Love, peace, and rethinking Howl’s Moving Castle

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.

If only.


11 Responses to Love, peace, and rethinking Howl’s Moving Castle

  1. dollyann says:

    You know, I wonder in part how much Miyazaki just borrowed storyline from the book. I’m killing myself trying to remember it now (it was so awful), but because so many of his other films were overtly pro-feminist (I’ve got a review on Kiki’s Delivery Service in the works), I’ve got to believe that something influenced this one to be different.

    While I can’t remember Howl’s Moving Castle the book perfectly, I know other stuff written by Dianna Wynne Jones is definitely NOT feminist. When I read the “Dark Lord of Derkholm” I was nauseated at the number of gender norms attributed to characters. Like, at some point in the book, one of the girls gets molested, but you’re not even really certain ‘how’ because the author is intentionally vague about it (women’s problems aren’t worth the detail, you know… the womenz, their bodiez, their problemz…gotta keep up the mystique). So, I wonder if her writing confined Miyazaki to her gender stereotypes.

    Still, if Miyazaki was making his own interpretation of her story, he would have easily been able to alter the things you mentioned above. Perhaps he got caught up in his anglophilia and wanted to make this movie more of a “traditional” romance. But, even Laputa: Castle in the Sky, with all its gushy romance featured Dola, Queen of the Sky Pirates! Ooh, now that I’m thinking about that film, I’m wondering if Sheeta couldn’t have been more active herself.

    Gah, if only we could talk to the master himself! 🙂 Thanks for the kudos/linkage. This film is SO worth discussing compared to so much Hollywood pulp garbage.

  2. eloriane says:

    That’s a vary good point, about the book. I might see if my library has it (unlikely) because it could explain a lot.

    Dianna Wynne Jones sounds awful though, so maybe I won’t subject myself to it 🙂 It sounds a little like she has a “thing” about downplaying attacks on women– the way everyone brushes off Sophie’s near-rape in Howl’s Moving Castle, and the vague molestation you described.

    But you’re right, Miyazaki usually does a good job of breaking away from stupid gender tropes. I really want to see Castle in the Sky now, just to meet Dola, Queen of the Sky Pirates! I mean, can you have a cooler name than that? 😀

    I think I’m going to re-watch Totoro soon. I remember really loving it but it’s been a long time since I’ve watched it so I may have been missing a lot of not-so-cool stuff. I’ve been going through a phase recently of re-watching Disney movies and discovering that they’re nowhere near as awesome as I remembered them as being.

    I’ve heard there’s an awesome museum to Miyazaki in Japan, full of art and notes and sculptures (!) and supposedly it’s a beautiful and slightly surreal place. I really wish I could see it…maybe someday. He’s an amazing artist, and like I said earlier, he does make mistakes, but they’re always brand-new mistakes that are fascinatingly different from the mistakes that Hollywood keeps making (again and again and again.)

    I look forward to hearing what you have to say about Kiki’s Delivery Service! Email me or drop a comment here or something, I don’t want to miss it 🙂

  3. Ouyang Dan says:

    It’s so funny b/c I think you were just at my site leaving a comment on Sleeping Beauty…

    My daughter loves the Miyazaki films, and Howl is one she is particularly fond of, even though the rest of us joke that Howl is the only person more emo than Anakin Skywalker.

    After reading this I think I am going to have to rewatch it. I know that Miyazaki has taken a lot of crap for always making his characters so traditionally beautiful, but when he explained that he is a little in love w/ all of his character it made sense, he draws them as he sees them.

    Kiki is one of my favorites (for some obvious reasons), and I would love to see what either of you have to say about it.

    I am sensing a Miyazaki weekend coming up…crap, our roommate sent them to Iraq w/ his wife. Well…in due time.

  4. Ouyang Dan says:

    Ooh…I would also like to know what you think of Spirited Away, b/c I love that one to the end of time…

  5. eloriane says:

    I was, actually 🙂 Animated movies are worth a lot ore thought than most people give them.

