Howl’s Moving Castle: Studio Ghibli’s Masterpiece?

When Studio Ghibli released its 2005 feature film, Howl’s Moving Castle, the filmmakers, namely renowned director Hayao Miyazaki, had much riding on the film’s success. Aside from following a string of international blockbusters—beginning with 1988’s breakout My Neighbor Totoro, leading up to 2001’s Spirited Away earning Best Animated Feature Film at that year’s 75th Academy Awards—the Japanese animation master had been cited as the second coming of Walt Disney. In fact, by the time Miyazaki completed Howl’s Moving Castle, the Walt Disney Feature Animation Studio had just begun to eschew traditional hand-drawn animation in favor of CGI-hybrids, before announcing a five-year hiatus from the traditional animation approach with the following year’s Home on the Range. But to many of Studio Ghibli’s most devoted fans, Miyazaki had not only succeeded in making another animated masterpiece—he had, in fact, released his magnum opus. Fifteen years later, modern YouTubers now look back too see if Howl’s Moving Castle holds up. As the commentators at Dyligent Picks recalled, Miayzaki himself took particular pride in the film, and his personal themes of anti-war and youth-versus-age are immediately noticeable; Dyligent Picks stated:

[Miyazaki] has gone on to say that this is actually his favorite film that he has directed. My theory there is that, perhaps compared to a lot of his other films, it’s because maybe this one didn’t have to deal with censorship, or at least getting a lot of cuts, compared to some of the other [films] he had to deal with.

But, as the YouTuber added, any censorship or controversary surrounding Howl’s Moving Castle could hypothetically be aimed at the film’s direct addressing of the ravages of war and the deliberate visual cues taken from Europe in the post-World War II. He added:

Many people that know about Miyazaki’s film know that he is very anti-war, and that was no different here. In fact, it’s probably even more prevalent throughout this film compared to the rest of his, because even some of the characters blatantly say how much they can’t stand war. This, of course, came out during the Iraq War in the U.S. and there was a lot of speculation whether this wouldn’t perform very well because of it. However, it actually did really well and that might be because it was [Miyazaki’s] first film to follow Spirited Away.

Having largely depended upon imagery surrounding Europe after the Second World War, Miyazaki also drew upon the more beautiful aspects of the cultural norms that accompanied that time period—particularly the fashions of pre-occupied France, as YouTuber Jeremy Hannaford observed:

The [film’s] world in general—apparently, Miyazaki based the world off of France, a certain area of France, and you can see that with the countryside, the architectural style, [and] definitely the costume design…

At Fandom Musings, the commentators saw the overall design of the film—specifically the visual look of the lead characters—to be as integral to Miyazaki’s epic world-building, citing the costumes and body language to be a key factor in a viewer’s understanding of Sophie and her world. As Fandom Musings claimed:

… The question of appearance and identity is a recurring motif, so character design becomes particularly important in [Howl’s Moving Castle] not only to help in our initial impression of the characters, but also to help us understand the character growth. We see this very clearly with the Witch of the Waste, Sophie, and Howl himself.

Fandom Musings continued by citing chief protagonist Sophie’s changing appearance from young to old to not necessarily be symbolic of age itself, but a catalyst for the changing times and situations around her—to the effect that her carefully designed “look” is, in itself, an element of Miyazaki’s narrative. Fandom Musings added:

Sophie is a much more complicated case. Her character design shifts are a major plot-point. At the beginning of the movie, Sophie is a bit of a shut-in—mature to a fault, she has dedicated her whole life to work and has eschewed fun … She keeps her emotions totally subdued and comes across as rather lonely and unhappy with low self-esteem … After a bad encounter with the Witch of the Waste, she is cursed for her outer appearance.

