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The Terror and Beauty of Howl’s Moving Castle

Nyrika Nooreyezdan

Howl’s Moving Castle, a masterpiece of animation, is loosely based on the 1986 fantasy novel by Diana Wynne Jones. Director Hayao Miyazaki has stripped down her work to its basic storyline and arcs and rebuilt it to form the cinematic experience that preserves the brilliance at the heart of the story. The movie follows Sophie, a milliner, who is transformed into an old lady by the Witch of the Waste and Howl, a cowardly wizard, who travels in his castle-like contraption with the fire demon Calcifer and his apprentice, Markl. All set against the backdrop of war between two small nations.

This movie is as much a visual experience as it is an emotional one. Hayao Miyazkai is well known for his preservation of the art form of hand drawn animation. His attention to detail accentuates and perfectly captures, both, beautiful pictures of nature and terrifying moments of destruction. The images that stand out in Howl’s Moving Castle are the Star Lake, at the edge of which an aged Sophie sits staring at the sparkling water and surrounding greenery, or the visually stunning yet horrifying burning city.

Action and the movement of the plot is heavily juxtaposed against scenes of ‘Ma’. This is a significant characteristic of Miyazaki’s movies where characters pause, stare at something beautiful or even sigh. It isn’t there to move the story forward but to instill an awareness of the setting and the people. The breaks from constant action both provide breathing space for the audience while adding to the overall tension of the movie.

The movie is an expression of Miyazaki’s feelings towards the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. It subtly intertwines the movement of the plot with clear anti-war sentiment and scenes showing the devastating effects of war. It is not just the dropping of bombs and burning of homes that conveys the director’s clear dislike for war, but also the idea of the corruption of humanity and innocence. We see Howl, our dazzling protagonist, slowly morphing into a beastial creature as the movie progresses and the war worsens. The story itself is set in a world that is both industrial and magical. But even as futuristic airships release bombs on cities, wizards are recruited to fight in the ongoing battle. The motif of corruption is carried through as magic itself is reduced to a means of attack.

The irony of Howl’s Moving Castle is the supposed curse put on Sophie. Old age is first seen by Sophie as an obstacle to overcome but later she realises it’s more freeing than she knew. It portrays youth as a burden rather than a blessing and highlights the trials that come with such a burden. As with many of Miyazaki’s movies, the central character is one that allows adolescent girls to see themselves as heroes in their own story . What strikes you about Sophie is her quiet and reserved nature that doesn’t seem to be a characteristic many would look for in a protagonist but allows young viewers to see themselves reflected in her. As Sophie’s story moves forward we see her gain self-confidence and courage, a journey on which she will, as Miyazaki himself has said, “need a friend, or a supporter, but never a saviour.” The role of women in Miyazaki’s movies are never those of damsels in distress.

Howl’s Moving Castle is a testament to the terror and beauty of the world, and of the people who populate it. It shows us the corruption and purity of power through a fairytale-esque journey and draws us into the stunning world of Howl and Sophie.

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