Size / / /

Lurching through the countryside on four birdlike mechanical legs, the castle of the wizard Howl frightens the denizens of a war-torn kingdom. Yet the same folk who fear Howl's wicked reputation—a thief of girls' hearts—seek his knowledge without knowing it, buying spells from Howl's aliases at the storefronts he keeps in various towns. The castle's front door opens to different locations, allowing Howl to keep his identities separate and his freedom intact. Like the castle, Hayao Miyazaki's animated feature Howl's Moving Castle opens doors to unexpected places, surprising us with humor, excitement, and an awakening of self-awareness.


Sophie Hatter may be the only teenage girl in the kingdom who doesn't squeal and run when Howl's castle heaves into view. Sober, hardworking Sophie considers herself too unglamorous to catch a wizard's eye. She thinks little about her own wishes until The Witch of the Waste curses her with the form of a ninety-year-old woman.


Liberated from her role of dutiful daughter, Sophie revels in her budding candor even as she grouses about the cold in her newly old bones. Newly intrepid too, she takes shelter in Howl's castle, where she strikes a bargain with Calcifer, the fire demon who grudgingly keeps the castle humming. If she can free Calcifer from his contract with Howl, the demon just might help her break her curse. Posing as an old cleaning lady, Sophie investigates the castle and gradually wins over Howl's young apprentice, Markl. When Sophie begins to think for herself and follow her own heart, she brings out the best in those around her. Perhaps there's hope even for the cowardly, selfish Howl.


As one would expect from Miyazaki's Studio Ghibli, Howl's Moving Castle looks imaginative and is gorgeously detailed. Howl's eponymous castle looks like Baba Yaga's hut after the introduction of steampunk and a few centuries of haphazard renovation. Miyazaki pays equal attention to the wonders of nature and the grotesqueries of war. A field of nodding pink flowers looks as marvelous as the spell-casting of the kingdom's chief wizard. The horrible bloated warplanes and the wizards corrupted into battle monsters give a dangerous edge to an otherwise idyllic world.


Miyazaki's Howl is simpler than Diana Wynne Jones's delightful book of the same name. A two-hour movie couldn't house the book's intricately woven subplots, and Miyazaki's preference for character complexity—even in villains—requires that a few minor characters disappear to allow development for the major ones. Of all the changes the film makes from the book, the change from impending war to the thick of it has sparked the most controversy. I found it an interesting element.


Fans of the book needn't despair; the film remains true to the book's major themes. Both illustrate that being special or unremarkable is a conscious choice, not a function of age or a fluke of genetics. More than that, Howl's Moving Castle shows that even in the worst of times, any person can examine their own heart—and there, they can find courage and strength.

Laura Blackwell is a writer and editor in the San Francisco Bay Area. Despite her attempts to make her home's front door open to exciting locales, it always opens to a brown yard and the barking of dogs. Her previous reviews for Strange Horizons can be found in the archive and in The Best of Strange Horizons, Year Two.

Laura Blackwell is a writer, editor, and journalist. Her fiction has most recently appeared in The Lorelei Signal. Some of her previous reviews at Strange Horizons have been honored with Reader's Choice Awards. She lives in Northern California.
No comments yet. Be the first!

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Current Issue
6 Jul 2020

And they all knew about it.
By: Stephen O'Donnell
Podcast read by: Anaea Lay
In this episode of the Strange Horizons podcast, editor Anaea Lay presents Stephen O'Donnell's “Last Orders in the Green Lane.”
Landing feels like getting off a trampoline, / The weightlessness fading to muscle memory
By: Thomas White
Podcast read by: Ciro Faienza
In this episode of the Strange Horizons podcast, editor Ciro Faienza presents Thomas White's “After.”
Issue 30 Jun 2020
By: Carlie St. George
Podcast read by: Anaea Lay
By: Janelle C. Shane
Podcast read by: Anaea Lay
Issue 22 Jun 2020
By: Neha Maqsood
Podcast read by: Ciro Faienza
Podcast read by: Neha Maqsood
Issue 15 Jun 2020
By: Remy Reed Pincumbe
Podcast read by: Anaea Lay
By: Preston Grassmann
Podcast read by: Ciro Faienza
Issue 8 Jun 2020
By: Kathleen Jennings
Podcast read by: Anaea Lay
By: Keaton Bennett
Podcast read by: Ciro Faienza
Issue 2 Jun 2020
By: Sheree Renée Thomas
Podcast read by: Anaea Lay
By: Maggie Damken
Podcast read by: Anaea Lay
Issue 1 Jun 2020
By: Jessica P. Wick
Podcast read by: Anaea Lay
Strange Horizons
Issue 25 May 2020
By: Dana Wilde
Podcast read by: Ciro Faienza
Issue 18 May 2020
By: Johnny Compton
Podcast read by: Anaea Lay
By: Jong-Ki Lim
Podcast read by: Ciro Faienza
Issue 11 May 2020
By: Gabriela Santiago
Podcast read by: Anaea Lay
By: Ashley Bao
Podcast read by: Ciro Faienza
Issue 4 May 2020
By: Vida Cruz
Podcast read by: Anaea Lay
By: Raimo Kangasniemi
Podcast read by: Ciro Faienza
Load More
%d bloggers like this: