In a good movie, characters learn and grow stronger as the plot keeps throwing bigger and bigger challenges at them, so that someone who looks interesting in the beginning it totally awesome by the end. This is called character development. It’s what turned Elizabeth Swann from “at least there’s a woman in this story” to “OMG Pirate King!!1”
In Howl’s Moving Castle, however, we see the opposite, which I am hereby naming character devolution.
Howl’s Moving Castle, one of Hayao Miyazaki’s many fantastic Studio Ghibli films, passes the Bechdel Test with its first two lines of dialogue, and takes nearly half an hour to get around to the reverse Bechdel Test. Sophie, our protagonist, is plain-looking but doesn’t care (a rarity in films). She gets along well with her boss, coworkers, and lovely sister. She works hard but seems to enjoy what she does. She’s a strong woman, but not exceptionally strong, not isolated in her strength. (I’m sure the Hathor Legacy wrote about this concept, in reference to Juno, but for the life of me I can’t find the article. EDIT: I was wrong. It was Shakesville, here. The Juno bit is here.)
Anyway, Sophie: made of awesome. And then, when Sophie kicks the Wicked Witch of the Waste out of her shop, the witch curses her with old age. Sophie does the requisite freak-out, and then she decides, “Well, I was never pretty anyway, so it’s no loss,” and sets off on her quest to get the curse reversed (presumably out of desire not to die of “old age” before she hits 25.) And off she goes! She’s delightfully self-reliant, installing herself as a cleaning lady for the wizard Howl (Despite the fact that he supposedly eats pretty girls’ hearts– “I was never at risk for that,” she says).
So there she is, in a magical castle, bullying a fire demon into cooking her breakfast and wrangling wizards into cleaning the house, making jokes about her “old age.” And then…she stops doing anything.
Seriously, after she’s cleaned out his house, all she does is give Howl something to protect. She tries going to the castle for him so he won’t be conscripted into a pointless war, but then he shows up anyway; she was only useful because she “gave him the courage to go.” And after that, all she does is “give him something to live for,” by which he means, something to nearly get himself killed for, since he starts literally catching bombs to prevent them from blowing up Sophie’s house (which is magically connected to the moving castle) despite the fact that the castle can, y’know, move, and he can change where it connects. It would have made far more sense to disconnect the castle from the townhouse, let the townhouse get bombed, and find another house later, and Sophie even says so. But instead Howl flies off suicidally, leaving Sophie to worry about him.
Oh, she makes a valiant effort, actually figuring out how to disconnect the castle from the townhouse by herself, despite not having any magic powers of her own– but she has to essentially destroy the castle to do so, and it would have been far better if Howl had simply listened to her advice to begin with.
Some semi-confusing dream sequences follow, plus a big fight scene, and then there they all are, dying all around her, and Sophie saves everyone by kissing them. No, really, that’s it. She gets Howl’s heart from the Wicked Witch (who had stolen it from Calcifer) by pleading with her and then, after kissing her, the Wicked Witch is thoroughly devoid of Wickedness. She returns the heart, but Howl doesn’t revive until she kisses him, too. I’m pretty sure either Calcifer or Marco needed a kiss for something or other as well– or maybe it was the dog– and then the turnip-headed scarecrow that had been following her around hops up, and she kisses him too, and it breaks his curse too, and I was ready to vomit.
I’m sure it was meant to be her loving heart that was saving everybody (especially since nobody ever talked about how her own curse was broken– she just looked younger the more lovey-dovey she was acting.) And it’s not that I’m opposed to love, but a girl who just stands around loving everybody is not my idea of a kickass hero (which is what she looked like she was going to be.) After she falls in love with Howl, they have this exchange:
Sophie, looking young: So you are going away. Please, Howl. I know I can be of help to you, even though I’m not pretty and all I’m good at is cleaning.
Howl: Sophie! Sophie! You’re beautiful!
Sophie, turning old again: Well, the nice thing about being old is you’ve got nothing much to lose.
What a stunning lack of self-confidence from a woman who started out so completely secure in herself! Here, here’s what she was like before:
Sophie: All right Calcifer, lets get cooking.
Calcifer: I don’t cook! I’m a scary and powerful fire demon!
[Sophie ignores him and squashes him with her frying pan.]
Bullying a fire demon into making bacon: pretty assertive and confident!
Sophie: I wonder what Howl disguised himself as? Surely not a crow. Can’t be a pigeon, he’s too flamboyant for that.
[a glider plane with a giggling young woman and her lover flies overhead]
Sophie: That could be him.
Totally aware of how childish Howl usually is, and completely unimpressed by it: pretty self-assured!
Sophie: Do you know what Madame Suliman said? She said that Howl’s heart was stolen by a demon. Tell me now, what do you know?
Calcifer: I’m so sorry but that would be confidential information.
Interrogating fire demons! That’s just straight-up brave!
I mean, come on! In the beginning, she gets cursed because she stands up for herself, even when she’s stupidly overmatched. She’s self-confident, self-assured, self-reliant, and most of all driven (which is the nice way to say “kinda pushy”) and even though it was obvious she’d be breaking everyone’s curses– she’s the protagonist, after all– I really expected it to be because of her pushiness, somehow. Perhaps everyone else had given up too soon, and missed something, and by simply standing her ground and marching forward, Sophie would be able to recover the MacGuffin and save the world.
Instead, we got…magical kisses. And I think a hint of magical tears as well. It was just…disappointing.