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.