In Howl’s Moving Castle, Hayao Miyazaki flips his own script and instead of making a coming-of-age film, he makes a film-where-people-should-have-come-of-age-but-didn’t, shaping his story around how to grow up if you’re already an adult.
Howl’s Moving Castle is unique in the sense that it’s like a setup for a sitcom: it takes characters that have the same problem – Howl, Sophie, Markl, Calcifer and even the Witch of the Waste are people who don’t want to take responsibility for where they are in their life, and don’t want to move on — essentially they don’t want to grow up.
So Miyazaki literally puts them under one roof, so they can help each other work through their issue.
In the final video in my Introduction to Studio Ghibli Storytelling series, I reveal:
- how Miyazaki seamlessly integrates fairy tale storytelling with archetypal mythology
- the interview quote that sheds some light on the perspective to apply when watching this film
- the big reason why the characters don’t want to grow up and how that ties into Miyazaki’s lifelong anti-war stance
- and how the ending is actually not that weird if you pay attention to how the film sets up its storylines
Watch the video above, read the full transcript below, and don’t forget to grab your copy of the Studio Ghibli Secrets guide where I reveal the story patterns behind the multitude of Studio Ghibli films.
Howl’s Moving Castle Analysis: A film about people who don’t want to be adults
- How Miyazaki matures as a director
- Nuanced storytelling and self-referencing
- “In reality, I often forget about the children”
- Coming of age in Miyazaki’s earlier films
- Howl’s Moving Castle – Character Analysis
- Howl’s thematic links to Spirited Away
- The problem with adults in Howl’s Moving Castle
- Forging a new kind of family
- Howl’s path from aggression to pacifism
- Why the ‘weird’ ending of Howl’s Moving Castle isn’t so weird at all
- Miyazaki’s answer to being an adult in a world where adults are otherwise horrible
- Now it’s your turn!
Today’s film is Howl’s Moving Castle, or better known as Part 2 of Miyazaki’s egg trilogy. On a more serious note, today I’d like to talk a bit about how Miyazaki matures as a director and how that reflects in him making a film about adulthood.
I’m Adam Dobay and I’m your host for this series. I come from a background in film theory, I worked for ten years in screenwriting and film translation, and I’ve also done a lot of research into Studio Ghibli, some of which I’ve shared over the past six weeks.
How Miyazaki matures as a director
As with all the other Miyazaki films, there’s a lot of layers to Howl’s Moving Castle. There’s fairy tales and archetypal mythology as well as social and environmental commentary.
The thing is that as Miyazaki matures as a director, his films that were already complex and nuanced to begin with, become even more granular in their complexity.
Already you get a sense of this in Spirited Away where there are entire blink-and-you’ll miss it story arcs, like the character development of the baby for example.
Nuanced storytelling and self-referencing
Anyway. A similar thing happens in Howl, where the story has such a frantic pace that you can spot new details of significance with every rewatch. If you’ve seen this film many times, I recommend you look at how Sophie appears different in almost every scene, or all the different metamorphoses the house goes through, or even the caricature that is the war developing in the background.
Also, there is this tendency for Miyazaki to start referring back to his earlier films, not as easter eggs, but reusing his own symbols he introduced in earlier films, like the umbrella from Totoro, or the binding slime magic from Spirited Away, or even eating as a metaphor – what you eat, what you regurgitate, what you shouldn’t have eaten, and so on. And you can compare and contrast what these similar elements mean in different contexts.
Of course the great thing about Miyazaki is that all of the layers to the film are neatly wrapped up in strong character-based storytelling which remains the core of the film, so with each subsequent viewing you can either pick one layer of storytelling to focus on, or you can choose to just let the story take you on its journey. So for today I’m just going to pick a couple of threads to look at and will talk about everything else at a later time.
“In reality, I often forget about the children”
That said, here’s a quote from Miyazaki I came across just this week that I think really helps put this film into perspective. He said this on a 2005 press conference at the Venice Film Festival.
Now he did laugh quite a bit after saying that so it’s not one of those quotes you have to take 100% seriously, but it’s still a very interesting thing for him to say in the sense that this film is about adulthood more than other Miyazaki films.
