It’s easy to see what drove Hayao Miyazaki to adapt Diana Wynne Jones’s 1986 fantasy novel, Howl’s Moving Castle. Both Jones and Miyazaki have a fascination with flight, magic, myths, and odd creatures. They share a dry, acerbic sense of humor. Most importantly, both share a love for smart, young female protagonists on the cusp of adulthood. Of his nine movies, six feature female protagonists. In Jones’s Sophie Hatter, Miyazaki must have seen shades of his own Kiki and Princess Mononoke.
In Jones’s novel, Sophie is a shy, unassuming young woman who works in her parents’ hat shop because she can’t see any other options for herself. She directs most of her sharp, dry wit—she doesn’t realize, among other things, that she’s very funny—at herself. Although told in the third-person, the novel clearly sees the world through Sophie’s eyes.
In today’s parlance, we’d say she suffers from mild depression and a lack of self-esteem. In the fairytale past of Howl’s Moving Castle, however, such now-mundane terms are nonexistent. What the people take as mundane, however, would seem extraordinary to us. It’s not uncommon to run into witches and wizards. Every family that can afford them has a pair of seven-league boots. Spell-enchanted objects refuse to remain stationary. A castle picks itself up and walks around the surrounding countryside. The castle’s location, and the handsome, frightening wizard who runs it, are both the sources of much town gossip. The wizard, Howl, is apparently a ladykiller, but it’s not clear at the novel’s outset that the term is metaphorical instead of literal.
Jones’s gift is in defining this magical world so clearly and articulately that, within 50 pages, we take it for granted. In a sly turn, Sophie later finds herself in modern-day Wales—cars, televisions, stoplights, video games, and electricity are all described, from Sophie’s perspective, in terms that make them seem as otherworldly as her world is to us.
At first, Howl too seems otherworldly to Sophie. Through a series of events too complicated to go into here, Sophie gets turned into an old crone by a spiteful witch—and can’t tell anyone about the spell—and ends up as Howl’s cleaning lady. As she lives with the man, she discovers that he’s no monster, but he is a foppish drama queen. His house is slovenly, but he’s a clotheshorse who’s always in style. He flies into a rage when he accidentally dyes his hair the wrong color. He gently chastises Sophie’s fashion, her nagging, her insistent presence. Sophie, who’s never known such luxury, resents him, and gradually grows to like him, and then to love him.
Of such stuff is screwball comedy made. But most of the novel’s humor, as well as its revelations, are psychological. Sophie flies into a rage herself when she thinks Howl is courting another woman, but only gradually realizes that her rage is borne of jealousy. Her thought processes, especially when it dawns on her that she is a magician as well, are hilarious.
Howl’s works because of its internal nature. How would a preeminent visual stylist bring to life the churnings of a young woman’s growing pains? Miyazaki doesn’t quite solve this conundrum in his film adaptation, but his attempt is fascinating to see.
Miyazaki’s a master of the magical mundane, so he shares Jones’s sensibility. His movies often take place in a fantasy, early-20th-century version of Europe, in which fairytale heroes drive through traffic in Model T’s. Howl’s Moving Castle’s world is so beautiful that it hurts the eyes when it’s later ravaged by bombs. Its seaports, villages, and countryside can be mapped and walked through. At every turn, he draws our attention to minute details—grass swaying in the wind, sunsets, the glimmer of fading sunlight on a shop window, the difference in sound between how a foot falls on cobblestone and on Oriental rug—that make this world real. We gasp in pleasure for the first 20 minutes, and then continue gasping at each new dazzlement.
That beauty, though, is part of the movie’s problem. Miyazaki concentrates his energy on amazing us visually, at the expense of carefully drawn relationships. Howl and Sophie’s blossoming romance is slightly sappy, instead of the hard-nosed and intelligent love Jones shows us. (They snap at each other playfully, even at the end of the book. But they’re madcap swipes that spring from love and lust, not animosity.) Some things he adds—a subtext of a world war, Howl’s role as a conscientious objector within it—are underserved. It’s not clear why the war is happening, or whose side we should be on. Part of Miyazaki’s point, I suppose, is that war destroys us morally and physically, no matter who you’re supporting. But it’s a point that’s imprecisely made because, unlike the physical world he renders, the political climate is nebulous here. The last 30 minutes are confusing even if you’ve read the book—any time you add time travel as an element, you’re risking an audience headache—and the abrupt conclusion is too pat, given the destruction we’ve witnessed.
The last hour is a spectacle, and too much so. Its fever dream of color, light, and explosion draws us away from the small miracle of the first hour. He observes Sophie closely, providing strong clues into her personality just by her expression, dresses, and quiet conversations. (She mutters to herself a lot, successfully mimicking Jones’s interior monologues.) Everything she does improves the world, but she can’t see it; the effect is heartbreaking, and then funny.
Oddly, she gains fortitude and self-confidence once she’s turned into an elderly woman. She says what she means, and sets about cleaning Howl’s castle, which is almost literally a pigsty. (Her curt mop sweeps out hordes of millipedes and rats. From the kitchen.) As she sorts out this boy’s haven—the original occupants are Howl, his assistant Markl, and Calcifer, a fire demon—she enriches their lives, and herself.
No one acknowledges this immediately. Just as Sophie initially resents Howl’s dramatics and sense of entitlement, Howl sulks when she upsets his carefully calibrated disorder. The movie’s best and funniest moments happen when these people negotiate around each other. Sophie wants to cook bacon and eggs on Calcifer, which is an indignity beyond compare to him. She resolves the problem by threatening to throw water on him. Howl throws a tantrum—it involves spirits of darkness and turning into a slimy, melting version of himself; it’s a terrific visual depiction of depression—and Sophie sighs when she has to clean up after him (again). A scene of pastoral beauty involves simply drying the laundry outdoors.
My stepdad once told me, “friends are the family you choose,” and the aphorism is certainly true in the movie. Somehow, this ragtag group becomes a family. Its makeshift nature is emphasized by the fact that it’s constantly growing; by the end, a former enemy, a magical dog, and a scarecrow all live in the castle. Domestic life, as Jones understands and Miyazaki intuits, can be just as dramatic as action spectacle. This family is a kick to be around.
Certainly, the family invigorates Sophie, and it’s here that Miyazaki strikes a grace note. It’s misleading to say she spends most of the movie as a 90-year-old woman, though it’s technically true. As the movie progresses, though, her physique flickers from young woman to middle-aged-woman to old crone, depending on how she sees herself at the moment. When Howl gives her a secret garden as an act of raw love, her craggly face transforms into the beautiful, haunted one we see at the movie’s beginning. At the end of the scene, she succumbs to thoughts that she’s unworthy of his love, she instantly becomes the crone again. In an earlier scene, Howl watches her sleep, and he sees her at her true age—it’s a quick, offhand way of showing how Howl sees Sophie, versus how Sophie sees herself. In an impassioned defense of Howl to a witch, Sophie’s face morphs from crone to young woman as her words grow in intensity. She’s never aware of these changes, and no one in the movie comments on them. This visual shorthand radiates her interior—it’s intended for us, not the characters.
What’s interesting is that Sophie’s hair stays gray, no matter how much she morphs. By the end, she’s a young woman again, but with the hair of someone three times her age. Just like that, Miyazaki shows that she’s evolved from a girl into a woman. It’s a small, prescient detail with layers of depth. Miyazaki’s failure here is that he doesn’t fully grasp the significance of these details, or trust his ability to render them. For that reason, Howl’s Moving Castle is a noble failure—a fitfully good, but not great, movie.