Howl’s Moving Castle tells the story of Sophie, the daughter of a deceased hatter that runs the hat shop her father left her out of a sense of duty towards her family. Sophie feels there is nothing special about her and has resigned herself to be a supporting character in other peoples’ stories. When she is rescued from harassment by Howl, an infamous magician, and then subsequently cursed by the Witch of the Waste for her involvement with Howl, Sophie is forced to put her life of duty on hold in order to reverse the curse and regain her youth. She sets out to find Howl and along the way she finds love in many forms: love for herself, love for another, and love for an enemy.
Studio Ghibli uses its unique animation style to breathe life into the fairytale-like setting of Howl’s Moving Castle. The detailing of the various settings in the movie are both soft and detailed in order to create a feeling of wonder in the viewer. The scenes are painted in a soft pastel color pallet and take on a look as though they were part of a painting. While the scenery is breathtaking, what truly sets Howl’s Moving Castle and the rest of Studio Ghibli’s features apart is how movement is animated. The movement in animated features is fundamentally different from the way things move in real life; But the way that Studio Ghibli movies are animated differ even from many animated movies, giving them a unique look.
The most notable way Howl’s Moving Castle is different in this aspect is how hair is animated. While most objects in the film adhere to the same laws of physics as their real-life counterparts, the way objects move in relation to the main characters is different. When the main character Sophie is first transformed into an old woman her skin takes on a sort of doughy quality, allowing her to stretch and pull at it in disbelief. This divergence from reality is done in order to portray how characters are feeling and is why Howl’s Moving Castle has a soft, fantastical feel to it.
Miyazaki’s interpretation of Diana Wynne Jones’ book of the same name diverges greatly, changing and even omitting key plot points from the book. Howl’s character, for example, is more promiscuous in the book than in the movie and even has a love interest for the majority of the book who isn’t included in the movie adaptation. However, the idea that Howl does not exactly understand the meaning of true love is a theme that runs through both the book and the movie. The difference is in how it is portrayed. Whereas the book portrays Howl as having many lovers the move, while making passing comments that he has had lovers in the past, portrays Howl as not being as interested in making connections to other people.
With the omittance of Howl’s main love interest, the movie also takes out the plotline in which Howl’s love gets kidnapped by the Witch of the Waste and Sophie’s attempts to rescue her. Instead, Miyazaki devises the plot of a war between two kingdoms brewing and Sophie reporting to the king that, although he requested Howl’s assistance, he will not come. Because of the time limitations of film media, many of the side plots present in the book are hinted at but not fully explained. One of the main ways this is done is through the conversations of background characters. If you listen to the townspeople talking in the background you will hear about how the prince from a neighboring kingdom is missing as well as information about Howl and the Witch of the Waste’s past relationship.
When watching this film you must keep in mind the cultural ideals that influence the themes within the movie. The war between the two neighboring kingdoms was not present in the original book. The inclusion of the war and overall theme of pacifism within the movie was based on Miyazaki’s personal negative views towards the Iraq war that was happening around the time of release of the movie. Since it has been more than a decade since the film’s release and the fact that it isn’t a film intended for American audiences, the underlying meaning in the inclusion of the war might be missed by American viewers. By keeping in mind the divergences from the book as well as how these changes are reflections on the culture this movie was made for, you as a viewer will be able to more effectively understand and appreciate Miyazaki’s film Howl’s Moving Castle.