Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)—Masterpiece of Aesthetic and Music
Based on a popular novel of the same name by Diane Wynne Jones, Howl’s Moving Castle revolves around a young girl named Sophie, a simple hat shop worker who has a run in with an enigmatic wizard named Howl. Howl is infatuated with her, but the evil Witch of the Waste soon turns Sophie into an old woman to prevent Howl from falling in love with her. She then goes to find Howl to help remove the spell.
Hayao Miyazaki made this film around the time of the Iraq War as a form of anti-war protest. Ever since his younger years, Miyazaki fought for feminism and environmentalism in addition to being very anti-war, all which are strong recurring themes in his films. His films often feature young girls and women as the main characters to drive home his theme of feminism. While this is good on the surface, a lot of times, his characters fall into tropes. For example, a lot of them don’t offer much else outside of their purity which is seen as sacred. In Howl’s Moving Castle, Sophie originally fits this trope, but the film flips this by turning her into an old woman.
Studio Ghibli’s animation and art style has become iconic in its own right. Miyazaki perfectly combines both traditional and more modern art mediums. For example, a lot of backgrounds are made with an abstract water color medium while the characters appear more detailed. While the setting of Howl’s Moving Castle is never specified, I really enjoyed how Miyazaki blends realistic European architecture with some more fantastical elements. This can especially be seen with the actual castle that Howl lives in. In addition, the vehicle designs, specifically the designs of aerial craft look spectacular, able to feel real while inviting wonder. The aesthetic design as a whole gives of early twentieth century vibes, and manages to be a memorable and lively style.
Musically, the film dominates as a top tier score. The main theme is spectacular to listen to and is a pleasant earworm. Joe Hisaishi composes most if not all of the title scores of Studio Ghibli’s films, and every score manages to have its own distinct personality. In Howl’s Moving Castle, the main theme has a very European sound to it, combining piano, accordion and orchestral elements such as violins and cellos that sounds very much like a waltz. It’s a very fitting score for a love story between Sophie and Howl, and it makes you feel like you’re dancing at a high class gala. This is perhaps my second or third favorite Joe Hisaishi score, behind Castle in the Sky and Princess Mononoke.
Besides the art and music, this has some of the best voice acting I’ve heard in a Studio Ghibli film! Christian Bale is absolutely amazing as Howl, perfectly adding his own charisma to Howl’s personality. Additionally, he sounds distinctly different as Howl compared to his regular speaking voice. One major problem that I have with Hollywood actors doing voiceover work is that they often sound like their regular voices (looking at you Tom Hanks). However, Bale has the makings to be a voice actor. Despite Bale’s wonderful performance as Howl, my favorite performance is Jean Simmons as old lady Sophie. Her performance combines both heart and determination that makes her feel like both a grandmother yet a youthful woman at the same time. Meanwhile, Billy Crystal energizes every scene he’s in as the talking fireplace, Calciper. My only complaint is that Crispin Freeman, a professional voice actor known for his roles as Alucard, Itachi Uchiha and Kirei Kotomine, has only three lines as Turnip-head. Why hire a professional voice actor and give them only a few lines?
The plot is not that complicated to understand, as the film focuses more on the emotions of the story rather than the logic of the story. However the logic is not thrown to the wayside, as the story remains consistent throughout. The characters all manage to be both likable and compelling, with Sophie being a loveable lead and one of Miyazaki's strongest leads by far. While the film doesn’t explain the characters or world, the visual design and tight script makes it so that the minimal exposition doesn’t matter, as much can be figured out just by paying attention.
When people think of Studio Ghibli films, they often think of Spirited Away or Castle in the Sky. However, Howl’s Moving Castle shouldn’t be taken for granted. This film came out at a time where Studio Ghibli began steering away from the more fantastical elements in favor of more slice of life stories, for example From Up on Poppy Hill and The Wind Rises. With spectacular visuals, music and performances, this film is truly one of Miyazaki’s most underrated flicks that deserves more attention.
Co-Written by: Owen Gonzalez