An Animated Dissection: Howl’s Moving Castle, Part 3 – The Witch of the Waste accepts who she is
Though Howl and Sophie are the main leads of Hayao Miyazaki’s film Howl’s Moving Castle, another character who is just as integral to the storyline, is The Witch of the Waste. One theme throughout the entire film, is how every other character has a false front regarding just who they are, and by the end, they have shed these fake personas, and come out stronger, and more accepting over who/what they are.
Of course, Miyazaki took many liberties with the characters from Diana Wynne Jones’ story, and the Witch of the Waste is no exception. Much of her involvement with our main characters does not follow the storyline of Jones’ book. Instead, Miyazaki chose to make her a character of age, vanity, and superficiality.
Much like Howl seems to be close to the village where Sophie lives, there is rumor that the Witch of the Waste is nearby. During her first appearance, she stays hidden within the walls of a small, ornate litter. She is usually accompanied by several ‘blob men,’ who wear brightly-colored clothing and masks. Amazingly enough, noone in the village seems to notice these strange, tall, featureless ‘men.’
When we get our first full look at the Witch of the Waste, she definitely looks a little ‘off’.’ She has the appearance of an older woman, somewhat full-bodied. However, her body looks almost ‘sculpted,’ given that she seems to have a protuberance of neck-flesh under her face.
We can assume she tracked Sophie down, after her blob-men attempted to get Howl on the street in an earlier scene, and reported back as to who she was.
“What a tacky shop,” the Witch says, surveying the room. “I’ve never seen such tacky little hats. Yet you are by far, the tackiest thing here.”
Sophie doesn’t take well to being insulted, and orders this strange woman to leave.
When she leaves, The Witch of the Waste passes through Sophie, casting her aging spell on her. One might wonder why she would do this, but she probably figures that since Howl likes young, beautiful women, aging Sophie into an old woman will put him off her.
The Witch of the Waste then disappears for a good portion of the film after this, but her presence is never far from Howl, or Sophie.
After being taken in by Howl, Sophie finds a red note in the pocket of her dress (most likely placed there when the Witch passed through Sophie). It burns a symbol into a wood table in Howl’s castle, with an ominous message:
“You who swallowed a falling star, o’ heartless man, your heart shall soon belong to me.”
Sophie later asks Howl about this, and his association with the Witch of the Waste. Howl claims that he pursued her when he thought she was beautiful. But upon finding out her true form, he ran away. Since then, the Witch of the Waste has been pursuing Howl, trying to ‘recapture’ his heart.
The next time we see The Witch, is when Sophie goes to have an audience with Madame Suliman, the Royal Sorcerer from one of the kingdom’s requesting Howl’s assistance in the current war ravaging the lands. Though Sophie is there to speak on behalf of Howl, the Witch has chosen to personally appear per the royal invite she received from Suliman.
The Witch seems rather pleased to see Sophie, and delighted when Sophie relays that “Howl’s treating her like a house-servant.” When Sophie requests the Witch remove the spell on her, the Witch then explains an intriguing conundrum: though she can cast spells, that doesn’t mean she knows how to cure them.
However, from the moment she steps onto the castle’s grounds, The Witch of the Waste’s demeanor and spirit are tested. Her ‘blob men’ handlers are disabled, and she is required to complete the rest of her journey to meet Madame Suliman, on foot. This then leads to a scene of her and Sophie climbing a large number of stairs. While Sophie is slightly winded by the climb, the Witch of the Waste is even more strained by the ordeal.
Once she gets to the top, her statuesque form becomes stooped, her hair ragged, and the amount of ‘skin’ around her neck area appears to have loosened. In a funny turn-of-events, Sophie enters without the cane she came to the castle with, which has been given to the Witch.
While Sophie is led off to meet with Suliman first, the Witch finds a room with a chair in the center. Looking for relief from her strains, she rushes to it, and breathes a sigh of relief. However, the silence is short-lived, as suddenly a number of large lightbulbs are revealed, and switched on.
The room it turns out, is actually one that the Kingdom uses to gain control of witches and wizards. The room pulls their magic from their bodies, and in their weakened state, it is assumed that they will be persuaded to join with the Kingdom.
With the majority of her powers gone, the Witch’s true age is revealed, imperfections can be seen, and her eyes have taken on a glassy sheen, as seen when she is brought before Madame Suliman, and Sophie.
“There was a time when she, too, was a magnificent sorcerer with so much promise,” Suliman explains to Sophie, “But then she fell prey to a demon of greed who slowly consumed her, body and soul.”
As to who or what this demon is/was, it is never said, but one has to wonder if in some way, it was similar to the effects of what Calcifer had on Howl. Though both Howl and the Witch have very strong magical powers, they have chosen to use them for their own personal (selfish?) purposes. Maybe it could be Suliman claiming the human quality of “vanity” could be that demon?
One has to assume that somewhere in her life, the Witch of the Waste probably began to grow afraid of her age, and when it seemed magic was the only saving grace to the effects of age on her appearance and body, she looked inwardly, and used what powers she had on herself.
We often see this quality in humanity as well. Millions of dollars spent on trying to hide crow’s feet, sagging flesh, and thinning cheeklines. Every other story I pass, it seems there’s some treatment/solution offered, to keep one looking young and invigorated, so they’ll be noticed and attractive to a world that seemingly sees these signs of aging, as ‘deformities.’
The effects of the draining of the Witch of the Waste’s magic has also seemed to age her mind as well. She is quiet after the draining of her powers, but comes out of this ‘fog’ to say a few things, whether latching onto Sophie’s talk about Howl (“I want his heart! It belongs to me!”), or when her attention is drawn by some little things (“what a pretty fire.”). It’s almost like she is in some stages of Alzheimer’s disease, as her memories and coherency seem to come-and-go as the film continues on.
