An Animated Dissection: Howl’s Moving Castle, Part 2 – Howl learns maturity
As I started writing about Sophie from Howl’s Moving Castle, I suddenly realized I was doing a great disservice by not analyzing another character who grows and changes in the film: Howl himself!
Though Howl’s outward appearance doesn’t make as major a change as Sophie does, it is his inner self that changes over the course of the film.
The village where Sophie lives has rumored about Howl for some time. Though noone seems to know exactly what the wizard looks like, Sophier’s co-workers at the hat shop tell how he’s interested in devouring the hearts of pretty young girls (even Sophie’s step-sister Lettie mentions this).
Our first appearance of Howl is as a handsome blonde-haired, blue-eyed young man. Though he doesn’t devour Sophie’s heart, one could say he has almost ‘stolen’ it, given how she seems in an unbelieving daze after their encounter.
Howl doesn’t reappear until after Sophie has been cursed, and finds her way into his moving castle. Though he does have an apprentice (a little boy named Markl), this doesn’t necessarily make Howl ‘mature.’ The castle is helter-skelter inside and out. Dust and cobwebs all over the place, not to mention books and bric-a-brac everywhere.
We soon find that Howl is also a fugitive of sorts: he uses multiple identities across different kingdoms, and different portals of entry to them. With a war going on, each of the kingdoms is recruiting wizards and witches to join in with their battles, but Howl does not take sides, preferring to stay neutral to the kingdom’s various affairs.
Using his magic powers, Howl turns himself into a winged creature, that seems to just pass through the battles, sometimes taking on some of the aircraft or wizards in small skirmishes. However, such use of power is slowly taking a toll on him. Calcifer mentions that the more times he goes into these battles, he loses himself to being unable to regain his human form. One could almost see this as Miyazaki’s way of saying that war can ‘change’ people, sometimes not for the better.
Sophie is one of the first to really make a change in Howl’s lifestyle (for the better). First intentionally (cleaning the entire castle), and then accidentally (messing with his potions in the bathroom). This results in Howl having a breakdown in vanity, when he shows her that his blonde hair has turned reddish-orange, before finally regaining his ‘natural’ black coloration.
In a surreal and dark scene, we see Howl lamenting that unless he’s beautiful, he has no point in living. This causes the room to twist and bend, and a green ‘goo’ permeates through his skin. Sophie considers this to be the equivalent of him ‘throwing a tantrum,’ but also shows how vain Howl has become.
When we next see Howl, he’s laying in bed (in his rather cluttered bedroom). His hair is still black, and from this point on, he doesn’t attempt to change its color again (a first step into accepting who he is, and moving into maturity).
After the ‘hair fiasco,’ we find out more regarding Howl’s immaturity. He tells Sophie about how he once was in love with the Witch of the Waste, but then when he found out she wasn’t beautiful, he left her. As well, he has not answered any of the summons by the different kingdoms in regards to their recruiting him for their side of the war.
Sophie recommends that Howl meet with at least one of the Kingdom’s rulers, and explain his own feelings in regards to the war. Howl feels that such a thing won’t deter the request for him to serve, when he hits on a ‘bright idea.’ He suggests that Sophie pretend to be his Mother, and get him out of his obligation with one of the kingdoms. Naturally, she sees this as just another way for him to avoid responsibility. When Howl sends her off, her expression and tone definitely make it clear that she is disappointed at his ‘solution,’ and is doing this ‘under protest.’
However, Howl gives her some consolation to this plan. Before she leaves, he slips a ring onto her finger, telling her that it will protect her, and that he’ll be following her in disguise.
Going to the Royal Palace of one of the kingdoms, Sophie has an audience with the King’s Royal Sorcerer, Madame Suliman. Suliman reveals to Sophie that Howl was once her most gifted student, one whose powers she felt could lead him to taking her position. However, his heart was ‘stolen’ by a demon, and he left his apprenticeship.
Suliman claims that Howl’s uses of magic now are purely for selfish reasons, and that without a heart, he may soon be unable to control his powers. This is some nice insight into the powers Howl has, as well as the thought that demons exist in this world, and can corrupt the magic of some users.
Eventually, Howl shows up in disguise, attempting to retrieve Sophie. However, his disguise is seen through by Suliman, and she uses her powers to make Howl’s powers manifest. Without his heart, Suliman’s powers bring forth the winged creature inside Howl.
Sophie manages to get through to Howl, causing him to regain focus, and escape with her and The Witch of the Waste (who had also been summoned by Suliman). Using a flying vehicle, Howl sends them back to the castle, while he disappears from sight.
After this, Howl returns late in the evening, transformed moreso into his winged creature form, and dripping blood. Sophie awakens and follows his trail, encountering Howl in a carved-out cave, embedded with toys and children’s things. At the end of them, she finds Howl transformed into a large, winged creature. She tells the winged Howl that she wants to help him, but is met with a response of “You’re too late,” before the creature disappears into darkness. A few moments later, it seems that the encounter was nothing more than a dream, but it may have given Sophie some clues to helping Howl.
