What comes to mind when you hear the word “castle”? Probably not a walking house fused with cogwheels, steaming pipes and turrets balancing on four thin, metallic bird feet. It may look like a dump but as Director Hayao Miyazaki works to bring Diana Wynne Jones’s novel, Howl’s Moving Castle, to life in a stunning animation, viewers will soon see, as the people of the magical kingdom of Ingary have, that this walking castle is more than just a few nuts and bolts.
When Sophie, an eighteen-year-old hat-maker, is cursed with a spell that transforms her into an old woman (courtesy of the Witch of the Waste), she must journey to the Wastes to find a cure. Instead, however, she finds other cursed individuals: a living scarecrow (whom she dubs “Turnip Head”) who leads her to Howl’s castle and Calcifer, a fire-demon who powers the moving castle. Other residents of the castle include Markl, Howl’s young apprentice, and of course, Howl himself, a mysterious and powerful wizard who accepts Sophie as the cleaning lady of his home. During her stay, Calcifer asks for her help in breaking his curse and though Sophie complies in exchange for her own cure, she doesn’t realize what she’s gotten herself into. Tangled in a world of war, sorcery and magic portals, Sophie endeavors to break the curses of her friends and herself and discovers her own strength and magic along the way.
“Coming-of-age” is one of the many themes featured in the film, although it puts a spin on this idea by aging Sophie into an old woman right off the bat. Sophie is placed in an interesting position as she struggles with adolescent insecurity and self-doubt in a body that most would consider very wise and assured. But as the story progresses, Sophie learns to embrace the complacency that comes with old age and accepts herself (whether old or young), as a beautiful and confident woman.
And what would a Studio Ghibli masterpiece be without Joe Hisaishi’s beautiful soundtrack compositions? Composer of other Studio Ghibli favorites such as “Spirited Away” and “My Neighbor Totoro,” Hisaishi has a way of creating tracks that don’t just complement the animation, but also breathe life into the film’s story and characters.
Take the track “Cave of Mind,” for instance. Played when Sophie gets a glimpse into Howl’s childhood, a solemn trumpet solo emphasizes the tragedy that had befallen Howl as well as Calcifer. Though Howl gave his heart to save Calcifer who was then a dying star, it bound Calcifer to Howl and rendered Howl emotionally trapped in an adolescent state. After an orchestrated crescendo, a flute takes over with a playful, fluctuating melody to remind the audience that this is a memory of a boy, a boy who “swallowed a star.” Despite Howl’s power and often outrageous actions, he still has the “heart” of a child and viewers find that the “coming-of-age” theme doesn’t just apply to Sophie.
With solid characterization and breathtaking music, Hayao Miyazaki presents yet another Studio Ghibli delight in “Howl’s Moving Castle”. As the characters discover for themselves how inner spirit matters more than outer appearance, viewers can also see how this notion of “It’s the inside that counts” presents itself in the titular castle. Sure, it’s no Sleeping Beauty palace blanketed with pixie dust but it doesn’t mean it’s any less magical.
Howl’s Moving Castle is part of a film series, “Ecological Storytelling: Hayao Miyazaki & Studio Ghibli,” hosted by the Environmental Humanities Center featuring Hayao Miyazaki classics. This event is free and students, faculty and staff are provided with free lunch and the opportunity for a discussion afterwards. Films are screened every Friday at South Hall 2635 from 12:00 p.m. to 2:00 p.m. until Dec. 12.