    Howl is so totally emo, it’s hilarious. I kind of love it about him (I also had a huge crush on Luke Skywalker…). But actually I think it’s disingenuous to criticize Miyazaki for traditionally beautiful characters. Sophie was pretty half the time and Howl was gorgeous, but the Witch was quite sympathetic by the end and she was quite ugly, and I think the little girl in Spirited Away is the only pretty character in that whole movie.

    They’re all drawn with affection, even old Sophie, but I would say Disney has a much bigger problem with always making people beautiful.

    I’ll be watching Kiki and Spirited Away pretty soon, I hope 🙂 Miyazaki is addictive!

  6. Ouyang Dan says:

    Yes, Disney has a much better problem w/ that. I actually defend Miyazaki in that area…He draws them the way he feels about them. Older Sophie reminded me of my oma, whom I love very much. That kind of affection.

  7. MB says:

    I can’t fault Howl for becoming more protective of Sophie as the story develops. Howl is originally depicted as a completely self involved character, I took his assertion of cooking breakfast as his way of saying he doesn’t need Sophie around– not that he actually wanted to help her in any fashion. And perhaps also re-establish some dignity for Calcifer, which is actually an extension of himself as Calcifer is his heart, as a normal girl bent the will of a fire demon.

    However, as Sophie continues to live with Howl, he learns how to love as well, and his actions become less self involved and more conscientious of Sophie. While Sophie objects to some of the things he does for her, he ultimately does them in order to make her “wake up” and realize herself for who she is, a pretty and capable woman that gave him a heart. You mentioned him giving her a meadow when she rather be with him– he gave her his childhood home, a precious memory to him, and the means for her to open a shop and take care of herself. I believe he did this to make her understand just how important she is to him, though she didn’t catch on because she didn’t believe she was capable of winning his affection. Her lack of faith in herself and self realization is what keeps her old.

    Keep in mind that at the beginning of the movie Sophie did what her mother wanted her to do and had little confidence in herself as being nothing more than a shadow of a woman (she tells her sister that she’s not pretty enough to be taken away by Howl, and her sister remarks that Sophie only stays at the hat store because their mother wants her to and believes Sophie needs to have a life of her own). She doesn’t have any control over herself and her life, so why care when the witch turns her old?

    When she becomes old she loses the restraints of being a proper young woman, and I think it’s the compound of the Witch’s curse and Howl’s love that allows Sophie to become lovely and assertive. By the end of the movie she does want she wants despite anyone attempting to tell her what to do.

    I also took her kisses and affection as showing that Sophie finds joy in her life. At the beginning of the movie she seems not to care much about anything, but by the end she’s able to exhibit strong expressions of emotion.

    In short, Sophie at the beginning of the movie was not a complete person. Her void of emotion symbolizes her lack of heart, like Howl. Only when they fall in love are they able to retrieve their emotions, their hearts, and become whole. Perhaps Sophie isn’t this “kick ass” female version of a male hero, but she wasn’t meant to be. She’s a character with a story of self discovery, which displays a great deal of depth that I find very rewarding.

    Also keeping in mind that the movie is also a self discovery story for Howl as well, and he shouldn’t be discounted simply because he’s male. He should be allowed the same gratuity of making mistakes and learning from them as Sophie is given.

    Finally, I didn’t see her becoming the “obedient wife.” I saw her end up with the person she loved because she defied him and risked losing everything in order to save him.

    All that said, I did like her better as the saucy old woman, haha. I love the movie for her depiction of an old woman and Howl being utterly ridiculous.

  8. eloriane says:

    MB, thank you so much for your incredible analysis! I always love hearing other people’s reactions, especially when they’re so detailed.

    It’s been a while now since I’ve seen the movie, but I can definitely see your perspective on it. You have a great point about that original taking-the-saucepan thing being an assertion of his independence– I hadn’t thought of that.