Sophie then speaks with Calcifer the fire demon, regarding Howl. Calcifer and Sophie have a deal that if Calcifer’s curse is broken, he can break Sophie’s. However, neither is allowed (per the spells on them) to tell what needs to be done to break the spell. At this point, Sophie suspects that Calcifer was the demon who stole Howl’s heart. He is unable to say yes or no to her question, but when she inquires what would happen if Calcifer was extinguished, the fire demon mentions that Howl will die if he (Calcifer) dies.
Eventually, Howl reveals himself to everyone. He’s in good spirits, and informs his new ‘family’ (which now includes the true-aged Witch of the Waste) that they are moving to a new location, since the link to one of the kingdoms has been severed (to prevent Suliman from finding them).
The new place they move into is moreso a ‘home’ than anything else: in fact, it’s the former hat shop that Sophie once lived in! Howl has even included an extra bathroom, and has given Sophie her own room. It feels moreso like Howl is growing up, thinking of others. He even gives Sophie a little insight into his past, by taking her to a secret garden, allowing her access to come here whenever she wishes.
Howl’s new role as a family protector continues on, as he soon after goes away. The town is evacuated, but Sophie, Markl, and The Witch of the Waste stay behind. Howl patrols the skies, becoming more and more bird-like as the war draws closer.
When Howl finally does return to the new home, it is when it is threatened. Howl manages to stop a bomb from destroying the home, and attempts to help cleanse Calcifer of a deadly ‘tracking bug’ that was snuck into the house.
He then attempts to leave, but Sophie wants him to not fight, and come away with them to seek refuge within the castle (whose main location is situated on the outskirts of the town, away from the firefight). However, Howl claims that he won’t run anymore, and that he is committed to fighting to protect her and their ‘family.’
Unable to stop him from leaving them, Sophie has Markl, The Witch of the Waste, and Calcifer transferred into the castle. Going outside, she can see Howl tearing into one of the kingdom’s flying machines. From the distance, he looks like a roaring monster, most likely a side-effect that war has thoroughly unleashed his inner demons, pushing aside his humanity.
Sophie then severs the castle’s connection to the hat shop, and taking control of the castle, intends to get to Howl (with Calcifer’s help). Her assumption is that if Howl realizes that the hat shop is no longer tied to the castle, and that they are safe, he’ll give up fighting (and most likely quell the darkness inside him).
However, when the Witch of the Waste finally realizes that Calcifer has Howl’s heart, her old selfish desires and vanity surface, and she grabs for it, breaking up the castle, separating Sophie from the others.
After being separated from the others, the ring Howl gave Sophie begins to emit a light, and she goes through a doorway, finding herself in Howl’s past. As she watches, she sees a younger version of Howl in the floating garden, amid a series of falling stars. Each one seems to be a living being, that soon dissipates and dies within seconds.
One of the falling stars lands right in Howl’s hands. As Sophie watches, he seems to talk to it, before ingesting it. After a few moments, a flaming mass emerges through his chest, beating. It is here that Sophie is witness to how Calcifer came to be in Howl’s employ: in order for Calcifer to live, Howl gave Calcifer his heart, in exchange for the ability to use his powers. This revelation gives Sophie the last puzzle piece to saving Howl: In order for Howl and Calcifer to be free of the other, Howl’s heart must be returned.
Sophie then emerges back to the present, to find Howl standing before her, now an enormous, feathery creature. The only vestige of humanity is Howl’s face, which is slowly being taken over. Even his eyes seem dull and blank when Sophie addresses him. Sophie tells him to take them to the others, and silently, the Howl-bird does so.
Upon arriving with the others, Howl collapses, feathers from his bird-form floating away, to reveal his human body. However, he does not move.
Pleading with the Witch of the Waste for Howl’s heart to be returned, the old woman complies. After Howl’s heart fades into his chest, Calcifer suddenly escapes in the form of a twinkling starlight. However, without Calcifer’s power, the remnants of the moving castle fully collapse.
Shortly afterwards, Howl speaks, but complains of a weight on his chest.
“A heart’s a heavy burden,” replies Sophie, as she smiles at Howl’s return.
The return of his heart, is one of the final symbols that Howl has now fully-matured. Now no longer relying on Calcifer for the brunt of his magic abilities, he now has full responsibility over his own magic and actions.
The final scenes show that the castle has been rebuilt. But unlike its previous incarnation of something that a young boy would build, the new castle is smaller, and seems more suited for the new family that Howl and Sophie have brought together. Though it does have a few of the original castle’s traits, it shows a familial compromise that makes it very…homey.
…But wait, there’s still more of the surface to scratch away regarding Miyazaki’s film. In our next part, we’ll look at another transformed character: The Witch of the Waste.