Howl's Moving Castle: Success Story, or Massive Disappointment?

Howl’s Moving Castle is a 2004 film from legendary filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki. The 9th of his 11 films to-date, it’s received plenty of accolades and praise worldwide. It currently holds an 87% on Rotten Tomatoes, an 80 on Metacritic, an 8.2 on IMDb and was even nominated for Best Animated Feature at the 78th Academy Awards. Not to mention, it’s gathered a huge and dedicated cult-following. With that said, is it really as good as people claim?

I’ve made no secrets about my relationship with this movie: I’ve written several pieces on it, most-notably this one on ScrewAttack. I’ve criticized it harshly on Twitter, even getting into several debates with a few of my Followers. And I’ve lamented about it in real-life to a few of my friends, most-notably my job coach. And yet, it still won’t leave me alone! So I’ve decided to put my foot down…again and see if it’s really that great.

Be warned: 1. I’m not mentioning the books, as I believe an adaptation should work on its own merits. 2. Lots of spoilers ahead, so read at your own risk.

What Works?

Perhaps Howl’s Moving Castle’s greatest strengths can be summed up in two words: “aesthetics” and “characters”. However, since that doesn’t do them justice, I guess I’ll elaborate:

Beginning with aesthetics, the movie looks, like every other Miyazaki film, absolutely gorgeous. The scenery, the art-style, the cinematography, you name it, it’s great! That’s one of the highlights of Miyazaki’s films, as even his lowest-lows look incredible. It’s great too because Miyazaki understands the nuances of the worlds he creates. They’re detailed, well thought-out and, most-importantly, memorable. And while this one has its fair share of “Wait, what?!” moments, which I’ll get back to, you at least know everything still fits together.

Speaking of which, I love the design of Howl’s castle. Yes, it’s bizarre enough to, to paraphrase a book I own, look like it was ripped from a Terry Gilliam project, but I don’t care. There’s enough life and personality to the castle that you really feel like it’s alive. Everything from the entrance, to the multiple secret passageways, to even the layout of the sinks and bathrooms, all feel like something that’d exist in this world. It’s amazing how well it functions as a contraption too, so much so that I’d even argue it’s more memorable than anything else in the movie.

I love the soundtrack. It’s Joe Hisaishi, meaning that you’d expect top-notch work anyway, but he doesn’t disappoint with his scorings here; in fact, here’s the main theme:

The Merry-Go-Round of Life - Howl’s Moving Castle

Beautiful, no? Joe Hisaishi’s composed some excellent themes, but this, I’d argue, is his best. Yeah, forget Mononoke Hime and The Girl Who Fell From the Sky, this is Hisaishi’s magnum opus! In fact, guess what I’m listening to as I type this? It’s that good, and its constant reuse really makes it magical!

Moving on, the sound design is absolutely fantastic, as is the case for all of Miyazaki’s films. Sound design’s a weird and tricky part of animation, as it can easily feel too cartoony if not done properly. Howl’s Moving Castle has a lot of unusual and downright bizarre sound effects that could easily fall into that trap , but, fortunately, that’s not the case. Everything, right down to the noises the castle makes, feels rough, weighty and realistic, so kudos to whomever did the sound design for this film!

The cast is wonderfully fleshed-out. Perhaps a little too complicated for their own good at times, which I’ll also get back to, but even so. Sophie embraces both sides of her character, old and young, with ease, while Howl has enough cards up his sleeve to keep you guessing. The Witch of the Waste, though a disappointing antagonist, is still fun to watch, Turniphead is entertaining despite having no dialogue and Markl is how to do a pre-teen boy right (aspiring writers, take note!) Even the side-characters are fun to watch, my favourites being Calcifer and Heen. The former is a blast, no pun intended, every time he opens his mouth, while the latter is a riot despite only hiccuping.

I really like Sophie and Howl’s relationship. Sure, it’s not without hiccups (again, I’ll return to that later,) but it still felt natural. I never once second-guessed that the two had chemistry, and everything, right down to their kiss at the end, was real and not forced. Which is great because this could’ve gone wrong in the hands of another, less-qualified director. Howl and Sophie are forced into a relationship by circumstances not in their control, so it’s good that Miyazaki had a lemonade execution for a lemony set-up.

