Like a wild dream come true, Howl’s Moving Castle will once again be taken to the screen at the end of this April; its lumbering mechanical legs transport viewers to a richly imagined world of magic and wonder. This reimagining of Diana Wynne Jones’ beloved fantasy novel of the same name, originally released in 2004, remains an exquisite tapestry woven from Hayao Miyazaki’s boundless imagination, whose enchanting realm becomes the stage where the interplay of the ordinary and extraordinary unveils not only profound truths about love and sacrifice but also finding one’s true self amid the chaos of war.

“After the war, they won’t recall they ever were human.”
Howl flying with a burning fighter plane and other sorcerers.
Still from Miyazaki, Howl’s Moving Castle

The topic of war is a pivotal element in the film as an addition to the original setting of the novel. In Miyazaki’s recreation, the war between the two kingdoms is the general background of the story, and the atmosphere permeates every detail: posters on the wall, airdrop leaflets, trains transporting military materials, as well as fighter planes and battleships. Moreover, it has become a crucial part of the plot and increased a deeper dimension to the characters. In the film, the young sorcerer, Howl, is summoned by his king to serve in the war, which he is always trying to escape from. Howl decides to help neither his teacher Suliman, the representative of the kingdom, nor their enemies, but instead only fight for the ones he cares about. This inspires the audience to think about the conflict between responsibility and makes the anti-war sentiment of the film evident.

Produced during the Iraq War, the film is believed to be a critical response to it. In his interview with Japanese journalist and news anchor Tetsuya Chikushi, Miyazaki made such comments on Bush Junior’s famous speech about the War on Terror that he refused to take sides. Corresponding to his pacifist position, he also abandons the conventional clear-cut vision of good and evil. The Witch of the Waste is an obvious example. Although she casted a spell on Sophie, an ordinary milliner girl, and wanted to seize Howl’s heart, she is still treated by the others in the castle as a family member in the end, suggesting that in the film’s universe, people are complex and changeable, which somehow reveals Miyazaki’s view of the real world.

The ending of the story, however, has received some negative feedback regarding the seemingly hasty resolution of the war. To many, a grand confrontation between two kingdoms raised by the disappearance of a cursed prince and ended with a single word from the head sorceress appears to be ridiculous. But on the other hand, it implies how easily warfare could be manipulated by power holders.

“A heart’s a heavy burden.”
Sophie holding Howl’s heart.
Still from Miyazaki, Howl’s Moving Castle

As one feature of the film, the changes in Sophie’s appearance between young and old show the track of her personal growth. In the beginning, the Witch of the Waste transforms Sophie into an old woman, which she quickly accepts despite being terrified at first. Through her entry, Sophie gives the audience the impression of a plain, modest, even self-abased girl contrasting with her peers in the hatter shop. When asked about her plans for the future and if she is willing to stay in the shop, she only shows confusion. Always bearing whatever life gives to her, she easily embraces the older version of herself, which turns out to be closer to her internal mentality. But as she steps out of her past life and into a new adventure, she becomes more and more lively and sensitive to emotions: she intoxicates herself in the beauty of nature, feels annoyed by the messy rooms, and argues for Howl fearlessly in front of Suliman. Every time her youth returns marks her progress in becoming a brave, consistent, decisive, and thoughtful person, a totally different self compared to her past personality.

The journey in which Sophie discovers her new self is also the path of Howl’s self-realization. From the scene where he persuades Sophie to meet Suliman for him, one can see his timid side. The moving castle is also a metaphor for his escaping from responsibilities in both social identity and romantic relationships. Yet at the end, inspired and encouraged by Sophie, he finally finds the nerve to take responsibility for his beloved one.

Being widely recognized as “a fairytale for the grownups,” the thoughts and insights the film provides us through an abundance of details and metaphors are far beyond a mere love story. These universal themes of humanity have aroused sympathy among people of all ages, and make Howl’s Moving Castle one of Miyazaki’s most favorite works.

As the steampunk castle ambles back into the theaters, it invites the audience to lose themselves once again in this magical land, experience every happiness and sorrow with the characters, and seek answers to the world and life – this time not only romance.