Diana Wynne Jones wrote over 40 books, each wise and witty, deeply dark and totally hilarious. I find it impossible to fully articulate how her books have impacted me. This paper on the translation of Howl's Moving Castle from page to screen, was originally presented at the Screening Childhood Panel, MLA Convention, Philadelphia, PA. December 29, 2009.
When I first read that Hayao Miyazaki, the famed anime director who created the rich and wondrous Spirited Away, was going to bring Diana Wynne Jones’s many-layered classic Howl’s Moving Castle to the screen, I was delighted. I’d been reading and rereading Jones’s book for over a decade, taking deep pleasure out of the thoroughly twisty plot and sumptuous visual treats found within, and I anticipated that any product of Studio Ghibli’s artistic vision allowed full reign on such rich material would be peerless. When I finally saw the film in its US debut in the summer of 2005, the experience left me mulling over the vast changes made to the narrative.
Why was there so much war? Where was all the humor? Why were Howl and Sophie, the originally feisty protagonists of the charming tale, suddenly so bland? I was not alone in feeling cast down by the adaptation in the West; Matt Kimmich argues that the Jones’ source material and Miyazaki’s influence are “imperfectly joined and detract from one another throughout much of the film” (126). But in Japan, Howl’s Moving Castle was the top-grossing film of 2004 and has been pointed to as a reflection of modern Japanese hopes and fears. I set out to explore how and where the two texts intersect.
Postmodernism in Fantasy
When I first started examining Jones’ novel and Miyazaki’s film for links, I was reminded of the discrete dual narratives of Haruki Murakami’s Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. There were parallels evident, but the two halves just never seemed to meet in any middle ground other than over the most obvious elements of plot and character. But like that uniquely fractured story which so often defies easy categorization, Jones’ novel and Miyazaki’s film transcend genre labels and reside in the uneasy, rugged terrain of postmodernism. Maria Nikolajeva, a Swedish scholar who has written extensively on children’s literature including Jones’ body of work, writes that postmodernist literature focuses “on a variety of frame-breaking elements,” eliminates “clear-cut boundaries between fiction and reality,” and “questions such purely literary elements as a single narrative voice and a distinctly delineated point of view, fixed subject position, and unequivocal worldview” (25). All of these elements are engrained in such a natural way into the two works that they are often not immediately evident. This is in many ways what distinguishes fantasy from literature from a realist tradition. Postmodern realism is often self-consciously mannered in its application of fractured viewpoints and narratives. By contrast, the fantasy worlds that these two works integrate postmodern literary techniques like meta-fiction and a referential world in such an organic way as to be accepted wholesale by the reader as natural features of the environment and people.
An Introduction to Superflat
Any effective discussion of Miyazaki’s film needs an introduction to the art movement known as Superflat. Superflat was first coined by Takeshi Murakami, artist, curator, author, and general superstar of the contemporary Japanese art scene, and draws a wide range of works from all of Japan’s art forms into a broad critique on contemporary Japanese society and its stasis in an apocalyptic present. Superflat “assert[s] the absence of one-point perspective or a central composition” often evident in classical Western painting, and what Murakami’s theory does is link “design-oriented eccentric painting of the seventeenth century with contemporary anime and manga images in an alternative history of Japanese art” (283). The name evokes the two-dimensionality of the flattened forms found in Japanese graphic art, animation, and other pop culture products as well as in the Japanese culture itself.
Murakami argues that Superflat art reflects the new ways of thinking that have emerged in Japan in the wake of the atomic destruction of World War II. The Japanese psyche “has been completely transformed in the wake of the collective subjection of the Japanese people to the horrendous experience of nuclear annihilation” (Murakami 19). Thomas Looser places these new ways of thinking in a context of self-referentiality, pointing out how modern history alienates us from expecting that we can understand the whole. The present becomes “our only real origin of experience” (93).
Murakami states that, “from social mores to art and culture, everything is super two-dimensional” in Japan. And yet, describing it as purely a flattening of image is too reductive, ignoring the emphasis on layering and drawing surface relationships noted by Thomas Looser. Looser also observes that recent Superflat curatorial efforts have downplayed or ignored an earlier emphasis on connections to early modern Japan, focusing instead solely on the movement’s ties to the trauma of World War II. This omission is evident in Murakami’s analysis of Howl’s Moving Castle, which he included in “Little Boy,” the third international Superflat exhibition he curated in 2005 at the Japan Society in New York.