Coming of age in Miyazaki’s earlier films
Most of his earlier films have some sort of coming of age story. Growing up through trying to find a solution to the problems that your parents’ generation has created, like in Nausicaa, or Whisper of the Heart, or Castle in the Sky.
Or growing up by fighting for something and having to experience the loss of what you’re fighting for, like in Princess Mononoke.
Or growing up by finding your place in society and the modern world and making sure you don’t turn into a pig when you grow up.
And after all these coming of age stories we get a film starring people who for are actively trying to avoid adulthood for most of the runtime.
Howl’s Moving Castle – Character Analysis
Sophie Hatter – the girl who leapt through adulthood
We have Sophie who has a lovely outlook on life at the beginning of the film. Just look at that view. Of course she doesn’t want to live her life in the back room making hats, but her experience is that it’s still better in here than out there – a sentiment that I think the introverts in the audience can empathize with.
So when Sophie gets her „curse” ten minutes after the film starts, it’s actually great for her. She’s actually really quick to embrace it because it means that she can skip this adulting thing entirely and go straight into old age.
Howl – the world’s most powerful adolescent
Then we have Howl who is permanently stuck in adolescence. He loves the power that comes with growing up but not the responsibilities that come with being an adult. Throughout the film, Howl tries to be everything for everyone while being deadly afraid both of losing control and of not being loved.
One of the funniest scenes in the film, which is Howl’s emo breakdown, also reveals something very serious about what this character is really struggling with.
Markl – the boy who had to grow up too fast
Then we have Markl who we know little about but we can deduce that he’s the kind of person who had to grow up too fast. Pretending to be an adult is his actual job but he shows his true colours as we learn what he really needs is belonging and a family.
Calcifer – the fire demon with an existential crisis
We also have Calcifer, who always takes first place in cutest ancient fire demon competitions. He is actually dealing with the same problem as the other characters, but in a more metaphorical sense: His question is, what happens if I change? Can I change while remaining the same person? If I change, do I die?
Heen – the dog with the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it storyline
And the blink-and-you’ll miss it storyline in this film is the dog with the Muttley cough, who has exactly one decision point in the film that lasts for about two seconds and also involves coming out of dependency and making a stand for something. (See if you can spot it.)
Howl’s Castle as a character in its own right
And before I forget, we have the castle which is a character in its own right. It also changes throughout the film, and its question is the same as Calcifer’s: Do I survive if I keep changing? If I fall apart, can I be put together again? And especially because of this latter question there’s an undertone of the Castle being Japan in a similar way to how the bathhouse in Spirited Away was like Japan.
Throughout the film, the Castle grows, it changes, it suffers, but it survives and all this change is needed for it to grow and to become more of a house that every one of us can live in.
Howl’s thematic links to Spirited Away
By the way, with all these characters dealing with the difference in what I show to the outside world versus how I’m really feeling, there’s again this Japanese separation of the outward facing facade and the inner self, the honne and the tatemae that I mentioned last time with Spirited Away. Even the house has its context-dependent outward faces and its inner faces.
So the question is, why are these people trying to avoid adulthood? Well, because of what adults are like.
The problem with adults in Howl’s Moving Castle
And in this film, adults are greedy, egotistic, chase money or fame or glory, they fight wars or have power struggles, manipulate each other.
The examples of adults Sophie sees around her are her colleagues, who are super shallow and gossip about having a better life but never actually doing anything about it…
She has her sister, Lettie, whose entire life revolves around looking pretty and pleasing men in return for attention.
And she has her mother, whose personality is in constant competition with her hats for who is more over the top.
And look at the men in Sophie’s life: lovely people. Just in the first five minutes you have street harassment, catcalling (or mousecalling more specifically) and every scene with women on their own has men intruding.
If this is what being an adult is like, no wonder you want to skip it, and no wonder you go with the first David Bowie Lookalike Competition Runner-Up that comes along. With of course the first prize of the David Bowie Lookalike competition going to Ponyo’s Dad.
