Howl’s Moving Castle

By Shamus Posted Monday Jun 5, 2006

Filed under: Anime 28 comments

Howl’s Moving Castle is yet another Miyazaki Hayao film. Strangely enough, it’s an adaptation of a novel by Dianna Wynne Jones. Despite the fact that someone else wrote the story, it has all the elements of a Miyazaki film. Just to illustrate this, let’s run through Steven’s list of Miyazaki themes and see if they show up in this movie…

1. A fascination with flying machines of all kinds. If at all possible, they should be nonstandard and based on has-been or never-was technologies. […]

This movie may have the most absurd Miyazaki flying machines so far. Not only are they huge flying air fortresses, but they fly using flapping wings. However, this world also has magic, so the impossible flying machines could be excused by the use of magic.

2. A general distaste approaching outright hatred of anyone wearing military uniforms. […] Virtually everyone in uniform is either a mindless automaton who blindly follows orders, or a rank idiot hell-bent on causing death and destruction just because.

This movie has both.

3. A preference for girls as protagonists.


4. A tendency to portray old people sympathetically even though they may have faces made ugly by time. […]

Check again. In fact, this time the protagonist is a very ugly old person. Sort of. Sometimes.

5. A bit of a tendency to preach. Most of his movies have a message of some kind. Sometimes it’s delivered with a heavy hand.

This movie isn’t as heavy as some, but it does continue his familiar themes: War is bad, and people who fight in wars are mostly idiots. He’s been singing this particular song for years. He does it well, but I think Miyazaki fans can be forgiven for wondering if he knows any other tunes.

Amazing that a story by another author fits the Miyazaki formula so perfectly. Either he greatly changed the original story to suit his purposes, or Miyazaki Hayao and Dianna Wynne Jones have very similar writing styles and ideas.

About halfway into the movie I was thinking, “This is great! This is my favorite Miyazaki movie so far.” The visuals are great, but not overdone as they were in Steamboy. The world is vibrant and full of detail. The characters are great (and not repulsive, as in the aforementioned Steamboy). The bad guys are bad, but nobody is pure cardboard-cutout evil. The main character is compelling.

It starts with Sophie:

Howl's Moving Castle - Young Sophie

Sophie is a young girl who lives in a victorian-style world with flying machines (true to Miyazaki style, they are whimsical and preposterous) as well as magic. There is a war on, although the details are vague as to what the sides are and why they are fighting. Wizards and witches take part in the fighting as well, and are sought by the state for their value as combatants. The most famous wizard is Howl, who roams the country in a crazy walking and (seemingly) steam-powered castle.

Howl's Moving Castle

Then Sophie encounters the Witch of the Wastes, who puts a curse on her, turning her into an old woman.

Howl's Moving Castle - Grandma Sophie

So Sophie leaves town in search of a way to break her curse. I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler to reveal that she encounters the castle and ends up involved with Howl and his adventures.

Howl's Moving Castle - In the wilderness

The trick with curses is that you can’t tell anyone about your curse, how it works or who did it to you. This makes getting rid of curses far more difficult. Sophie can’t tell people she’s not really an old woman. It seems just about all of the major characters have curses on them. All of them are trapped in ways they can’t articulate. So for the first hour I was treated to some wonderful visuals and interesting characters and a facinating premise. I was engaged and anxious to see how it all turned out, and how all of the curses were undone.

But at about an hour in, it started to drag. The movie stopped going where I wanted it to go, and it seemed to lose its way.

What were the rules governing her curse? How could it be undone? When she was asleep, she was a young girl again. But what did that mean? The movie never really got around to explaining what everyone’s curses really were. We never learn the motivations behind a lot of the characters and why they act the way they do. After a while it started to feel kind of arbitrary. When the story came to the happy ending, I wasn’t even sure what had happened.

There are wonderful, funny moments in this film and I did enjoy it. Like I said, at the halfway point I was ready to call this my favorite Miyazaki movie. If it had retained the energy of the first hour and come to a satisfying ending, it would have stayed as such.


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28 thoughts on “Howl’s Moving Castle

  1. Pete Zaitcev says:

    IMHO, Spirited Away was the climax of his creative career. Its story is more natural. I saw it twice in theaters. Howl I saw once and I don’t want to watch it again. I, frankly, was surprised to hear that Howl was a new production. I thought they just re-issued a Miyazaki movie of Laputa or Nauscicaa vintage. The film had all the hallmarks.

  2. kat says:

    The book is almost entirely different–and much better, I think. Miyazaki took the basic storyline (mostly!), but most of the details are his own.

    I agree that the movie starts to drag after the first hour, too. Alas. We’ll see how Ghibli does with Earthsea. :D

  3. Pixy Misa says:

    Yes, the book is quite different. In the book, the war is a only a distant threat. And Howl has a family in modern-day Wales. (I can understand why Miyazaki would have taken that part out; it adds a lot to Howl’s character, but would be pretty confusing for movie-goers.)