Reception of the concept of Superflat in the West has followed an unusual trajectory, with many Western media outlets derisive in their coverage of Murakami and his exhibition, stigmatizing it as a branding campaign with a commercial mission rather than legitimate art movement. Michael Darling tempers this negative response from the Western art world, finding that Superflat “is far from unnuanced or superficial …. Like a Japanese transformer toy, it has the capacity to move and bend to engage a wide range of issues: from proposing formal historical connections between classic Japanese art and the anime cartoons of today to a Pop Art-like cross-contamination of high and low to a social critique of contemporary mores and motivations” (77). Thomas Looser notes that the expressed intention in promoting Superflat goes beyond pure commercial gain: “Superflat, it seems, will open up a new life (or a new ‘sensibility’) in the present, which includes new ‘seeds’ for the future” (92). Looser raises an extended critique of how the focus on apocalypse limits the movement, but I believe there is value in exploring Howl’s Moving Castle’s relationship to the movement and will be weaving Superflatness – and my rebuttal to Looser’s criticism – into the discussion where relevant.
Postmodernity in Howl’s Moving Castle
Both texts are preoccupied with the decidedly postmodern themes of questioning identity, reality, and traditional categories and use these structural elements to orchestrate the heroic journeys of Sophie, the main protagonist. Jones mines metafictional techniques to reference and subvert the conventions of fairy tale and fantasy literature. A playful flow between the literal and the metaphorical (as is fitting for a book based on a poem by John Donne) establishes a world in which every character has a double and objects never have a fixed identity. A detour from the land of Ingary to modern Wales allows an exploration of a familiar place from an unfamiliar point of view, which makes the reader “acknowledge the strangeness of our own lives” (Butler) and serves as a turning point for Sophie. By highlighting the conventions of fairy tales, Jones places us in sympathy with a protagonist who is hemmed in by her own expectations and has to break free of conventions to succeed.
Farah Mendlesohn writes of Jones’ text, “This is a novel that is about the mind of a country, about the way people think about themselves and their own worlds” (Fantastic Tradition 105), and this holds equally true for Miyazaki’s film. Murakami wrote in 2005, “What film defines the Japanese today? Without question, it is Howl’s Moving Castle, released in Japan in late 2004” (102). By creating a world that exists as its own set of referents, ones which the audience must understands on its own terms, Miyazaki is able to promote two major themes: the world at war is a senseless place, and family is essential to counterbalance the meaninglessness of the world. Miyazaki transforms the tale into a parable of love and family, in which the protagonist wins because of her inherent goodness and loving nature.
I will be looking at how each text uses historical references in setting and character elements, approaches ideas of selfhood through multiple selves, constructs an uneasy relationship between truth and reality, and employs an actual journey to reflect their protagonists’ heroic journeys. While both texts share all of these themes in some way, I will argue that they are flavored by different cultural and national obsessions. While Jones’ novel presents an archetypally traditional Western status hierarchy to help her readers move towards liberation from expectations and a critical awakening, Miyazaki’s film navigates an apocalyptic Superflat present overshadowed by Japan’s recent past to urge his audience towards a more positive future. In moving through each of the postmodern techniques mentioned here, I will try to show how each application develops the national or cultural themes most valued by each author.
Both texts incorporate Frederic Jameson’s idea of postmodern pastiche, a patchwork of references that serve to locate the text in a particular setting and to tie it into a specific tradition of ideas. First published in 1986, the novel of Howl’s Moving Castle opens as an immersive fantasy, a type of narrative that “invites us to share not merely a world but a set of assumptions” (Rhetorics of Fantasy xx). Mendlesohn suggests that the best of this type of story presents “the fantastic without comment for both the protagonist and reader,” but Jones subverts the genre from the outset with a rather tongue-in-cheek approach that acknowledges the external origin of the referents. The tale is set in the land of Ingary, where “such things as seven-league boots and cloaks of invisibility really exist” (Jones 1). By referencing these fantastical objects and adding that they “really exist,” Jones acknowledges that we the readers live in a non-magical world outside of the immersive fantasy, but also expects us to know the tradition of fairy tales, fables, and fantasies from the Western world well enough to understand the rules of the world without needing them to be spelled out. Many critics have pointed out how familiar, even mundane, Jones makes her fantasy worlds, and constructing a world that, at least on the surface, conforms to the routines of the Western fantastic tradition is one of her techniques to set up this familiarity (Butler, Kimmich, Mendlesohn). But Jones destabilizes this mundane setting by setting up a heterotopic space with a detour to modern-day Wales, which I will return to later (Kimmich, Mendlesohn, Nikolajeva).