By the way, kudos on the dub! Howl’s Moving Castle has, arguably, Disney’s best Studio Ghibli dub, although why Christian Bale went for an American accent instead of his native Welsh is really bizarre.

Finally, the movie’s emotional moments really resonated: Sophie’s freak-out after Howl chastises her for messing with his potions? 100% believable. Howl deciding to fight for Sophie? Also 100% believable. Even the end twist (I have a lot to get back to, don’t I?) was emotionally fitting, which says a lot considering how dumb it is.

Okay, kiddie gloves off!

What DOESN’T Work?

Where do I even begin?

I’ll start with the most glaring flaw: the story is a mess! And not in a good way either, that’d be too easy! We’re talking a “What in the world is going on?” kind of way. I’ll admit that Miyazaki’s not known for his excellent scripting, since he tends to let his storyboards do the talking for themselves, but even his most bizarre films have an overlapping focus! This movie? Not really.

Let’s compare the film with my four favourites:

What’s the premise of Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind? Simple: girl fights to keep her homeland alive amidst the warring kingdoms surrounding it.

What’s the premise of Castle in the Sky? Simple: two kids try to find Laputa.

What’s the premise of Princess Mononoke? A little more complicated, but still pretty straightforward: warrior with infected arm tries to keep balance between people and nature in order to lift his curse.

And finally, what’s the premise of Spirited Away? Simple: girl becomes bath attendant to save her parents from being eaten by spirits.

What do these films have in-common? Easy: they’re not hard to summarize for the uninitiated. This is the case for all of Miyazaki’s films…save Howl’s Moving Castle. Sure, you can tout it to “girl with curse tries to break curse”, but even that won’t do it justice. In my retrospective on ScrewAttack, I mentioned that the problem with summarizing this movie is that you’re left with too many questions. Questions like “Why was Sophie cursed?” or “How does Howl factor into this?” There’s way too much going on that I think the late-Roger Ebert said it perfectly in his review:
“A parade of weird characters comes onstage to do their turns, but the underlying plot grows murky and, amazingly for a Miyazaki film, we grow impatient at spectacle without meaning.”
On top of that, guess what also doesn’t work? The film’s theme. The movie rams down your throat that “WAR IS BAD, WAR IS SUFFERING, END THIS WAR NOW!” so often that it stops being subtext and becomes actual text when the characters start talking about it. And it’s infuriating. Because yes, war’s awful, I’m not ignorant. But it’s sometimes necessary, as evidenced by the Allies fighting Nazi Germany in WWII. War is an unfortunate reality of the human condition, and behaving like a child throwing a tantrum makes it hard for me to take you seriously. (Yeah, and you thought Avatar’s pro-environmentalist message was preachy, huh?)

It’s especially infuriating for two reasons: firstly, Miyazaki’s an expert at animating war. There are so many scenes that depict it that you’re left wondering why Miyazaki’s not pro-military. And secondly, Miyazaki’s done nuance in war with Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind and Princess Mononoke. He’s not an idiot, he knows it’s complicated, so why go on this tirade? Miyazaki’s said that this was his way of venting about the American invasion of Iraq in 2002, hence why he refused to show at the Oscars when Spirited Away won Best Animated Feature, but it doesn’t mean he can’t be mature and not throw a tantrum, right? Besides, if you want a more effective commentary on the “pointlessness” of war, watch Fullmetal Alchemist instead!

Next, the in-film world. Remember how I said I loved the designs? That’s still true…to an extent. Everything about this movie, from the castle to the modes of transportation, are cool to look at, but they clash. There’s no sense of a proper time period, and while this is steampunk fantasy, so you get to bend the rules, at the same time the lack of context for anything is downright confusing; for example, what are advanced airships and horse and buggy carriages doing side-by-side in a feudal-European backdrop? The movie never says, so your guess is as good as mine!