From this point on, the witch becomes little more than an observer for awhile, until the evening after Howl shows Sophie a secret garden. As Sophie helps the Witch into bed, the old woman remarks that Sophie seems to be in love, as she’s been rather quiet for awhile, deep in thought.
When Sophie inquires if the Witch of the Waste has ever been in love, she proclaims she still is. The Witch proclaims how she loves “strapping young men,” for both their hearts and appearances (leading Sophie to give a small look of disgust). She is also cognizant to recognize an air raid siren, and is sure Suliman’s henchmen are looking for where they are.
When Sophie’s mother visits during this time, the Witch becomes a little more active. Opening a draw-string bag Sophie’s mother brought, the witch finds ‘a tracking bug,’ and tosses it to Calcifer to burn up…but it instead, does not agree with his digestion. She also finds a cigar, which she soon takes to smoking. This also seems to make her come alive more, claiming the smoking of the cigar as a “pleasure,” when Sophie wishes her to put it out.
When Howl returns to the house during an aerial raid, both he and the Witch share a small conversation. While she shows slight interest that he has not attempted to run from her, Howl casually claims he’d like to keep talking, but has something else to tend to.
After the cigar is extinguished by Howl, the witch again reverts back to a quiet presence in the background, until Sophie and Calcifer take the moving castle to try and reach Howl. When Calcifer mentions how his powers would be stronger with Sophie’s eyes or her heart, this causes the Witch to perk up.
It is then that she realizes just where Howl’s heart is: it’s the source of where Calcifer is drawing his magic from (aka, the pulsating ‘lump’ that has been attached to Calcifer since we first met him!). This realization then causes the Witch to go for the heart, her greed getting the better of her, as she causes chaos by disturbing Calcifer’s concentration.
In her mad desire to ‘have Howl’s heart,’ it is only afterwards does she realize she has picked up a flaming object, but is unwilling to let go. Sophie then does the logical thing regarding a fire, and throws water on the Witch and Calcifer, whose flame dims to a soft blue!
This move ends up destroying the remnants of the castle, and what magic is left, sends a small portion still marching along, as the Witch laments that her ‘heart is ruined.’
The next time we see the witch, she, Markl, and the scarecrow Turnip Head, are seen atop a wooden flooring, being moved by two legs. As well, the Witch still has not let go of Howl’s heart.
Howl brings Sophie to them, before collapsing. Sophie realizes the only thing that will save Howl is his heart, but the Witch of the Waste is still unwilling to part from it, until Sophie embraces the Witch, pleading to have it back.
“You really want it that badly?” asks the Witch.
When Sophie responds with an affirmative, the old woman finally relents.
“Alright,” she says, handing it over, “But you better be prepared to take care of it.”
This becomes the Witch’s turning point. Though not as major as Howl’s, it is her way of letting go of an old obsession. Her speech to Sophie, almost sounds like she is willing to let this young woman, ‘have’ Howl’s love.
“Thank you,” responds Sophie, kissing the old woman, “you have a big heart.”
Miyazaki’s depictions of forgiveness and even kindness seem to be on a different plane than Western minds. Most people would have assumed Sophie would have held some form of grudge against the Witch of the Waste for all the grief and struggle she put her through. However, in this moment of helping, Sophie is willing to let this action be seen as a sign of apology.
Shortly after Howl’s heart is restored to him, he regains consciousness. As well, Sophie manages to break the curse on another of their comrades named Turnip Head, who it soon turns out, was the Prince, whose disappearance started the war.
The Witch of the Waste even manages to recommend he return to his kingdom quickly to end further fighting of the “ridiculous war.” She also gives him a wink, saying she looks forward to “his return.”
The final thing we see of the Witch of the Waste, is relaxing in a small garden in the newly-rebuilt Moving Castle. With her magic gone, she seems to have willingly settled into accepting both her age, and appearance…though if her comments to the Prince were any indication, she still has a penchant for handsome young men…proof that not all ‘curses’ can be broken with age and kindness.
Jones’ story marked the first book adaptation Miyazaki had directed (the last one being Kiki’s Delivery Service almost 15 years before), and each time, he puts his own spin on the material, much the way Disney did with Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book.
This is definitely a change from the way the Witch of the Waste is portrayed in the original story. Though she was banished to the Wastes as mentioned in the film, she curses both Howl and Sophie, and even had plans to usurp the Kingdom, though in the end, Howl ended up killing her. As well, the curse placed upon the scarecrow (dubbed “Turnip Head” in the film), was also the Witch’s doing. But as is the way with Miyazaki’s adaptations, he has his own motivations for the characters and settings. Another example is the castle: Jone’s story depicted it as more of a ‘castle that floated on a cloud, as opposed to what Miyazaki concocted.
One could say that The Witch of the Waste’s “love” is not actually one of being genuine, but more of an obsession based on superficiality, almost a reflection of her own superficiality of keeping her appearance. She has noone she cares for except herself, and her own obsessions. However, it does feel that with the willing kindness that Sophie and the other members of the moving castle have shown her, she is willing to be adopted into this helter-skelter family, and has found a chance to move into a new turning point of her life, just as the others have begun to do.
*And thus concludes a trilogy of character observations in regards to “Howl’s Moving Castle.” I will admit that this post was largely due to a reader who claimed she really enjoyed reading my thoughts on these characters. I have several more regarding other Ghibli films, and I hope to continue to write them. Of all the different postings, I find these have been some of my most-viewed writings.*