Mendlesohn points out another strong reference more rooted in popular culture than in the archetypal fairy tale world: L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Sophie and Dorothy are both accompanied by a dog companion and a scarecrow and confront the Witch of the Waste and West respectively. Mendlesohn sees “a wider homage in which Sophie’s leaving home parallels Dorothy’s” embedded in the story (Fantastic Tradition xxvii). But the heart of the novel’s plot is found in the neoclassical poem “Song” by John Donne, which becomes the vehicle for the Witch of the Waste’s spell that threatens Howl. The poem is a laundry list of supremely improbable things, from catching a falling star to hearing mermaids singing and serves as a prime example of the metaphysical conceit Donne was so noted for. The conceit, which offers “a comparison whose ingenuity is more striking than its justness," is a strikingly apt description of how Jones uses the poem in the book, doubling its original ingenuity (Gardner xxiii). This is typical of how Jones applies meta-fictional techniques to add layers of meaning until her work resembles nothing so much as a mille-feuille.
Miyazaki’s film opens literally overshadowed by a war that looks remarkably like World War II. The setting resembles a European village, archetypal in its nonspecificity, yet evocative of a particular era in its technology of war machines and transport on prominent display throughout the film. Murakami believes the technology and setting locates the film for its Japanese audience in terms of ideology as well: “It is the dawn of the twentieth century, an era of unsurpassed nationalism, somewhere in a faintly Alsatian corner of the world” (103). The fact that the town is Alsatian or European brings up what for Western audiences might be a confusing feature of a story aimed at Japanese audiences. Anne Allison, author of a stunningly in-depth book on Japanese toys and the global imagination, asked Japanese manga artists, marketers and viewers of manga, anime, and television to comment on this European or Western stylization of popular dolls and characters, and was told that it was “simply a marker of fantasy” and that “given the homogeneity of Japanese bodies, eyes, and black hair, fantasy characters need to be made “non-Japanese-looking’” (146). She points out that this type of othering performed in Japanese popular culture remains limited to pale Caucasian appearances, but in the case of Howl’s Moving Castle, a film so informed by war-related trauma, the preoccupation with the West is more easily understood, as is the inclusion of specific Alsatian architectural styles and topography.
From the early establishing scenes of Sophie toiling away in drudgery at the hat shop, war imagery serves as the unifying visual language that ties the film together thematically. We see, as Sophie does, flying jets darken the skies overhead even as the sounds of their engines comes into focus over the piano-based score. Soldiers march through the streets and seem to be the largest population in town. When Sophie goes to visit her sister at the bakery, soldiers trying to flirt with her frighten her, and we first see the wizard Howl when he rescues her from them. This is in direct contrast to the same scene in the book, when Sophie is frightened by Howl himself trying to flirt with her, an important change that I will return to later. The constant presence of war defines the setting, and reflects what Looser sees as the role of apocalypse in Superflat works: to imply an absolute limit and “complete horizon of experience” (94). Murakami talks of the impact of the atomic bombs on Japan as in effect a stoppage of time, rendering an inability to move beyond the present and envision a viable future. This hyper-present becomes a key driver of the plot of the film, as we shall see.
However, this conception of a solipsistic postmodern present that functions as its own horizon is both contestable and deserving of further probing. Postmodern theories have often been adamant in describing collapsing of time in a way that serves as a rejection of the past. Kristen Ross writes in Fast Cars and Clean Bodies of how these theories “efface historicity” in the face of the “dissolution of the event and of diachronic agency” (10). Ross goes on to suggest that this “perfect reconciliation of past and future in an endless present” allows for a distancing from historical events and rejection of the past (11). But Murukami’s stoppage of time suggests that a different interpretation is also possible here, that important histories can be foregrounded by the treatment of time in narratives. In The Arcades Project, Walter Benjamin writes about the telescoping of the past through the present, and it seems to me that Murakami is arguing that Superflat does just that to the atomic experience. By iterating the bombs into a seemingly hyper-present, Superflat art becomes a kind of post-traumatic stress disorder, a national reaction to a national trauma that it has yet to recover from.
