Retro Review: Howl’s Moving Castle

Tiger Media Network

To live uninhibited is to live without limiting or altering who you are. Regardless of the various pressures, expectations, or self-doubt you are able to live being completely you. Due to the bodies we are born into, our age, our wealth or lack thereof, and many more factors; the expectations sprung upon you can change your experiences or outcomes. While there are some expectations a person like you or I have to endure that are more generally oppressive it is the nuances of our circumstances that grow the individual way we navigate the world. The treatment we receive is often based on expectations, assumptions, or prejudices people have about others. 

Gender, age, the way we look, race, ethnicity, etc. are among the facets of what a person is that begets prejudiced thinking. What would happen if you could change some of these factors in your life? What would be the difference in your treatment and what would be your view of yourself? Take for example a young milliner who is closing up the hat shop she works at when a jealous witch comes in and curses her. She transforms from a sweet hard-working young woman into a sweet hard-working old woman. While shocked at first, she quickly adjusts to her circumstances not only making the best of the situation but consigning to herself that she may be better off this way.

“This Isn’t So Bad Now, Is It? You’re Still In Good Shape, And Your Clothes Finally Suit You.” – Sophie

“Howl’s Moving Castle” (2005) directed by Hayao Miyazaki is among the best Studio Ghibli films. It tells the story of Sophie, who, after being cursed by the infamous Witch of the Wastes, goes on a journey of learning self-love and acceptance. She does this through meeting her new friends: A boy, a dog, a fire, and a wizard. That wizard is the titular Howl. What makes “Howl’s Moving Castle” such an excellent film is its character or world design, artwork, or magical music. Music throughout “Howl’s Moving Castle” is not simply whimsical but also pairs well with the dynamic character moments throughout the film. Whether it be when Howl is flying with Sophie above the town, Sophoie cleaning the castle, or escaping from Madame Suliman. However, the most important message the film sends is about wearing masks and expectations. 

This message is embodied in our main protagonist, Sophie who finds comfort and different treatment when she is transformed into an old woman. Treatment, she might argue, is better as she doesn’t have the expectation to adhere to the beauty standard in her old presenting body. Like the conservative clothes plus size people may wear to cover their bodies, Sophie wears the cursed old woman form as a means to maintain confidence without revealing her insecurities.

The Witch Of The Waste confronts Sophie

Often, people who vary outside the norm will do something to conceal what they are to be more like their accepted or praised counterparts. In Sophie’s case, this concealment was thrust upon her. She didn’t believe she was beautiful or special, while the Witch and Howl did. Sophie feels more at ease and more comfortable when she is living as an old lady. Her personality and who she is on the inside is able to shine through. This is living uninhibited. Being freed from the expectations of being a young woman, she feels more at ease. However, no one should feel that they cannot exist as their truest selves because of the body (vessel) they exist in. Throughout the film we see Sophie combat the curse and even reverie to her old self when feeling most confident, able, and not cringing at her authentic self, whether she is sleeping or standing up to Madame Suliman (Blythe Danner in the English dub)  or expressing her feelings to Howl.

His film is all about revealing the real you and involves multiple transformations. Sophie becomes old and then you again. Calcifer becomes Howl’s heart once again, the witch of the wastes becomes a weakened but sweeter old woman, and Turnip head becomes a prince. This use of transformations, alternate personality, and bodies help convey this idea about living uninhibited. We can see the beauty of each of these characters’ arcs through their various designs. From the monstrous bird form Howl takes flying on battlefields to the cute endearing form Sophie takes, the art perfectly represents what the characters are outwardly feeling or what they are concealing. In real life people of all repressed and oppressed populations use things to mask what they are so that they may feel able to participate in the world with diminished ridicule. 

Howl and Calcifer finish up breakfast

People of color in the US have to assimilate or alter the way they present their culture, code-switching for safety and even eliminating or sacrificing culture to fit in. Internalized hate occurs in people of varying races, body types, gender identities and more. Some with perfectly constructed personalities suited specifically for situations with people who aren’t like you. However liberating, donning a mask might feel it cannot be a permanent solution to the issue. While cloaking your culture or identity before walking into a room of different people might get you through the door and to the table it will never garner respect or true acceptance of your people. We must strive for a world that simply allows us to be without punishment for being. In the modern era it is living online and through your online persona that can be devastating. At first using the mask of anonymity of being online helps you find who you are unfiltered by the world but it is when you identify with that online life more than the one you have in real life that becomes a problem. Technology is a tool to help us connect and live, it is not a suitable replacement for living itself. 

Slowly, it evolves from being a tool to help you express who you are and connect to other people into the online persona being who you are. It is a symptom of wearing the mask too long through complacency. It evolves from being a tool that can help you find the real you into a perfectly curated representation of who you are. Thus leading to fragile senses of self, egos, and heightened anxiety at the slightest perceived disapproval. A brown man who always concedes to assimilation and white oppression forever loses himself, a trans girl finds herself online but never translates her online confidence to real-life interactions lives her most important relationships and connections never reaching their mature open potential, Sophie continues to live her life in the vessel of the old lady never confronts her fears, her love for howl, or truly believes she is beautiful enough or worthy.

Sophie embraced by Howl now transformed

“Howl’s Moving Castle” is my favorite Studio Ghibli film. It has taught us the lesson that in order to live as our true selves, we must be able to accept the bodies we live in and in staunch defiance of the expectations that are flung upon those bodies, we let our inner infinite selves flow out of us until we are gone. It is a waste of time not being yourself. Like how Sophie uses the old woman form to shield her from the expectations of the world, we assimilate or use code-switching or a digital persona to shield us from those same expectations. Like Sophie, however, we must not concede to complete assimilation and we must grow out of our absolute reliance on these tools or we become complicit in our own masked oppression. It has taught me that while my situations would be different had I been born into a different body or been a different age I was not. I am here now at this age and in this body. I must strive to live the most uninhibited and to allow for the safety for people to let loose their uninhibited selves too. For all the good, bad, and everything else.

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