An Animated Dissection: Howl’s Moving Castle, Part 1 – Sophie’s Aging Journey
In 2004, Hayao Miyazaki released his follow-up to Spirited Away: an adaptation of Howl’s Moving Castle, based on the story by Diana Wynne Jones. Much like his adaptation of Kiki’s Delivery Service, Miyazaki took the basis of the story, and made it his own.
While some viewers mentioned that there seemed to be a large anti-war statement in the film(it was made during the first few years of the Iraq War), one of the more memorable bits for me was the curse/spell placed upon the lead character, Sophie. The basis of the film and the original story by Jones, is the fact that the lead heroine is cursed to be an old woman, and how this affects her journey. While this may seem straight-forward in the original story, Hayao Miyazaki chose to use this as a storytelling tool in a way few could possibly imagine.
Analyzing the film once it came out on DVD, I have come to the conclusion that there may be an undertone about accepting yourself for how you are, and not being judged by society’s standards. Many in Asia often wish to emulate the Western world regarding fashion, style, and beauty. One book I skimmed through called Aesthetic Surgery, showed a man who went through several surgeries so he could moreso resemble Keanu Reeves.
In 2010, there was an article about a Chinese girl whose boyfriend was obsessed with Jessica Alba, to the point he wanted her to dress like Alba, and wear a wig. After breaking up with him after one year, she became so desperate to get him back, that she considered getting surgery to resemble Alba. There never was a solid conclusion to the news story, but my guess is if they didn’t report on any results, then the girl saw reason and decided not to do something so extreme.
In regards to how vanity and appearance seem to fit into Howl’s Moving Castle, let’s start our journey.
In the opening scenes of Howl’s Moving Castle, we are introduced to Sophie. With her brown hair and brown eyes, Sophie seems to look rather ‘plain.’ In one scene before she leaves to visit her sister, she poses in front of a mirror wearing a hat. She tries to look sunny and cheerful, but her expression turns dour as she considers her appearance.
Her trip to see her sister is rather uneventful, as almost noone seems to notice her. Aside from some soldiers in a side alley who seem more than ready to take advantage of her, Sophie is surprised when a handsome man with blonde hair and blue eyes (aka Howl) escorts her away, and then leads her on a stroll through the air (note: some have equated the sensation of love to ‘walking on air’).
From here, we find ourselves in the town’s bakery, where Sophie’s step-sister Lettie works. Much like Howl, Lettie also sports blonde hair and blue eyes. It almost seems that these are the traits one needs for attractiveness, or an image of rare beauty. This is exemplified perfectly in our introduction to Lettie, as we see her surrounded by many men. If you look closely, there isn’t a blonde male among the group.
Lettie manages to get away, and goes to speak to Sophie, who still seems to be in a slight swoon over her encounter with the mysterious man she met. What’s interesting to note is that throughout the entire scene with the two sisters, no one seems to take notice of Sophie. Every other person seems to just acknowledge Lettie or greet her. Even Lettie’s outfit is much more colorful than her sister’s.
After returning to the hat shop, Sophie is surprised when a woman enters. After examining the shop, the woman proclaims both it and Sophie as ‘tacky,’ leading Sophie to demand the woman leave. It is then that the woman reveals herself to be the Witch of the Waste, a powerful sorceress who then casts a spell on Sophie, aging her into a 90-year-old woman.
Sophie is at first upset by these changes (as would anyone, I imagine), but when she wakes up the next day, she has gotten over them. In a strange manner to some, Sophie doesn’t seem to mind her appearance, even commenting that her choice of dress now seems to suit her better. Even with these changes, Sophie takes leave of the hat shop, and embarks on her own adventure.
Sophie’s 90-year-old appearance stays the same for quite some time, even after she finds Howl’s castle, and encounters Howl, his assistant Markl, and Calcifer the Fire Demon. Being a Demon, Calcifer sees through the Witch of the Waste’s spell, of which an added side-effect is that Sophie is unable to tell anyone about her curse.
The first time we see any change in Sophie’s appearance comes after Howl returns one evening, and sees her asleep. Here, she has reverted back to her youthful features, yet Howl never speaks of this aloud, or reveal what he’s seen.
Sophie’s appearance while awake continues with the appearance of old age, until she vists Court Sorcerer Madame Suliman, at Howl’s request. Eventually, Sophie speaks positively and defends Howl, and as she does so, without realizing it, she ages back to her own appearance. However, this is quickly ‘remedied’ when Suliman guesses that she secretly loves Howl. It appears that her emotions and caring for Howl just may be the key to breaking her spell…but, is it actually enough?