While Looser sees a return to history in Superflat, he develops a further argument that reinterprets the presence of apocalypse in Superflat art as 1990’s consumer capitalism’s “romantic desire for a real limit, a real ending” (107). If we accept the presence of apocalypse in Howl’s Moving Castle as a telescoping of the atomic events into the story’s present, we can see that past, present, and future are fully represented in the film, and that Murakami’s privileging of the atomic experience in explicating Superflat is not reductive, as Looser’s argument requires. Looser states in his text that Japan’s national identity “may have been humiliated by the West, but it is clearly therefore non-Western, and certain in its place” (107). It seems that for Looser, to relive the atomic events is to repeatedly undergo a kind of humiliation at the hands of the West. It seems to me that this is a remarkably chauvinistic and insensitive interpretation that ignores the pain of such a devastation. It merits plain speaking: people weren’t only humiliated, they died in vast numbers.
In terms of plot, Jones’ novel follows roughly the same course as the film in the early scenes but without any of the war imagery. After her encounter with Howl, she visits her sister and returns home, only to meet the Witch of the Waste, who casts a spell on her to transform her into an old woman. In both book and film, the reasons are indicated but vague, there is a mention of Sophie setting up as “competition.” Later in the book, we discover that Sophie has magical talent, but the film offers no further justification. From here, Sophie sets off to seek her fortune as an old woman and encounters a scarecrow and the titular moving castle. Sophie forces her way into the castle, meeting Michael, Howl’s teen apprentice, and Calcifer, an evil-looking demon who lives in the hearth and is made of blue fire. In one of its early departures, the film presents Michael as “Markl,” a six-year-old boy, and Calcifer as comedic relief. Calcifer makes a pact with Sophie that he will help break the spell on her if she will help break the contract binding him to Howl. The catch is that she has to figure out the nature of the contract for herself. She goes on to set up at the castle as the housekeeper for Howl’s household. This is where the two stories diverge heavily.
The film goes on to develop Howl as a lone warrior battling both sides of a war no one seems to understand the point of, while Sophie establishes herself as a mother figure to “Markl” and adds more members to the household, in the form of the Witch of the Waste, who is destroyed by another foe and leader in the war, Madam Suliman. The Witch shrivels into a kindly old lady with a childlike manner, one who depends on Sophie to take care of her. She also brings home Heen, an aged dog with an asthmatic condition. From there, Sophie becomes the fierce protector of the household as she struggles to understand and tackle the dangers facing Howl.
The novel follows a much lighter path with little emphasis on war. In fact, the first mention of the war comes in an oblique mention by Howl in chapter six, and this is no downplay of its centrality to the book—while parts of the plot are set in motion by the preparations for war, there are actually only two direct mentions of war. In the first, a messenger of the King of Ingary arrives to request a spell to help with “how an army might get its heavy wagons through marsh and rough ground” (79). The second mention comes when Sophie visits the King pretending to be Howl’s mother. Howl sends her to “blacken his name” so that the King won’t hire him for the vital task of finding the King’s brother, Prince Justin, who has gone missing. The King tells Sophie that the reason why it is so important to find him is that “My brother Justin is a brilliant general, and with Norland and Strangia about to declare war on us, I can’t afford to do without him” (189). No other symbols of war enter into the narrative—no weapons, war machines, or soldiers, all staples of Miyazaki’s cinematic vision, as Jones herself points out in a recent article: “I confess that when I first saw the animated film … I did feel that the director, Miyazaki, had taken advantage of this process of adaptation to introduce all his own favourite obsessions. He crammed the story full of flying machines and war scenes, all superbly animated, on the very thin basis that the King in my book was planning a war” (“From Book to Ballet”).