I’d also, and this’ll sound hypocritical, like to pick on the soundtrack. Why? Because for as good as it is, there’s little variety. Almost every tune is a variant of the theme song, which’d be fine…if Joe Hisaishi’s previous scores weren’t more diverse. Homogeneity becomes boring after a while, switch it up! Don’t give me the same track over and over, that’s laziness!

Moving to the characters, for as much as I like pretty much all of them-save two exceptions-there are definitely some aspects that bug me to no end. Take Sophie’s curse: it’s implied to flop back and forth depending on her self-confidence, but you wouldn’t know that from first, second or third viewings. It’s not even acknowledged by her, which is doubly-annoying because every other Miyazaki movie has a moment where the character acknowledges the core objective as complete. Then there’s The Witch of the Waste, who’s set up as the villainess in this first-half…only to have a personality shift and become a supporting character that Howl mysteriously accept into their family. And who takes her place? Some boring enchantress who’s using the war to weed out disloyal subjects! *Sigh*

Also, Sophie’s mother’s really irritating.

On the subject of Sophie, her relationship with Howl has its share of “huh?”. The scene where he freaks out at her, for example? Completely out of left-field. His sudden desire to care for and protect her? Also out of left-field. So many of Sophie and Howl’s romantic moments also feel underdeveloped, and if it weren’t for them sharing chemistry…well, let’s not go there.

This leads to the issue of character motivations being way too complicated. Yes, they’re nuanced. Yes, that makes them feel real. No, that doesn’t automatically qualify as better writing. Because if a character is never explored properly, then why bother having depth? I don’t know about you, but I’d much rather the “one-note” characters from Ponyo, at least they’re explored efficiently! Here…not so much.

By the way, the end twist doesn’t work, at all. Remember Turniphead? Yeah, he’s the lost prince the war was based around. But you wouldn’t know that because the movie never leaves clues, and that he gets up and leaves like it’s no big deal ruins his reason for being there. In other words, Howl’s Moving Castle, a Miyazaki movie, fails both requirements on my “Plot Twist Litmus Test”, which makes me sad.

Finally, the film has scenes that don’t add up: Sophie’s walk on the rooftops with Howl? Save making The Witch of the Waste jealous, it’s pointless. Howl’s freak-out moment? Pointless. Sophie and The Witch of the Waste walking up the steps to Madame Sullivan’s palace? Weird AND pointless. Sophie’s dream sequence? Do I have to say it?

Essentially, while Miyazaki’s known for taking his time, here the detours pad out a movie that’s already overly-long, has too much jammed into it and still feels like it needs to be longer, for some reason.

The Verdict?

I face an awkward dilemma when discussing Howl’s Moving Castle; on one hand, I find the movie fascinating and rich with details that make me want to come back. On the other hand, whenever I do come back it’s always the same: headaches, confusion and amazement that something from one of my favourite directors went sour so fast. The entire movie’s a gigantic train wreck of ideas, and while far from incompetent, that doesn’t mean it’s straight-forward or easy to understand. What’s worse is that my attempts to express my thoughts usually ends in accusations that I’m being unfair or overly critical. But after 5 viewings of the movie with minimal change in opinion, is it fair to say that?

I’m not suggesting this movie’s flat-out awful. I still like it in spite of its problems, as its strengths mostly make up for its flaws and inconsistencies. But it’s like I said on ScrewAttack: Howl’s Moving Castle is the dinner guest who piles his or her plate with food and doesn’t eat half of it. It’s messy, rude and a glory hog. And I have absolutely no tolerance for that.

I’ve heard fans use justifications for why I’m being unfair. “It’s not supposed to follow a conventional structure!” Guess what? Even unconventional stories have rhyme or reason to them. This one doesn’t, so that’s a bad excuse.

“I’d rather it over Ponyo!” is another one. I’m fine with that, but I’m not one of those people who likes ambition for the sole sake of ambition. Because that can be misguided, and I prefer competency any day. Ponyo, for all its simplicity, is far more competent, so it wins out.

In the end, this is tricky. Half of me hates this movie, what it represents, and that it stains a director’s otherwise excellent track-record. But the other half acknowledges its existence and doesn’t mind, even enjoying parts of it. So while I don’t fault anyone for liking Howl’s Moving Castle, even critics, I still think it’s overrated and consider it one of Miyazaki’s lesser-works. You may now pelt me with stones.