In a pseudo-dream sequence, Sophie reverts to her younger self, and encounters Howl, who appears to have become a large winged demon. This is the only instance where we hear his knowledge of her curse (“You, can’t even break your own spell”). When Sophie tells him that she loves him in the pseudo-dream, he claims she’s too late, and flies off. As the dream ends we see Sophie isolated in the darkness, her appearance old once again.
The next day, Howl decides to create a new location for them to move to…which happens to be the former hat shop where Sophie once lived. Sophie is shocked to see the old shop again, not to mention a bedroom Howl has provided for her, where she used to make hats before. She briefly reverts to her younger self, albeit with silver hair, but it isn’t until he reveals the location of what appears to be a floating garden, does she seem to almost completely let herself go.
At this point, she seems so happy and content, that one has to wonder if Howl possibly knows of a way to break her spell. After all, he’s returned her to a familiar place she knows (the hat shop), and has given her a gift of the garden as a place to go to whenever she chooses. However, the moment is broken when Sophie starts to lose faith in herself, feeling she’s not pretty, and only good as an old cleaning woman.
It is in this moment that Howl admits that she is beautiful, but her doubt has taken hold so tightly, that she reverts all the way back to her 90-year-old appearance.
After the events in the garden, Sophie’s appearance back in the castle and the hat shop appears to not be so old. I would say her age is closer to 60 or 70. It could be that this is a sign that maybe what Howl said to her has started to have some effect on her.
Eventually, the town is evacuated as the war nears its borders, but Sophie and the denizens of Howl’s castle stay behind. However, the war soon comes close to endangering her new ‘family.’ This time, Sophie’s age reverts to her younger appearance.
From here on out, Sophie seems more concerned regarding her ‘family’s’ safety, and her thoughts and worries about her appearance are all but forgotten. What’s really nice to see is that during these transformations, Miyazaki has made it so almost noone remarks about this. Even Markl, who so far has seen Sophie in several varying stages of age, seems unperturbed.
Sophie has rarely done anything major on her own, but when Howl saves the hat shop from being bombed, and then flies off to protect it from the myriad bombers and planes flying overhead, Sophie springs into action, breaking the connection of the castle with the hat shop, which causes the castle to collapse into myriad pieces. This is just one step in Sophie’s plan: with the connection severed, she attempts to get Calcifer to restore the castle, and take them to Howl, in hopes this will prevent him from getting hurt in the attack…or that his magic will make him more monster than man.
It is at this point, Calcifer asks Sophie for part of herself to help him complete her request. As Howl gave his heart to Calcifer as part of their deal, the fire-demon needs something of Sophie’s in order for him to do her bidding. Though Calcifer suggests her eyes (one assumes that the more valuable a portion of a person, the stronger their power over Calcifer is), Sophie instead gives him the braid of her hair. After it has been removed, the remainder of her now shoulder-length hair fans out. This could also be seen as another symbol of Sophie casting aside some of her vanity, or at the very least, achieving a new level of maturity. Miyazaki used this type of symbolism in Laputa: Castle in the Sky, when the young protagonist Sheeta has her pigtails shot off by the villain, Colonel Muska.
The final piece of Sophie’s journey, comes when she reunites Howl with his heart (freeing Calcifer, and breaking his spell connecting him to Howl). And in turn, Sophie is freed from being ruled by vanity, or feelings of outward appearances.
This moment comes when Howl admits that her silver hair is beautiful. Instead of being disturbed or disbelieving of this statement, she embraces Howl, and claims she loves her look too.
Some messageboards I’ve been to have wondered why Sophie’s hair did not turn back to its original brown color. My theory is that this is a side-effect of the curse the Witch of the Waste placed on Sophie. In Miyazaki’s worlds, some curses will not leave you 100% complete once they have been lifted.
One example is Ashitaka in Princess Mononoke. Though the curse that was consuming his arm is lifted at the end, scars still remain, almost as a reminder.
In the end, Sophie has triumphed over her negative feelings regarding her appearance, and through her journey, has met someone to whom she has helped as well, and gained a new and magical family in the end whom she cares for, and who has grown to care for her, regardless of her appearance.
…But wait, it isn’t over yet. Sophie isn’t the only one who made a change. Stay tuned for an upcoming blog post, where we examine the evolution of Howl.