    Miyazaki took a very good book, and scribbled WAR BAD WAR BAD WAR BAD all over it. He’s still a genius, and it’s still a worthwhile film, but it could have been a great film and it isn’t.

  4. Alex says:

    I once remarked to a friend “I’m worried about Cars, but Lassiter making a bad film is like Miyazaki making Howl’s Moving Castle.”
    He replied “Miyazaki did make Howl’s Moving Castle“.
    I could only reply “Exactly”.

    I didn’t hate it, and I’ve bought it for completion’s sake (I’d say that’s the same reason I own Pom Poko, but I actually won that DVD, absolving myself of any moral guilt).

  5. Etoile says:

    quote from the Newsweek article interviewing Miyazaki (found as a link from previous commentor’s link about an even more negative review of the movie):

    MIYAZAKI – A lot of people say they don’t understand the film, and what that means is just that they have a set definition of how a story is supposed to be told. When the story betrays their anticipations, then they complain. Which I find ridiculous. My father, in his old age, only watched TV programs where he could figure out the story in the first three minutes. He’d say, “I can understand this. I can follow it.” But I think it’s a waste of time to try to change people.

    Also, I like how the movie didn’t have someone explain word for word why Sophie would be young at times and old at other times or anything about the curse. It’s something for the viewer to figure it out. The way I interpreted it was that Sophie acted/felt like an old lady therefore she looked like an old lady. She needed to break out of her reticent self. Whenever she loses confidence in herself, she goes back to looking old.

  6. Tim Carroll says:

    I beleive that this movie is an extension of an old japaneese film tactic where alot is left unexplained. It’s left up to the veiwer to interperate. Miyazaki casually explains this in the aformentioned article. It’s often theese little unexplained things that give the movie it’s richness and depth. if you want further explanation of this trend in japaneese movies, it’s well explained(from an american standpoint) in the commentary on the THX 1138 DVD.

    I actually loved this movie. I confess I have not read the book(Although, Diana Wynne Jones is one of my favorite authors). However, I beleive regardless of affliiations with other works each piece should be viewed as a seperate piece of art. Having said this, I think Howl’s is worth it’s weight in gold. Because, like Miyazaki’s other films, Ms. Jones’ novels and even Ursula K. LeGuin’s novels(Author of the earthsea cycle, another of my favorite Authors) Howl’s Moving Castle can give a glimpse of an amazing world filled with magic and wonder to anyone who dares to accept it.
    Unfourtunatly, this all might sound alittle trite. But, it is genuenly how i feel on this issue.
    And finally, for all those who still think Howl’s is nothing more than a space holder in their colections… well, there’s no accounting for taste, is there? ^_^
    (p.s. i think Christian Bale as the voice of Howl(U.S. Dub) was awsome)

    most humbly,
    ~ Tim

  7. kate says:

    i don’t get you people!! i love spirited away and howl’s moving castle, but i think i like the latter better. most of you are just critics! i love the movie, and i’ve seen it like 4 times. it’s my favorite miyazaki film. maybe my favorite film altogether. i’ve read the book, and i think miyazaki did a better job than ms.jones.

  8. miki says:

    i agree with “kate” and “etoile” and “tim carrol”. the movie was excellent. all you retards up there are just plain, well, RETARDED!! i LOVED the movie, and i own it and the book, and i’ll always defend it cause it’s my fav movie, so back off it, you critics!!

  9. Shamus says:

    Wow. I should like the movie because:

    1) YOU liked it.
    2) You called me retarded.

    Brilliant argument. Go back to MySpace, or wherever the hell you came from. Love the movie or don’t, I could care less, but mind your manners on my website. I’m not your damn babysitter.

  10. Tyler says:

    I can understand why some might have problems with Howl’s Moving Castle completely. Recurring themes can become bland in such a large collection of Ghibli films and I personally find the ending a little to romantically convenient, another element that many of Miyazaki’s films share.
    However, this film is the first I’ve seen that completely took me into Miyazaki’s brilliantly imaginative world and held me there well after the credits. To quote the movie itself, “It’s like a dream”.
    While Spirited Away finally fully caught the attention of western audiences and is delightfully original (even amongst it’s Ghibli peers) Howl’s remains my favourite.

  11. Obfuscato says:

    It most certainly is an old method not to tell the whole story linearly or completely. Yet a tale told must hold its audience and Japanese audiences can be put to sleep as well as any other.