Instead, the novel focuses on following Sophie’s journey to decipher the contract binding Calcifer and Howl, while verbally sparring with Howl and trying to solve her own situation, even as she slowly becomes incorporated into the household and involved in a spell cast against Howl by the Witch of the Waste. She avoids her family members while trying to protect one of her sisters from Howl’s romantic advances (knowing that he’s an irrepressible flirt) and stop herself from falling love with him at the same time. All the spells and subplots come to a heady climax at the end, when the layers and layers of misdirection and disguise are stripped away from each character. Sophie’s magical talent of saying things that come true is one Jones has used repeatedly in her books, and it reflects the importance of truth telling in Howl, an idea I will continue to develop.
A Quest for Self
Multiple selves and blurred identities are a key trope in both the book and the film. In both, Sophie has been transformed into an old woman, but there are many other instances of doubling, compositing, and polymorphous shape shifting that enter the two texts. In the book, when Sophie goes to meet her sister Martha, she discovers Martha has changed places with her other sister Lettie through means of a disguise spell. Both sisters have the same appearance (that of Lettie) for much of the novel. The scarecrow Sophie meets along the way, as well as her dog companion, turn out to be parts of two other characters thrown together and enchanted by the Witch. It turns out that the Witch herself has had her body commandeered by a fire demon for much of the story, who we meet under the guise of another beautiful woman who Howl romances. Howl himself is constantly taking disguises, as is Michael, and Howl is known by several different names in different regions. From the list above, it is obvious that character compositing and doubling is a major part of the plot, and Jones uses them to establish a “hall of mirrors” quality to her story. The character multiplying is accompanied by a similarly expanded set of possible realities and even worlds. We even discover halfway through the book that the Wizard Howl is actually Howell Jenkins from Wales who discovered a way into the magical land of Ingary. But more on this last revelation later.
All the doubling and compositing is rooted in Sophie’s heroic journey: how to identify her own assumptions and other people’s deceptions to find and name the truth. Sophie’s ability to critically observing events as they transpire as well as break down what others tell her is the essential agency she has to claim for herself. The deceptive appearances exceed any of the disguises found in traditional fairy tales, bringing with them questions about the very nature of humanness, as exemplified by Percival, who alternates between dog and human form. Again, Jones destabilizes the seemingly straightforward environment of the fairy tale world in a way that forces not only Sophie but her readers to reassess what they think they know.
Miyazaki applies a more Japanese spin to the questions of self and form, with a polymorphous set of characters who shift shape in more sensory and organic ways than Jones’ externalized plot orchestrations. Sophie and Howl’s more solipsistic shape shifting is pegged to their mental states rather than outside forces as each struggles to overcome their own fears. Sophie, while initially transformed by the Witch from an eighteen-year-old to a ninety-year-old, exhibits influence over her appearance throughout the rest of the film, aging “when she is indecisive and regaining her youthful appearance whenever she makes a choice; she constantly metamorphoses, heedless of the demands of any linear narrative” (Murakami 103). Meanwhile, Howl’s form changes as he battles both sides of the war. Howl’s alternate form is monstrous, a gun-metal gray bird-man who resembles an avenging angel. As his involvement in the war deepens, the form encroaches further, threatening to consume even his face, implying a complete destruction of self. Allison writes about Japan’s preoccupation with bakemono, or “things that change form” as is the literal definition, noting that this fascination with the supernatural, mysterious and fantastic was discouraged by country leaders at the end of the nineteenth century as a sign of Japan’s primitivism and traditional belief in otherworldly animist spirits but that it has endured into the current age (27). She writes, “monsters live between two worlds and threaten to collapse or break down the mediating border,” which further bolsters Murakami’s belief that the film contains threads of religiosity (32). The religious themes combine with the film’s inward orientation to shape Sophie’s heroic journey, as will be discussed in more detail in the final section of this paper.
Jones’s narrative plays with the archetypes of the genre throughout, continuously shifting from the metaphorical to the literal and back again, and Sophie is constantly challenged to question her traditional perception of reality, including ideas of good and evil. In Ingary, “it is quite a misfortune to be born the eldest of three. Everyone knows you are the one who will fail first, and worst, if the three of you set out to seek your fortunes” (Jones 1). Sophie is introduced as a character who operates purely within the confines of the fairy tale world. “Sophie was the eldest of three sisters. She was not even the daughter of a poor woodcutter, which might have given her some chance of success” (Jones 1). Just as quickly as she sets up our assumptions (which are also Sophie’s assumptions) for the world, Jones begins to point out inconsistencies. She writes that since their widower father had remarried and had another daughter, “this ought to have made Sophie and Lettie into Ugly Stepsisters, but in fact all three girls grew up very pretty indeed” (Jones 1). Sophie’s journey to seek her fortune is constantly undermined by people and events not conforming to her expectations.