  1. Even if I disagree with some of your specific points, I'm nonetheless in agreement with your overall theme that "Howl's Moving Castle" is both messy and overrated. If I am less harsh in tone when making my own criticisms of it, however, I think that's because I have legitimately warmed up to the movie on subsequent viewings- whereas when I first saw it, I considered it a near-total disappointment. [I first watched the movie in Japanese with the alternate subtitle translation track on the DVD. Subsequent viewings involved the English dub, which is much clearer on what's actually happening- most crucially, during the ending.]

    While this movie annoys me far, far, far, less than James Cameron's "Avatar" [which, as you already know, I despise], I agree that its handling of its anti-war message is a failure, and that Hayao Miyazaki is capable of a more nuanced assessment of war. Most especially annoying to me is the film's use of the word "pointless" to describe the war between the two kingdoms. History amply demonstrates that no war is ever pointless; wars are always entered for a reason. The real point of contention is -and ought to be- whether the underlying point behind any given war is *valid*, or *morally justifiable*. Any anti-war story worth its salt should *always* acknowledge this fact in some way. "Howl's Moving Castle" fails as an anti-war allegory because it fails to explore the underlying causes of its war in any meaningful way.

    In general, when it comes to his insertion of his views on violence and environmentalism, I find that Hayao Miyazaki tends to be better when he gets off of his soapbox and just lets the story and the visuals do the talking. The scene with the "stink spirit" in "Spirited Away", and the view of the trash on the ocean floor in "Ponyo" [I'm not incapable of complimenting the latter film. ;-) ] are far more eloquent pleas on behalf of the environment than anything in "Nausicaa". Likewise, the storyline and visuals of "Princess Mononoke" have more to say about violence than almost anything in "Howl's Moving Castle".

    I likewise side with your ambivalent feelings on both Sophie's curse and her budding relationship with Howl. We're given more or less enough information to figure out *what* is happening as regards both threads. But the questions of *how* and *why* remain inadequately addressed/underdeveloped. For all that I'm entertained by both of these characters, I feel as though I don't know them as well as I ought to. And that prevents me from being as invested in them as I'd like.

    I also share your disappointment with Madame Suliman. She's a character who's absolutely packed with dramatic and thematic potential. And yet, after her introduction [which I consider to be perhaps the best extended sequence in the entire movie], Miyazaki fails to do much of anything with her. In a sense, she reminds me of the main villain in "Oliver Twist", Mr. Monks- she enters the narrative in spectacular fashion, only to disappoint when the chips are finally all down. While likewise imperfectly scripted, the Witch of the Waste is ultimately a much more interesting antagonist- which makes for another parallel with "Oliver Twist", where the supporting villains were more interesting than the main villain.

    As for the movie's ending, I find it to be just too pat. It comes too soon and is just too anticlimactic and sloppy for my tastes. I can [more or less] understand *what* happens during the finale and denouement, but very little of it is satisfying to me, either dramatically or emotionally. Every time I watch the movie, I enjoy the journey despite its hiccups- and every time I reach the end, I can't help but think: "that's it?"
    [Continued below]

  2. As for Turniphead being the prince- there actually is a tiny bit of foreshadowing. Early in the film, as Sophie begins to leave her home after being cursed, we can hear two people in the background having a conversation. They mention that the prince from the neighboring kingdom has gone missing, and that said kingdom is blaming their kingdom for his disappearance and is planning on going to war over the issue. Trouble is, this exchange is a "blink and you'll miss it" affair, so a viewer could be forgiven for not catching it [I only caught it when I turned on the subtitles]. Also, its the only such foreshadowing in the film. Combine that with the unanswered questions that the prince subplot raises [eg. who cursed him and why?] and its not hard to see the problem.

