Ghibli Month | Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)

Synopsis :  The film tells the story of a young, content milliner named Sophie who is turned into an old woman by a witch who enters her shop and curses her. She encounters a wizard named Howl and gets caught up in his resistance to fighting for the king.

Howl’s Moving Castle is an adaptation of a book by the late, great Diana Wynne Jones. I went through both at roughly the same time and was unimpressed. Over the years, I’ve revisited both film and book. Howl’s Moving Castle is now one of my favourite books ever. And Howl’s Moving Castle is…well…still not a great film. This will be a longer review, beware of spoilers.

Now, I’m not biased because of my love for the source material. I’m not a purist. I actually hate it when adaptations prioritise being faithful to the source material without thinking of how it works in a different medium (looking at you, Lion King 2019). And Howl’s Moving Castle is an excellent adaptation in some places. It brings Jones’ world alive with typical Miyazaki breadth and imagination. It’s so visually iconic that I can’t detach myself from his imagery when reading the book. And the quasi-Victorian, military setting fits nicely into my personal tastes. Whenever I attempt to write fantasy, I find myself subconsciously trying to replicate that ideal.

When the film is faithful, it’s beautiful. Sophie’s growth as a character is conveyed by the visual cues of her fluctuating age – a nice visualisation of her self-esteem and the self-inflicted nature of her curse. When the film makes changes, it can also be very beautiful. Changing Michael to Markl alters the dynamic in a good way. Michael, whose character fit the romantic-comedy caper of the book, would be out of place in a story that is more focused on family. And Markl is delightful in his own way. The scarecrow (Turnip-head) gets more time as well, and becomes a really sweet addition to the cast. In fact, this film reaches a peak for me in at the halfway point where it’s just Sophie, Markl, Turnip-head and Calcifer (who I love) all interacting, being a family. It’s just perfect.

Howl, I think, best conveys this – when he’s Miyazaki’s Howl (mysterious and suave), he’s mesmerising to watch. When he’s Diana’s Howl (vain and childish), he’s entertaining. The question becomes how to mesh the two consistently. And the film succeeds initially. But as the story develops past the halfway point, it unravels as plot elements are picked up and dropped almost arbitrarily. There becomes a quiet struggle within the film to figure out how to mesh the book with Miyazaki’s own ideas. Most plot elements on Sophie’s end don’t fare too badly. Everything on Howl’s end flops spectacularly. In the book, Howl is a total coward, avoiding responsibility for his bad relationship with the Witch of the Waste. The film keeps that element – but then drops the Witch as the main villain. But Howl is still a coward, and decides that he’s not going to be one by fighting in the war…which would be fine if he hadn’t already been fighting in the war! That’s why you were gone half the film! You were never a coward in that respect!

The inability to reconcile the original writing and the changes creates inconsistencies within the story. The end result is muddied. I can’t imagine this being a forgiving watch for someone who hasn’t read the book. The finale, especially, is a mess. The resolution to Howl and Calcifer’s dilemma only makes sense when you know that Sophie is a witch – but that end of the story is adapted out whilst the resolution is kept. And don’t even get me started on what they did with the Witch of the Waste. And Turnip-head. At that point, my feelings for the film crossed from confusion to frustration.

I’m not angry at the film though. Howl’s Moving Castle is a book of simple prose, with a tricky, complex plot. It’s a difficult story to convey in film. But the film genuinely was on the right track. Everything before the final act is solid. And frankly, the added stuff was just as compelling, if not more so, than the original. Howl, like in the book, is a victim of his own magic – but in a way that manifests as a literal monster. I thought that the monster element was a representation of Howl’s self-loathing. His beauty and glamour, I thought, was his way of hiding those insecurities. Which would have been a nice juxtaposition to Sophie, who comes into her own at her least attractive. But that element, like many other, is resolved with a hand-wave of contrivance, with little consequence. It comes to nothing.

There are other flaws in the film that I’d like to talk about, specifically the clumsy integration of a war message into the story. But for now, I’m happy. I’ve said everything I’ve ever wanted to say about Howl’s Moving Castle. With each rewatch, I appreciate its strengths more and more. And with each rewatch, I understand its weaknesses better and better.

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