After the last time I wrote about Howl’s Moving Castle, Dolly over at Dolly Speaks wrote her own post about the movie, and we ended up talking a lot in the comments. She had some good insight and now I’m rethinking my criticism of the movie.
Basically, I objected to the fact that the supposed hero of the movie got less kickass as the movie progressed, instead of more, and I felt the soft, loving Sophie at the end of the movie was a disappointment compared to how strong she was in the beginning. However, I think I am coming at this movie from the wrong point of view. If this were an American movie, especially a Hollywood film, it would be right to expect an increase in awesomeness, but Miyazaki has never been big on following traditional narrative structures (that’s why I like him!)
When I think about his movies as a whole– especially Princess Mononoke– Miyazaki never advocates violence. I know he’s an environmentalist, but I now think he is also a pacifist. So, I’m going to operate under the assumption that Sophie was supposed to get softer, and that was part of the point of the movie (as opposed to an accident caused by Miyazaki forgetting that she was supposed to be awesome.)
As I said over at Dolly Speaks:
The way [Sophie] goes from really passionately hating the Witch to caring for her and actually kissing her is a really unusual story…it would require seeing Sophie’s passion and snarkiness at the beginning as a sort of character flaw, but given how scary she looked when she promised to kill the Witch if they ever met again, and knowing that Miyazaki is often against violence, I could see how “learning to love and forgive” could have been intentional.
I think learning to love is a theme throughout many of his movies, actually. And certainly the movie was about Howl learning to love.
But intentional or not, I can’t help seeing it as a devolution of her character. In my mind, learning to love someone involves respecting them. Love should be a source of strength. It would have been a real sign of love from Howl if he had listened to her and disconnected the castle from the house. Obviously the movie would then end very differently but I think an ending could be made where Howl learns to be a little humbler and listen to Sophie, and Sophie’s determination and self-reliance save the day. It could be a tale about learning to love that didn’t end with a series of magic kisses.
So, while I think a “learning to be softer” story (as opposed to a “learning to be more kickass”) could make for a good story this particular example is still problematic. Most notable is the way that “learning to love” takes such different forms for Sophie and Howl. When Sophie “learns to love” she becomes softer and more feminine (she is at her youngest and prettiest when she’s being lovey-dovey) but she also learns to stop expressing her will. And when Howl “learns to love” he becomes a little less self-absorbed and childish, but he also learns to stop respecting Sophie and treating her as a person.
Howl is all about doing things for Sophie, and this tendency only increases the more “in love” he is. It starts with him taking the saucepan from her the first time they meet– even though Sophie demonstrably can cook with Calcifer the fire demon– and it ends with him flying off to fight for her. (In the middle, he gives her a pretty house and huge field of flowers, so she can set up a flower shop and live comfortably her whole life.) And while cooking breakfast instead of letting her do it is a pretty minor thing to do for her, they get larger and larger, and she objects more and more. She certainly liked the house and meadows, but she would have preferred living with Howl, I think, and might have preferred being a little more self-sufficient, rather than living off a gift. Certainly she didn’t want him to fly off and fight for her– she said so several times– and that’s what really frustrates me about their “love.” Can you really say you’re doing something for someone when they’re asking you not to do it?
Howl used the generic idea of love for Sophie to justify a number of things that Sophie didn’t really want him to do (flying off to fight on a couple different occassions), and to justify not doing the things she asked him to do (disconnecting the castle from the townhouse). Which is, to my mind, not really loving her at all.
I think the movie would have worked better if the focus had been on forgiving or understanding, rather than loving. Sophie’s relationship with the Witch was really powerful, I think– it takes great strength of character to go from hating someone so powerfully, to sympathizing with, and eventually forgiving her. If Howl and Sophie’s relationship had been more like Sophie and the Witch’s, they could have started with the disregard for each other’s wishes that they ended with, and ended with the friendly respect that they began with. It would have suited Howl’s childish personality to whine along with Markl about cleaning his room– to a certain extent, the memorable hair scene did exactly this– and to grow to respect her as her strength and determination repeatedly proved helpful.
Sophie did begin with them as something of a mother figure– if she had gone from mother to friend, instead of mother to obedient wife (which is basically a mother that you can kiss without it being gross), I think Miyazaki could have told his story about embracing peace without diluting his wonderful main character.