    I do have some points where I disagree with this editorial. For instance, I actually legitimately enjoy both Howl's freakout and the scene where Sophie and the Witch of the Waste climb the stairs, to the point where I consider them to be among the film's highlights. [The excellent performances in the English dub only help.] Also, I'm not sure that I'd consider the score for "Howl's Moving Castle" to be Joe Hisaishi's finest Ghibli effort [although it is good]. And while you do indeed make a compelling case for considering "Ponyo" a better executed movie than "Howl", I nonetheless would strongly contest the notion that its execution is *that* much better. A simplistic mess isn't any less of a mess than a convoluted mess. Its certainly far from being irredeemably bad, but "Ponyo" is, coming from a man like Hayao Miyazaki, not much less of a disappointment than "Howl's Moving Castle" is. Though if I consider "Ponyo" to be the bigger disappointment, perhaps that's because I'm possibly even more fond of his earlier, more whimsical films from the 80s and early 90s than many of his most vocal fans, and am thus even more invested in seeing him get that kind of sort of storyline right than I am in seeing him succeed at a plot with a more overtly serious tone.

    But yes- while I do quite enjoy it, I nonetheless consider "Howl's Moving Castle" to be overrated. In a way -many ways, actually- it reminds me of Disney's "Frozen". So many of the criticisms that can be leveled at "Howl's" -messy plotting, underdeveloped character relationships, an underutilized main antagonist, an overly tidy climax that comes too soon, inadequate foreshadowing of a major plot twist- can be legitimately aimed at "Frozen". Also like "Howl's", "Frozen" has been overrated by critics and audiences alike, both of whom fail to recognize that ambition cannot really cancel out a flawed execution.

    And yet, like "Howl's Moving Castle", "Frozen" does have enough things going for it for me to consider it worth seeing- primarily, entertaining and likable characters, pretty aesthetics, and an atmosphere of breezy fun. [I think "Howl's" does better on these fronts, but the parallel can still be drawn.] Both are film's I almost hate to criticize, because the strength and number of my criticisms can bely the fact that I really do enjoy them. Yet both are film's I feel compelled to criticize because of how the attention they receive tends to lead to neglect or underestimation of much better films by their respective studios.

    1. I never said Avatar was better, just less-preachy.

      As for Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, I can forgive its errors because: a. It was Miyazaki's first independent film, so it was bound to be rough here and there. b. It still has a guiding focus, subtle or not. And Ponyo I can forgive because next to this movie, which I saw first, I'll take that over a migraine and a half (that, and I think it's kinda cute.)

      The Witch of the Waste should've been the primary antagonist of this film. She's far more interesting than Madame Sullivan even AFTER she becomes a fat old hag. She has presence, a motivation and is far more menacing. And she's entertaining to watch.

      I'm also glad we agree on the ending. Biggest waste of Crispin Freeman's talent too, if I may add! And throwaway lines don't count as proper foreshadowing. It's like how people point to a two-second reaction to one of the characters in Perfect Blue to justify its twist ending: try harder than that.

      I guess the scenes that I felt unnecessary were largely because the film was so bloated. I'd like some of them on their own, but in this context? No. Also, Howl's freak-out doesn't work in my eyes because he's never implied to be that way prior. Perhaps it was a facade, maybe, to cover who he really was, but still.

      With the theme, it's very much a personal thing. I think Hisaishi's done better scores overall in other Miyazaki films, but that one tune? I wanna dance with my future wife to it at my wedding, I love it so much!

      Finally, I kinda still love Frozen, flaws and all. But I've already stated why.

      By the way, I had to double-take when I first saw your comments before I realized who you were. Then again, I just got out of a 25-hour Jewish holiday, so I'm a little out of it still...