    You’re also completely right about Sophie learning to have faith in herself and find joy in her life. Her anger in the beginning, which looked to me like kick-ass-ness at first, was almost certainly coming from a place of insecurity, so that it’s satisfying when she learns to be comfortable with herself, even if it means she goes from a saucy old woman to a polite young lady, because it represents a real growth of character.

    However, I think we’re going to have to agree to disagree about Howl’s protectiveness. I have a hard time buying protectiveness as an expression of love in basically all cases, because it seems to me that you only have to be protective of someone whom you don’t think can take care of themselves. It’s also very similar to being possessive, which means trying to literally possess the other person as if they were an object. Sophie was concerned about Howl getting hurt, and tried to do things about it, and that was love, but Howl was protective, and tried to keep Sophie from doing things, and that was supposed to be love too, but it left a bad taste in my mouth.

    To someone less averse to displays of protectiveness (I’ll admit, it’s a personal thing with me), I can see how their character arcs would look a lot more equal.

    Finally, I just want to note that I critique these movies because I adore them! The closer a movie is to perfection, the more fascinating it is to me to try to pick apart why it’s nearly perfect, and what’s keeping it from being totally perfect. So I never want anyone to feel I am dissing movies that they love– I adore Miyazaki! This is just how I show it. 🙂

    • Crowfoot says:

      I’ve been avoiding this Howl’s Moving Castle thread because I wanted to see it before reading the analysis of it. (and just reading these last two comments it looks like the analysis is really interesting!). So this comment is more general and not specific to this film.

      Re: male protectiveness over women being too much like possessiveness. I would have to agree with you, eloriane. It’s a fairly common trope in feminism to argue against chivalry as it infantalizes – it’s often a kind of polite controlling. I think protectiveness can fall under this chivalry banner as well. Of course, not all the time in every situation, but more so when men are being protective of women they love or are related to. I think eloriane’s point here is key: “Howl… tried to keep Sophie from doing things.”

      What was it that that unknown 19th Century African-American abolitionist/suffragist said*? Ah yes, she said ” A pedestal is as much a prison as any other small space.”

      I used to get really annoyed when people (men or women) opened doors for me because it forced me to be passive and to be escorted indoors (I’m not talking about holding the door behind you after you’ve walked through – that’s just polite. I mean when someone is at the door first, then opens it and steps back and waits for you to go through, sometimes ogling your ass as you do.) It was the sense of being escorted and passive which I hated – I had no choice but to go through the door. To do otherwise would have felt very rude. I was always polite to these people because I knew they were trying to be polite to me, but I hated it! However, I don’t have such strong feelings around when a man will defend me physically. To me it has felt like he’s just got my back, you know? All of my loved ones should do the same, as I should do to my loved ones (provided we are physically capable). But I also know the history of men fighting “for” women. It’s a history of possessiveness/protectiveness, rather than just having your companion’s back.

      So I guess I’m saying that these things can be complex and have a number of different subtexts and emotional reasons. We cannot forget the history, however, nor the sexist context in which we all live. And as such, I lean towards male protectiveness usually = possessiveness. (and eventually I’ll watch this film and then read the rest of this thread!)

      * this quote is often attributed to Gloria Steinem, but she has always said it came from this other unnamed woman. Who she is appears to be lost in time, alas.

  9. Dori says:

    This thread, this entry, your analysis of any Miyazaki, is making me incredibly happy. Yeah, I know its old, but I have been watching Miyazaki films ever since I can remember (I had My Neighbor Totoro on a betamax tape, with no subtitles or translations among others) and seeing a feminist analysis of any of his work makes me so damn happy 😀

    Eloraine, have you seen Nausicca? because you need to.

  10. eloriane says:


    I love getting comments, especially on old posts! (And especially when they come with recommendations!)

    But no, I haven’t seen Nausicaa… I’m trying to, though! I thought I’d gotten it when I rented Howl’s Moving Castle, but, er, I was mistaken, haha.

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