    I see the narrative as like a juggler adding item after item; houseplant, bowling ball, live bunny, operating chainsaw. Then he continues to juggle all for like an hour with shots in slo-mo, instant replay, top, side and bottom. Some people are going to be enthralled throughout, but for most of us it's goodbye city. Now maybe if the bunny started juggling flaming batons with mini-chainsaws within the juggled array, we could have been brought back.

    But the story ran out of steam like the castle. It could have used a solid edit, (more) parts in flashback perhaps, some mysteries deepened and resolved rather than dragged along in obscurity, with plot devices made plain earlier ““ was the Scarecrow ever going to be anything other than a Deus ex machina? But nobody but nobody (especially in a Japanese company) was going to challenge Miyazaki at that point in his career. I think he realized this by giving up the directorial reins for later movies.

  12. Tyler says:

    I always thought that the questions left unanswered were a captivating feature of Howl’s narrative, old Japanese story telling method or not. Would Spirited Away be any more effective in explaining how exactly the family wanders from the world of humans into a realm for the spirits? And how exactly does a giant cat with more than the normal amount of legs have features of a bus? Miyazaki’s mind is a mystery and mystery is magic.
    It can be said that some kind of special feature explanation or perhaps an interview or two shedding light on the intended effect and further ideas in Howl’s would be a welcomed appendage to the dvd for those interested.

    Obfuscato, I think its a pity that Miyazaki has recently “given up the directorial reins”. I enjoyed his son, Goro Miyazaki’s, Tales From Earthsea but there arent many Ghibli films i can say stand out against the more recent Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle in my opinion.

  13. Meems says:

    I feel I should point out that the first half of the movie is pretty faithful to the book, but the second half is quite different. I think that’s part of the problem–Miyazaki started telling one story and drifted into another. That said, I really enjoyed this movie, even if I preferred the book.

  14. Terra says:

    I read the book because I loved the movie.

    The book is now one of my favoruties, and although I still love the movie, it just….doesn’t compare. E

    VERY complaint I’ve ever heard about the movie (Cliched Miyazaki bits, confusing plots, whiny Sophie) are not present in the book. I strongly recommend it (And it’s sequel, castle in the air. Which isn’t the best book I’ve ever written, but probably it one of the most cleaver sequel. It managed to be a direct sequel and it’s own story all at the same time.)

  15. Sam says:

    I like howls moving castle too everybody!!!but,its a little sad and funny,but i love My neighbor Totoro than howls moving castle but but but HMC is top 1 and guess what?I watch it everyDAY then thats all haha

  16. Esmo of bridges says:

    All these negative arguments about Howl’s Moving Castle is a reflection of how much these people love and respect Miyazaki’s genius! Being in-love with works like “Princess Mononoke” and “Spirited Away,” we tend to expect so much more in “Howl’s”
    But I think that even if I still like Mononoke better, Howl’s Moving Castle is still a lot better film than (other Miyazaki films aside) any other animated film ever produced the world over!

  17. Cornelia says:

    Well, I am not American. Maybe that gives me an immediate advantage over you people brought up on Disney films. I actually grew up free of Hollywood and Disneyland mind numbing cliches and prototypes. And I was lucky enough to have seen Conan, the future boy ( for those who have never heard of it, it’s Miyazaki’s masterpiece – go google it, eheheh)as a TV series when I was in my teens.
    I was fascinated by this film, especially because it was difficult to understand, and for me, that is part of the brilliancy of Miyazaki’s narrative prowess – he actually wants you to think hard in order to understand the film, or rather, his point with the film. That is why he took Wynne-Jones’s story and twisted and changed it in order to re-tell the same old story … a story which, I think, is never told enough to both young and old. The story of how in our increasingly bellic world, it is sorely needed for people to think and act against war and war-like feelings. And you seem to forget that Miyazaki is an old guy. That, for me, is obviously the reason why he took such a story – we get to see the world from an elderly person’s point of view. Did you not notice? Sophie is still young inside, but she begins to feel the world in a completely different way. That is also the main point of the book (which I have also read) I think, and this is only my opinion, that Miyazaki is one of those people who, as he grew older, felt that he still retains much of his imaginative and powerfully critical and humanitarian capacities (unlike many elderly people who just give up) – and it is a slightly sad film for that…

  18. Arun says:

    Let me start off by saying I love Miyazaki’s work and hold him in the highest possible esteem. Having said that I can say without any doubt that Howl is by far the weakest Miyazaki feature I’ve seen. The joy of most Miyazaki films is that there is no set narrative and the story flows like a beautiful storytelling improv session. His expertise seems to be to put together interesting themes, visuals and ideas into a cohesive and tightly functioning unit. While Howl had all three components I could hardly call it cohesive or tight. The best example of this is (Spoiler!!!) the Scarecrow transformation in the end – I don’t think even an amateur would shoehorn endings like that. After having been blown away by films like Totoro, Porco Rosso and Spirited Away, Howl was a sore, sore, sore disappointment.

