as war, identity, and the difference between good and evil. Through comparisons between movies and analyzing characters and settings from Howl's Moving Castle, there are clear themes about consumerism, materialism, westernization, and identity throughout the film. Turnip head states at the end of Howl's Moving Castle something that encapsulates Miyazaki's underlying message and advice on the topics discussed, which is; "Hearts change."