When she meets Howl, what she knows of him is that he is the wizard “known to amuse himself by collecting young girls and sucking the souls from them. Or some people said he ate their hearts” (Jones 4). Howl’s wickedness is revealed to be more mundane than evil; he turns out to be an irrepressible flirt. But his “heartlessness” is revealed to be literal—he’s given his heart to Calcifer so that the fire demon may live. But demons, as another character points out, “do not understand good and evil” (Jones 181), so Sophie struggles with whether to help him or not, even as she seeks to understand if Howl is motivated by anything other than selfish goals. In this way, Sophie realizes that the appearance of reality is not the same as truth, and she is challenged to rely on her own judgment to find her way.
Sophie’s young stepmother Fanny provides another hurdle for Sophie to clear in altering her perceptions of good and evil. Martha, Fanny’s daughter and Sophie’s stepsister, blurs Sophie’s uncritical regard for Fanny, saying, “Mother knows you don’t have to be unkind to someone in order to exploit them…She’s managed you perfectly and got you slaving away for her” (Jones 27). Sophie protests, but the seeds of doubt have been sown. After she’s transformed into an old woman, Sophie uses it as an additional justification for leaving to seek her fortune. By the end of the story the family is reunited, and Sophie realizes that Fanny was dealing with her own discontents, and that the truth lay somewhere in between her initial uncritical regard for Fanny and Martha’s cynical view: “She had taken Martha’s view of Fanny, whole and entire, when she should have known Fanny better” (Jones 294).
Miyazaki’s questioning of reality is more organically woven into the fabric of his spectacular setting and plot. Miyazaki has said, “Of course I believe that other worlds exist… It’s like love: you can’t see it but it exists—simply because you believe it. It’s just a matter of believing” (qtd in Napier xi), and he privileges this type of belief as more “real” than objective reality throughout the film. By its visual nature, animation is more spectacular and solipsistic, requiring the viewer to accept the representation on screen as whole and immutable, even if it morphs before your eyes, as it does continuously throughout Howl’s Moving Castle. Sophie’s manipulation of reality in the form of her appearance reflects her belief in herself and ability to express her love for others. In this way, an inner spirit holds complete power over its environment, as embodied by the titular moving castle, which seems “strangely organic and alive” with its stubby narrow legs and roughly assembled face discernable among the “collage of chimneys, roofs, steam pipes, and other odd appendages” (Kimmich 128).
Thus, Miyazaki’s very world is mutable under the power of its characters’ interior lives. This is an important distinction from traditional Western fantasies, and one particular change in the film for Western viewers demonstrates that it may be a cultural trait more than a personal one. In the film I watched, with subtitles and dubbed, Madam Suliman who seems as if she might have continued as a threat to Howl and Sophie, is seen at the close of the film saying, “Let’s end this pointless war.” This is made possible because the scarecrow who has been accompanying Sophie throughout turns out to be a prince of a neighboring kingdom who was under a spell. He is set free from his scarecrow form by a kiss from Sophie, and promptly asks her to marry him—which she declines.
Without any introduction of this plot thread earlier, the intrusion feels forced and arbitrary from a spell—another seemingly random event in the film. Kimmich tells us that the literal translation from Japanese to English on the DVD reveals that “the throwaway reference to the cause of the war” is only in the English version, not the Japanese (138). This suggests that the translator(s) felt that Western audiences needed to know the origin of the war and see a logical resolution, while Japanese audiences accepted the end as a reflection of Sophie and Howl’s happy ending.
Literal Journeys Reflect the Heroic
Multiple critics have identified Sophie’s journey into modern-day Wales as one of the most intriguing features of Jones’ novel (Fantastic Tradition, Kimmich, Nikolajeva). As Kimmich states, “Here, Howl ruptures its fairy-tale framework most clearly, a frame-break that is omitted from the film” (129). Drawing on another post-modern literary technique, Jones reworks the fairy tale’s heroic journey from a traditionally moral one to an ontological one as Sophie goes on a reverse portal fantasy quest and picks up the skills she needs to complete her heroic journey in Ingary (Manlove qtd in Kimmich 130, Fantastic Tradition). Throughout the book, Sophie has struggled, “not against other people’s expectations but against her own” (Fantastic Tradition 41). At the same time, she has taken other people’s assessments of good and evil as fact instead of relying on her own judgment.