    2. Yeah, its me. I changed my Blogger user name to a more pretentious variation on what it formerly was :-)

      FYI- "Nausicaa" might have been Miyazaki's first *film* that wasn't part of a franchise but it wasn't the first time he'd attempted to bring his anti-war, pro environment themes to the screen in a project that he was basically in charge of, and that wasn't part of a pre-existing franchise. In 1978, he released a TV series by the name of "Future Boy Conan". I'm partway into watching it, and I can tell you that thematically, it prefigures both "Nausicaa" and "Laputa" in more ways than one. Its rather like a blend of the two, only less refined -and less subtle- than either of them in terms of its characterization, themes, and scripting. Its animation isn't nearly as good as either of those two films [though its not bad], but the influence of the character designs can be seen in both of the movies I've mentioned. Conan and Lana's bodily designs are obvious precursors to Pazu and Sheeta, and the villainous Lepka is a very blatant predecessor to Colonel Muska. And there's one other character, Monsley -a female pilot on the side of the villains- whose facial design suggests Kushana in some ways. Even the characters' personalities can sometimes echo both later movies. Pazu and Sheeta echo the earlier Conan and Lana respectively in more ways than one [whilst being more gracefully developed and scripted than their spiritual predecessors], while Lepka obvious prefigures Muska. Monsley's personality suggests Kushana in a couple of ways, while Captain Dyce's role in the plot is reminiscent of the later Dola, albeit he's a man instead of a woman, and he's a lot slimier, wackier, and creepier despite being allied with the protagonists.

      I guess what I'm trying to get at is that "Nausicaa" and "Laputa", far from being the first time Hayao Miyazaki had attempted anything of their sort, were very likely attempts to produce more refined variations on something he'd already attempted. In the case of "Nausicaa", I'd say he kind of succeeded. Its general lack of thematic subtlety and its heavy use of an all-capable protagonist who's few flaws are basically irrelevant to the narrative ties it more closely to "Future Boy Conan" than to Miyazaki's subsequent work at Ghibli. At the same time, its more graceful animation and its somewhat more elegant tone point towards the direction he would go at Ghibli. "Laputa", on the other hand, is -despite its more overt callbacks to the earlier TV series- a more radical break from the style of "Future Boy Conan", being altogether more graceful, elegant, and well-rounded in its execution in a way that "Nausicaa" only partially achieved. Its use of slapstick is considerably toned-down from "Conan", its protagonists are more three-demensional, its plot is more streamlined, and its themes are -barring Sheeta's speech at the end- more elegantly implemented.

      If I've referred to"Nausicaa" as being more of a transition film for Miyazaki than a true Ghibli movie before now, my ongoing viewing of "Future Boy Conan" is the biggest reason why.

      I agree on the Witch of the Waste. If they were going to make Madame Suliman the main antagonist the way they effectively did, they should have set up her role in the plot a lot better, and done a lot more with her after her introduction.

  3. The only film by Satoshi Kon that I've seen so far is "Tokyo Godfathers", which I generally liked apart from the fact that it ended too abruptly. I gather that one's very different from what he usually made, however. So your criticism of "Perfect Blue" is duly noted. Should I ever watch the film, I'll decide whether the twist [whatever it is] works for me or not.

    And I hear you on "Frozen". As a random person with no knowledge of your inner thought processes, however, some of your previous comments on it have struck me as at least partly embodying the same "its thematically and narratively ambitious, which means its a great movie!" mentality of some of the people who overestimate "Howl's Moving Castle". So the thought that this editorial was, in some ways, an example of "the pot calling the kettle black" did at least cross my mind. If you're fully aware of the impact of the flaws I mention on "Frozen"'s quality of execution, however, and just happen to enjoy the film a whole lot regardless, then you're clear of the taint of hypocrisy ;-)

    1. Perfect Blue is crap, but I've already explained why numerous times in other pieces so I won't bog you down.

      As for Frozen, I kinda love it because: a. I definitely think it works in spite of its flaws. b. I think there's a genuine story there. Considering how safe Disney normally plays it (and they definitely didn't go through with the premise to its fullest potential,) it was nice to see Disney take some real chances and go into territory they'd never fully gone to before. c. Even if parts of it don't work, and there are, I think it hits more bullseyes than it misses. But that's mostly me, I can see why it wouldn't for you.

      On the subject of early works, Miyazaki also wrote a 4-koma Manga in the late-60's that shares similarities to some of his later works. And it's crap (yeah, however blunt Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind was, that one's even worse. At least the movie had a semblance of narrative structure to compensate for its problems, while the early Manga definitely feels like Miyazaki had no clue where he was going at the time. Being 28 years old doesn't help much either...)


Post a Comment

Popular Posts