Of particular interest to YouTuber Dyligent Picks, Miyazaki’s focus on Sophie’s out appearance—especially her consistently-changing age—worked to address two common themes within the director’s body of work—that of the aging process, and a deliberate application of feminist heroic theory. He added:

One thing Miyazaki did really well in this film was present how age can be a positive thing as one grows older. We see how Sophie finds a sort of calmness in growing old, even though she has to get used to it at first. I found that really refreshing and really enjoyed how they portrayed [age] throughout the film.

And, as was the case in Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro and Spirited Away—among others—the lead protagonist meant to represent the audience’s point of view, is a strong-willed female, one who rises to the occasion of adventure, while also representing the gender-neutral hero’s journey. Dyligent Picks continued:

Of course, many, if not all, of Miyazaki’s films contain feminist elements in them, with their strong female characters throughout. This film is no different in that way.

But if there was one element to Howl’s Moving Castle that divided any critical opinions, it wasn’t the characterizations or the controversial anti-war sentiments; rather, it was Miyazaki’s narrative thread. While many commentators long agreed that his strongest work were the feature films that eschewed traditional story-structure in favor of surrealistic, dreamlike fantasy—largely dependent upon the animated visuals—later films like Howl’s Moving Castle attempted to follow an obvious story arc. And for a director primarily known for whimsy, claims of inconsistency can be the most-recurring criticism. As Channel Awesome’s Tamar’s Never Seen observed, this was the case with Howl’s Moving Castle:

Though, I will say that there are a few questions that I do have … There’s not much consistency in why [Sophie] is an old woman—and she is because of this spell—but she goes in and out of being an old woman and an old girl a lot throughout the film, and there’s not really a consistent answer for why.

While still praising the film overall, YouTuber The Fangirl concurred with Tamara’s comments, stating in her own assessment:

Throughout the climax of the movie, we see some major changes in Sophie, and they all occur after Sophie gives Calcifer [a spirit] her braided hair to eat … Several times in the movie, Sophie varies in age. At first, this only happens when she’s asleep, [which] allows her body to deflect the curse temporarily. Confidence and love also seem to make Sophie younger moments. However, once the war really hits close to home, Sophie becomes young again, and she permanently stays that way—but the curse was never formally broken.

Of the film’s characterization, Tamara added that she would the supporting characters—not just protagonist Sophie, but also Howl, the Witch, and the comical spirit, Calcifer—to be just as mystical and entertaining. She added:

I love the kind of struggle with Howl, how he’s like this scared guy and he’s fighting his own demons inside of him—he’s turning into a bird monster, but is he heroic, or is he a selfish man-child? Is he becoming heroic because of Sophie?

Tamara added that she loved the film itself and that any small missteps were overshadowed by Miyazaki’s visionary filmmaking. She concluded:

I loved it … The details of the backdrops and the backgrounds that you get versus the simplicity—honestly, the details of the characters that you get right in front of you…[and] I thought the story was really cool, and weird…

Likewise, Dyligent Picks praised the film, specifically—as usual—the epic scope of Studio Studio’s ever-evolving leanings toward traditional hand-drawn animation. In his own summation, he stated:

This film, at though, really does feel like it’s just a ton of really incredible spectacles and magical moments, one after the other—from scene to scene, it’s just, ‘Wow, take a look at this!’ … They’re just so many cool things that go on in this film.

To YouTuber Jeremy Hannaford, the film’s greatest strength was its successful blend of animated imagery and rich characterization. He added that, as is the case with most Miyazaki films, the movie’s grandeur came in the form of all its many elements:

There’s just so much to like about this film—not just the animation, but the world that it’s set in, the story, the narrative, the world-building, the fantasy element—and I’m not a big fantasy guy, either, but I got ingrained in this world, I got ingrained in Sophie’s life.

At The Fangirl, the YouTuber insisted that, contrary to the film’s straightforward narrative structure, Howl’s Moving Castle is the type of fantasy that welcomes—or even requires—multiple viewings in order to full appreciate its many components. She concluded:

It’s definitely my favorite Studio Ghibli film. Because the imaginative story is so great, and there are so many complicated, moving parts, you could see this film a dozen times and still find new details to pick out.