And then there’s Howl’s adults. Suliman, a corrupt mother figure, the king, an idiot father figure, the Witch of the Waste, who’s only in the magic business for greed, and the other wizards who did what they were told to do and lost themselves entirely.
But the point the film makes is that while all adults are horrible in their own special way, all these coping mechanisms to avoid becoming an adult do not work. Escapism does not work. Whatever magic the characters use to hide the truth, the truth is there underneath and if not addressed, it will lead to disaster. They have to figure out how to become adults in a way that they stay true to themselves.
Forging a new kind of family
Miyazaki wants his characters to live their true lives and find their true spirits, so the path of the characters is to help each other realise that they need to be their true selves. They basically have to become each others’ therapists.
Howl’s path from aggression to pacifism
And the story thread this is most expressed with is Howl, who lives in the delusion that he can solve everything with careful maneuvering, but as the film progresses, he starts to get ground up by his many roles.
Like some of the other Miyazaki male heroes, his character arc is to learn how to solve things without aggression and how destruction is also self-destruction.
And of all the male Miyazaki heroes, his learning curve is the steepest, because for most of the film he actively embraces violence. He says, it’s okay, I can solve this whole war thing alone, don’t worry about it. I’m not gonna be like those other guys. They’re the bad guys with magic. I’m the good guy with magic.
The problem is that it doesn’t work. You can’t solve war by winning, even if you’re the best at it. Miyazaki’s bottom line is always that no war is worth fighting. Note the use of fire in this film. Fire is good if you use it in moderation, as the core energy to heat, to cook, to keep your castle moving. But if you have too much of it, it will be destructive fire and it will consume everything you love.
It’s a downward spiral that needs to be stopped, and that’s why Sophie needs to figure out how she can get to the core of who Howl is underneath that fire, and how she can bring that back.
Why the ‘weird’ ending of Howl’s Moving Castle isn’t so weird at all
And that leads us to the ending, which is one of the more weirder Miyazaki endings. I’ve often heard it criticised because as we get to the end of the film everything is resolved quite suddenly, but if you watch the film close enough and see its internal logic, the entire story was really a setup to this ending.
And what Miyazaki does to achieve this is that he combines fairy tale rules with therapy rules. In fairy tales, you find the point of the main plot, solve it, and the kingdom is magically restored. In therapy, you get down to the core of the problem, crack it, get your breakthrough moment, and the deeper the change is, the bigger the ripple effect it then has on your life.
And that is what happens at the end of the film. People find their true hearts, literally, and what was misplaced is replaced, literally. The violence stops because the need for the thing that was substituted with violence was fulfilled, and there’s no need for violence anymore. Which, in itself, is quite a strong commentary on the reasons for war and how to avoid it.
Miyazaki’s answer to being an adult in a world where adults are otherwise horrible
But the real statement is how the choice is not between becoming a horrible adult or not growing up at all. The resolution comes when the characters can learn to define for themselves what adulthood is, what community is, what family is, and what is worth making a stand for and making and effort for. And that is the kind of adult Miyazaki would like you to be. And he’s asking very politely so you should at least try it out.
Again there’s many other things to talk about, like how the house follows Freudian dream analysis rules, or how the concepts of eating and regurgitating things you should not have eaten are revisited, but those I’ll leave for another time.
These are your pointers for today. Closing off, I’d like to thank you for coming to at least one of the six screenings, and I hope that you liked these intros. If you missed any, you can hop over to my website followthemoonrabbit.com where I have published all of this introductory talk series.
Video credits & acknowledgments
Written and performed by Adam Dobay
Recorded by Livia Farkas
Editing by Gabi Trost and Eszter Vermes
Special thanks to Flick Beckett, Picturehouse Cinemas and the Duke of York’s cinema staff.
Howl’s Moving Castle ©Studio Ghibli, 2003.
Spirited Away ©Studio Ghibli, 2001.
Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind ©Studio Ghibli, 1984.
Princess Mononoke ©Studio Ghibli, 1997.
Ponyo ©Studio Ghibli, 2008.
My Neighbor Totoro ©Studio Ghibli, 1988.
Now it’s your turn!
What’s your biggest takeaway from this video? Is there something you’d like to hear more of? Let me know in the comments!