In Wales, Sophie’s ability to overcome both of these obstacles is tested when she meets Howl’s unpleasant sister, Megan. Megan has a damningly low regard for her irresponsible brother, and berates him fiercely in front of Sophie and Michael. By entering a strange world (familiar to us but made strange from Sophie’s perspective), Sophie is liberated from any expectations; there simply aren’t any pre-conceived notions she needs to conform to. This gives her the courage to play-act an oblique contradiction to Megan’s accusations, supporting Howl in the face of disapproval. “Sophie pushed Michael aside and stumped downstairs, looking as stately as she could manage. “Come, Howl,” she said grandly… “While we stand here, money is ticking away and your servants are probably selling the gold plate…we must rush. Howl is such a busy man” (Jones 163).
Sophie’s heroic journey is based on gaining confidence in her own powers of judgment, which she fully asserts by the end of the novel in two ways. First, she directly defends Howl to her stepmother Fanny. “He’s not wicked at all!” There was a bit of fizz from the grate at this, where Calcifer was watching with some interest. “He’s not!” Sophie said, to Calcifer as much as to Fanny. “In all the time I’ve been here, I haven’t seen him work a single evil spell!” (Jones 293-294). Second, she fully embraces her magical talent, an ability to make things she says come true. After gradual tentative experiments, Sophie uses it in the final chapter to break the contract between Calcifer and Howl. Sophie’s journey allows her to embrace her identity and take confidence in her ability to critically judge her world, realizing that "good and evil are no longer absolute categories" (Nikolajeva 79).
Miyazaki’s film also takes Sophie on a heroic journey that requires character growth (not always deemed necessary in fantasy stories). Murakami’s analysis finds that “Miyazaki’s adaptation is rooted in the protagonist’s quest for the meaning of life, which mirrors the same quest of contemporary Japanese” (103-104). By offering Sophie as a transformational agent who uses the innate goodness of her character (relying on no traditional fantasy devices like superhero abilities or devices) to transform her world, Miyazaki presents a call to action for his country to transform their traumatized environment through love and family. Miyazaki replaces Jones’ frame-breaking journey into Wales with a “fantastic, nearly religious scene in which Sophie traverses time and space” (Murakami 105). She goes deep into Howl’s past to observe what is in effect Howl’s origin story. She sees Howl meet Calcifer and give him his heart to save Calcifer’s life and gain his wizardly powers. The landscape is expansive and remote with what resembles a small shrine, and visually evokes a highly symbolic interior mental space. Returning to the present, Sophie has gained the knowledge she needs to save them both and return Howl’s heart back to him, described as still that of a child, again highlighting how time has stood still. Sophie’s courageous actions return her to her youthful state—albeit with a full head of white hair, and Sophie takes her place at Howl’s side, mistress of a moving castle and an assembled family of cast-offs, including aged members (the Witch and Heen) and a child (Michael). The inward-looking journey, as Murakami states, suggests “karmic reincarnation” as Sophie learns how to break Howl (and by extension the world) from the stasis of the Superflat hyper-present and initiate a reorientation towards the future (105). The film’s closing scene shows Sophie and Howl looking into the far beyond, gazing on what is to come.
The movie presents an idealized notion of creating a family from scratch, composed of familiar figures of child and grandmother and pet while also incorporating inanimate living objects. Miyazaki uses the apocalyptic present setting as a reflection of modern Japanese society, providing as answer to how to move beyond the apocalyptic present into a possible future. Murakami and Napier have observed Japan’s preoccupation with questions of aging, and Howl asks its viewers to embrace age as a natural aspect of life, both in the household and in one’s self.
Critics have suggested that the film makes sense only “as pure emotional allegory” (Osmond 31), but the religious overtones, and cultural allowances made in translating the film for the West suggest that Western audiences are perhaps unable to read the film’s messages in full. The postmodern techniques and referential realities of the two texts reflect a complex set of messages that may only be fully accessible to members of each culture.
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