  19. David says:

    Umm, Steamboy isn’t a Miyazaki film, if that’s what you’re saying. It’s by Katsuhiro Otomo, the guy who did Akira. And you’re forgetting Miyazaki’s other theme, nature vs. technology/man.

    But as for the unanswered questions, that happens a lot in anime and Japanese storytelling in general. The artist wants you to interpret his story and make your own meaning out of it, and sometimes come up with your own theories. That way the audience is more involved and actually has to think insead of just sitting down for an hour and a half and having the story shoved down their throats. You really wouldn’t like Satoshi Kon’s movies…

  20. Richard says:

    Hurrah for ancient threads. My thoughts: it’s been years since I read the book and longer since I saw the movie, but my first thought is that the book itself would have been near impossible to make into a coherent film — there’s just too much material. Furthermore, it depends so heavily on the English cultural heritage (the European fairy tale tradition and a semi-famous poem) that it would have been near incomprehensible to a Japanese audience. My guess is that Miyazaki found it somehow, liked it, and realized it would have to undergo a heavy Woolseyism. In the process, of course, he also decided it could use a Miyazakification. It probably ended up no harder to understand for the Japanese audience than a more faithful version would have been.

    I agree that it wasn’t his best work. The basic idea behind the way he chose to change the story and wrap things up works for me… the execution, not so much; it felt too rushed, slapdash and a little trite. Still a movie worth seeing at least once.

    Interestingly, a Japanese friend of mine thought that the English dubbed voice of the fire was better than the original. Apparently the original spoke like a Japanese street punk, which sort of auto-loses to Miracle Max.

  21. Fractal says:

    Even later now, but I’ll chip in as well. I definitely liked the movie, and more than just the first hour. My main issue, really, was just the last 5 minutes of the movie when all of the loose ends get magically wrapped up. Poof! Or was that the last 2 minutes?

    Fixing Howl and Sophie, sure, that was foreshadowed. The rest should should have been spread out a bit more, dealt with earlier or not at all.

  22. Lizzy says:

    I think reading the book definately ruined this movie for me. the book was charming and quite brilliant. The movie is good in it’s own right, but the plot is strange and definately sup par compared to the origional material.

    but then again it’s a Miyazaki movie. this means it has stunning visuals, good humor, and awesome action, so why am I complaining?

  23. Brandon says:

    Another necropost from the master…

    I was less happy with Howl’s Moving Castle than with most other Miyazaki fare I’ve seen. I’m not sure why. I think Spirited Away trumps Howl on a number of levels. Which leads in to…

    “This movie isn't as heavy as some, but it does continue his familiar themes: War is bad, and people who fight in wars are mostly idiots. He's been singing this particular song for years. He does it well, but I think Miyazaki fans can be forgiven for wondering if he knows any other tunes.”

    Spirited Away moves away from the war theme quite well and demonstrates a willingness on Miyazaki’s part to view conflict on a smaller, more personal scale when necessary.

  24. Ryan says:

    I have read the book by Diana Wynne Jones. The movie and the book are pretty different. Sophie stays an old women throughout the entire book. Unlike the movie, no one is surprised that Sophie had a curse put on her. Everyone actually tries to take the curse off of her, but Sophie is too busy enjoying hiding behind her facade as an old lady that the spells don’t work. Magicians can sense spells and magic, no matter how subtle the magic is (there is a point made of this) so when it is revealed that this or that character is something else than what they seem, it was at least hinted at before. In the book, Howl and Sophie actually get freaked out by the scare crow because of the extremely strong magic placed upon it.

    In the end, it all gets pretty convoluted, but at least it was on account of all the information being delivered at once and not because of ambiguity. No stone is left unturned, so at least everything is comprehensible.

    It’s still my opinion that the book is better than the movie. I saw the movie first then read the book. The movie isn’t at all bad, it’s really really good. It’s just not as good as the book. The book is pretty low-key and not at all epic like the film.

  25. Ping says:

    Despite what everyone says… I think it was a fantastic movie, in both its superb animation and mysterious story~~ (though my favourite will alway be spirited away~)
    Yes it was confusing in some parts but I guess that added to the air of mystery surrounding the story no? We are left to interpret the story in our own perception rather than it being spoon-fed to us~ I’m surprised it lost the Oscar to Wallace and Gromit…

    … I should watch it again~~

  26. Michaela says:

    I will disagree with most and say that this is the most breathtaking film that i have ever encountered. The storyline is gorgeous. People are saying that it doesn’t go into detail about the curses, but maybe that was done on purpose. Maybe it was meant as a thinking aspect, it could be whatever your mind wants it to be. If you say that any part of this film is boring then we are obviously not watching the same thing. This film changed my life, for the better.

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