2016 Film Essays

Studio Ghibli Forever: An Initiation – ‘Howl’s Moving Castle’


“Studio Ghibli Forever: An Initiation” is a series in which Jordan Brooks, having no experience with the animation house, seeks to discover the basis for the worldwide phenomenon that is Ghibli. The international theatrical retrospective of some of Ghibli’s most beloved features serves as the perfect introduction to the studio giant, and will hopefully afford fans and newcomers alike a chance to see these monumental films as originally intended.

Continuing to explore fantasy worlds of magic and romance post Spirited Away, Hayao Miyazaki’s adaptation of Diana Wynne Jones’ Howl’s Moving Castle shows an ongoing fascination with the unexplainable elements of the human world. Instead of deriving whimsical adventure from distant planets and imaginary worlds, Miyazaki uses an ordinary girl as his subject, building a dreamlike fantasia from a baseline to which his audience can easily relate. Going beyond the obvious enchanted objects and conjured spells, the director and his animators have added a noticeable sparkle to the images themselves — even in the absence of Howl’s moving castle, and any wizardly specters, the diverse settings shimmer and dance with the magic of Ghibli.

Starting as little more than a Twilight-esque story of spellbinding infatuation, Miyazaki’s adapted narrative quickly veers into uncharted territory. The hardworking daughter of a fashion-obsessed widow, Sophie’s only concern is keeping her father’s legacy (his hat shop) alive. When rumors circulate that the powerful wizard Howl has been spotted in town, she is unimpressed, figuring that her looks are not nearly remarkable enough to earn his attention. A chance encounter brings the focal duo together, but earns Sophie the ire of the powerful Witch of the Waste. She casts a curse on the young woman, transforming her into a very old one, and the newly wrinkled and bent girl must run from her small village, seeking help from one of the equally powerful beings that live in the countryside.


Drawing elements from some of the world’s oldest folktales (the heroine is almost immediately shown to be a modern Cinderella), Howl’s Moving Castle forges a path into explorations of human nature and relationships as it moves along, taking queues from the mindset of its director/writer and from the state of the modern world. Because Sophie is transformed into an old woman (who assumes that Howl cannot see that she that she has been cursed), her nervousness around the glowingly-attractive wizard all but vanishes and lets a relationship develop that is based on nothing more than friendship.

Though similar to familiar narratives like The Frog Prince, this tale of love-beyond-looks is muted in comparison to Sophie’s exploration of this wizarding world of magical fantasy, and her life as a senior citizen. Miyazaki knows that viewers of all ages looking for the thread of romantic involvement will suss it out no matter how hidden, and he seems uninterested in most of that development. His is a concern that focuses on the imaginary world/house-building that accompanies this all-powerful Howl, and with a young woman’s perceptions of life as an old lady. Joking about shortness of breath, back pain and general fatigue, Sophie’s character comes off strongly as one written by an old person pleading with youth to understand the limitations of age. Howl’s moving castle is nothing more than a massive and complex distraction to help both Sophie — and seemingly the director himself — forget about those limitations.


Animated using lines and shapes that abstractly bulge and quiver from frame to frame, Howl’s Moving Castle begs comparison to Bill Plympton’s manic style. The moving castle’s bulky and teetering frame eternally roams hillsides painted with pastel hues that seem to vibrate and hum in unison with whatever force compels such a building to move in the first place. As the envy of steampunk hobbyists around the globe, the roving home’s engineering is a marvel to behold, with its unique performance allowing it to become yet another bizarre character in the antic film. Converting images ripped from the pages of such an imaginative novel, the Ghibli animation team once again displays their singular ability to let artistry take them to places many of us could only ever reach in our dreams. This dazzling vision, despite a rational impossibility, manages to feel in tune with the hyper-utopian version of reality experienced by children, and by those of us who cling fondly to those haughty days of creativity that have long since faded.


Abandoning messages of environmentalism and nonviolence, Howl’s Moving Castle abandons the narrative moralities that typify the director’s style. Aimed at a crowd unconcerned with the terrible realities of climate change, war and the pressures of growing up, Howl’s Moving Castle knows its place in the canon, and embraces a status as a balm for the broken heart. Written with the foreknowledge of the happiest of endings, Jones’ story is brought to delightful life by Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli, offering audiences a chance to have their imaginations carried to new heights.

Jordan Brooks (@viewtoaqueue) is an increasingly-snobby cinephile based out of London, England. As a contributor to several online publications, including his own blog, he has succeeded in fulfilling his life long dream of imposing strong opinions on others.