Hayao Miyazaki’s “Howl’s Moving Castle” Celebrates 20 Years Since Release

A flying castle.
The famous castle from Miyazaki's "Howl's Moving Castle" (2004). Photo courtesy of IMDb.

See it  in theaters as part of Studio Ghibli Fest 2024, September 26 – October 3

Known worldwide as one of the most talented animation artists and directors alive today, Hayao Miyazaki left audiences in awe again with “The Boy and The Heron,” which won Best Animated Feature at the 96th Academy Awards. Twenty years ago, Miyazaki was nominated in the same category for a previous film, and despite not winning the award, the director’s “Howl’s Moving Castle” achieved significant critical acclaim. In fact, Hayao Miyazaki’s legacy is so strong that his films claim four positions of the top ten highest grossing Japanese films, worldwide.

In “Howl’s Moving Castle,” a magical tale unfolds in a world where technology and magic intertwine, and courage transcend barriers. At its core, the film explores themes of aging gracefully, the consequences of war, and the transformative power of love and friendship, resonating strongly two decades after its release. The story follows Sophie, a young woman whose mundane life is turned upside down when she’s cursed by the Witch of the Waste, transforming her into an elderly woman. Determined to break the curse, Sophie embarks on a journey to find the legendary wizard Howl, whose moving castle roams the countryside.

Old woman looking in mirror.
Sophie from “Howl’s Moving Castle” (2004) when she is first cursed by the Witch of the Waste and turned into an old woman. Photo courtesy of IMDb.

Miyazaki masterfully weaves themes of self-acceptance and empowerment into Sophie’s character arc. As an old woman, she initially feels powerless and overlooked, but throughout her journey, she discovers her inner strength and resilience. Sophie learns that true beauty comes from within, regardless of age or appearance. This message remains relevant in a society often obsessed with youth and superficial beauty standards.

Though this message is an important one and does carry through the film strongly, the one criticism I have of Miyazaki’s inner beauty empowerment is the obvious Eurocentric and fatphobic imagery placed on the character epitomizing evil. The Witch of The Waste, is a formidable and enigmatic figure, shrouded in mystery and draped in ostentatious attire. Once a powerful sorceress, she now embodies faded glamor and vanity. With her exaggerated gestures and theatrical demeanor, she exudes a sense of grandiosity that belies her diminished powers. Despite her imposing presence, the Witch is ultimately a tragic figure, consumed by her desire for youth and beauty. Her character serves as a cautionary tale about the dangers of obsession and the fleeting nature of power. Through all her evilness represented on screen however, the grotesque corpulence of her figure is representative of the deeply internalized fatphobia of Japanese culture, connecting goodness with the slender forms of the film’s protagonists.

Corpulent woman yelling.
The Witch of the Waste from “Howl’s Moving Castle” (2004) as she climbs the stairs to the palace. The deeply internalized Japanese fatphobia is on full display here as the evil character is also depicted as grotesquely corpulent and sweaty, while the “good guys” of the films are elegantly slender. Courtesy Studio Ghibli.

The backdrop of war and conflict in the film reflects Miyazaki’s anti-war sentiment, a theme that remains pertinent in today’s world. Howl, the enigmatic wizard, is revealed to be deeply affected by the horrors of war, having abandoned his humanity to avoid the violence. His castle, a bizarre amalgamation of machinery and magic, serves as a metaphor for the destructive nature of war and technology. Howl’s internal struggle to confront his past and embrace his humanity mirrors the challenges many face in confronting the consequences of conflict and violence.

One of the most powerful elements of the clear antiwar theme throughout the film is that Miyazaki plunges us into the depths of an active war without denoting which side is which. In fact he goes out of his way to make clear that neither side is good. More and more today, the message we see is that nonviolence is the chosen method, save for when the enemy is the white occupier, colonizer, or oppressor. Rather than advocating for nonviolence and productive dialogue as the best way to connect and build a better world for all, today we see protests labeled and lauded as being “nonviolent” quickly becoming inflammatory, hate-fueled, and virulent. Miyazaki’s film serves as a reminder that no one, no matter their beliefs, background, religion, or identity, deserves to be targeted for intimidation, and that violent aggression is never justifiable.

A young girl carried by a wizard turned into a bird.
A much-shared shot from “Howl’s Moving Castle” representing the relationship built between Howl and Sophie. This scene shows Howl in his bird-like monster form, carrying Sophie to safety during a battle scene. Photo courtesy of IMDb.

Amidst the chaos of war, Miyazaki highlights the importance of empathy and compassion. Howl’s compassion for others, demonstrated through his protection of innocent lives, contrasts with the cruelty of those who seek power and control. This message resonates in a world where empathy and understanding are often overshadowed by greed and ambition.

