Revered animation writer and director Hayao Miyazaki has built his illustrious and inspiring career around certain themes that he has returned to time and time again in his many decades of work. These include the spiritual realm, the sanctity of nature, and the wonder of flight. But perhaps his most defining theme, which pervades each of his works to some degree or another, is the crucial need for compassion toward one another. In Miyazaki’s films, it isn’t violence or deception or debate that changes the world and saves other people, it’s displays of compassion that come from pure love for other people.
No other film in Miyazaki’s canon of great animated features has this more prominently displayed in its story and themes than 2005’s Howl’s Moving Castle.
Based on a novel of the same name by Diana Wynne Jones, but with many elements and themes largely changed for the film, Miyazaki’s fantasy romance is set in a fictional kingdom where modern technology and magic coexist alongside one another. It’s in this setting, where two kingdoms wage war against one another, that Sophie, a young hatter, meets the wizard Howl and is suddenly turned into an old woman due to a curse from a witch who is after Howl. In search of a way to break the curse, Sophie moves into Howl’s home (the titular moving castle) and changes the lives of the people around her as well as the war itself through her compassion.
While there is a romance at the core of Miyazaki’s story, compassion and love come in all forms and have equal importance in changing the lives of others. This includes romantic love between Howl and Sophie as well as platonic love between Sophie and friends like the fire demon Calcifer and the young wizard in training Markl. Just as important is Sophie’s willingness to forgive and seek greater understanding of those who originally sought to do her harm, like The Witch of the Waste. In doing so, Sophie is able to enact lasting change in the hearts and lives of others that would have never happened without someone reaching out through unashamed compassion.
Most interestingly, Sophie’s capacity for compassion is sparked by the curse placed upon her. While the little we see of Sophie before she is cursed to be an old woman shows her to be kind and caring to some degree, it’s only when she finds that she has little to lose that the character truly acts out on her feelings and love in fearless ways. Sophie believes that she is doomed to be an old woman who has missed out on the chances of her youth, so she looks beyond herself and acts out courageously in the lives of others. It’s a warm and liberating viewpoint on the benefits of growing old that is rarely scene in mainstream cinema, which largely places importance on being young and having your whole life ahead of you while quietly stigmatizing the idea of being old.
In Howl’s Moving Castle, Miyazaki shows age to be the ultimate opportunity for wisdom and fearlessness, while also eventually allowing Sophie the chance to reembrace youth and the chance for love.
In adapting Howl’s Moving Castle for film, Miyazaki altered certain elements of the story in order to explore many of his favorite themes, with a special attention being paid to how Sophie’s personal compassion toward each person in her life plays against the backdrop of a massive, inscrutable war that threatens to disrupt and destroy everything that she holds dear. This contrast works to highlight the importance of understanding and loving the people around us, rather than buying into wars and violence that are fought with little reason and understanding. It’s clear that Miyazaki’s ideas on pacifism play a large part in the narrative shape of the film, with the director outright stating that his ideas on war in Howl’s Moving Castle were made in direct response to The Iraq War. But whether or not you agree with his pacifist ideals, Sophie’s acts of compassion, forgiveness, and understanding are both inspiring and refreshing in modern film.
What’s important to note about the storytelling focus of Howl’s Moving Castle is that while the war plays a crucial role within the narrative, it is most often relegated to the background, often happening off screen while Miyazaki chooses to stay focused on the life of Sophie and her personal interactions with Howl, Markl, Calcifer, and The Witch of the Waste. As a powerful wizard who wishes to save as many people as he can, Howl works to disrupt the war and stop the loss of life due to the violence being committed on both sides. In doing so, he’s often whisked away from home for lengthy stretches of time and is at the great risk of slowly losing his humanity due to the sacrifices he must make in stopping the war. Howl’s cause is noble, but his investment in this impersonal, all-consuming war has turned him into a beast who cannot fully connect with the people around him.
It’s Sophie who pushes him to be a better person, not just by simply being the clichéd romantic lead, but by being a proactive and wise participant in the lives of the people around her. Sophie seeks to learn more about others and better understand how she can support them in the unique ways that they need. As a heroine, she’s neither perfect nor in need of being improved by others, which makes her uniquely human in the best ways seen in Miyazaki’s characters. Her love for others enables people to do things they may have never normally done. It’s not always an easy or predictable process, but it leads to truly better things for everyone involved.
Compassion is, in and of itself, a very simple yet powerful positive emotion. It’s ability to change lives in contrast to the many wild magical occurrences happening all around in Howl’s Moving Castle help to highlights its true power and very real need in the world. Despite and the sorcery and wars on display, it’s the loving kindness of one woman changes lives on both a small, immediate scale and a massive, long-term scale.
In the film’s climax, Sophie must deal with a near fatally-wounded Howl, a near dead Calcifer (who acts as a very literal embodiment of Howl’s changing heart), and a Witch of the Waste whose obsessions override even her now far-kinder heart and endager them all. And it’s all because Sophie pushed them to be better people. While things all work out for the best in the end, not everything need be perfect or even completely successful to have the feeling that simply working to be better was good enough in the eyes of Miyazaki.
The worth of love and compassion comes from trying to make others’ lives better, not necessarily in always succeeding. In fact, simply trying to be good to everyone can have the most unexpected positive impacts on the world, as seen in one of the most surprising and bewildering moments in Howl’s Moving Castle – the transformation of the strange turnip-headed scarecrow back into the prince whose disappearance started the entire war.
It’s a strange yet oddly perfect final piece to fall into place, which shows that Sophie’s compassion is always adding something good to the world, even if it can’t be seen immediately. When the Prince reveals that he is in love with Sophie, yet knows that she loves Howl, he stats “One thing that you can always count on is that hearts change.” It’s true, as evidenced by the many hearts that have been both figuratively and literally changed by Sophie’s actions. And in Howl’s Moving Castle, Miyazaki shows us that by pursuing pure, unselfish love for one another, that change can always be for the better.