“Howl’s Moving Castle” also addresses environmental themes, as seen in Miyazaki’s other works. The fantastical world of the film is rich with lush landscapes and magical creatures, yet it is threatened by the encroachment of industrialization and war. Miyazaki reminds audiences of the importance of preserving the natural world and living in harmony with it.

A boy, a dog, and a scarecrow are side characters.
Some of the uniquely quirky side character of “Howl’s Moving Castle” including the “errand dog” Heen, Howl’s young apprentice Markl, and the friendly scarecrow who ends up being the cursed missing prince from a neighboring kingdom. Photo courtesy of IMDb.

In Hayao Miyazaki’s enchanting world of “Howl’s Moving Castle,” the side characters play integral roles, adding depth and charm to the story. Markl is Howl’s young apprentice, a precocious and resourceful boy wise beyond his years. Despite his initial aloofness, Markl quickly endears himself to Sophie with his earnestness and loyalty. He assists Howl in his magical endeavors, often seen brewing potions or tinkering with magical contraptions. Markl’s character arc is one of growth and maturation, as he learns valuable lessons about responsibility and the true meaning of family. His endearing innocence and unwavering support make him a beloved companion to Sophie and Howl.

Heen is a small, elderly dog with a penchant for snooping and mischief. Despite his advanced age, Heen proves to be surprisingly spry and astute, often sneaking around the castle to eavesdrop on conversations. With his shaggy fur and endearing expressions, Heen adds a dose of canine charm to the story. His loyalty to Sophie and Howl is unwavering, as he accompanies them on their journey and provides invaluable assistance when needed. Though he may not possess magical powers like his companions, Heen’s loyalty and bravery make him an indispensable member of the castle’s makeshift family.

Two women struggling for a glowing spirit.
Sophie is seen here attempting to retrieve Howl’s heart from the Witch of the Waste toward the end of the film, as she tries to steal it for herself. Photo courtesy of IMDb.

Calcifer is the heart and hearth of Howl’s moving castle, a mischievous fire demon with a penchant for sarcasm and wit. His fiery personality is matched by his literal fiery form, as he flickers and dances within the castle’s hearth. Calcifer’s magic powers the castle’s movements, but his true strength lies in his bond with Howl and his growing affection for Sophie. Despite his gruff exterior, Calcifer harbors a deep sense of loyalty and compassion, willing to sacrifice himself for those he cares about. His banter with Sophie and Howl provides much of the film’s humor, making him a memorable and beloved character. These side characters, each with their unique quirks and qualities, contribute to the rich tapestry of “Howl’s Moving Castle,” enhancing the story with their warmth, humor, and wisdom.

A woman holding the spirit of the wizard in her hands over his prostrate body.
The Witch of the Waste finally returns Howl’s heart to Sophie, and Sophie is seen here asking the fire demon, Calcifer, if he will be ok once Howl’s heart is returned to his chest, since the two are intertwined. Photo courtesy of IMDb.

Central to the story is the relationship between Sophie and Howl, which blossoms from initial misunderstanding to deep affection. Their love transcends physical appearances and societal expectations, emphasizing the transformative power of genuine connection. Through their bond, Miyazaki explores themes of healing and redemption, showing that love has the ability to mend even the deepest wounds. 

“Howl’s Moving Castle” continues to captivate audiences with its timeless themes of self-discovery, love, and nonviolence. As relevant today as it was twenty years ago, Miyazaki’s masterpiece reminds us of the enduring power of compassion, empathy, and the human spirit.

GKIDS Films, North American distributor for the Studio Ghibli catalog, recently announced the 7th iteration of Studio Ghibli Fest for the year of 2024, taking place from April 27 – December 11, 2024. Their website reads, “In celebration of Hayao Miyazaki’s recent Oscar win, Studio Ghibli Fest 2024 kicks off with the acclaimed director’s previous Academy Award-winning feature, Spirited Away, which took home the Oscar in 2001.” The lineup will include a special celebration for the 20th anniversary of “Howl’s Moving Castle” which is the longest running film of the festival, screening in theaters nationwide from September 26 – October 3, 2024. 

“Howl’s Moving Castle” is streaming on MAX. It is also available for rent or purchase on Apple TV.

About :

Grace E Rubin is an undergraduate alumnus of Wesleyan University and current graduate student in the Writing and Publishing Master’s program at Emerson College. She concurrently works full-time writing for a nonprofit organization. After spending six years in Washington DC, mostly working on Capitol Hill, she is thrilled to now be back in her hometown of Boston. She loves reading, politics, and her rescue pitbull, Angel.