by Monica Liriano
I was eager with excitement; the first time going back to a museum since lockdown, and there was an exhibit with some of my favorite films! The Academy Award Museum in DTLA was ambitious enough to put on an exhibit solely dedicated to director Hayao Miyazaki’s work. I was thrilled at the array of art, sketches, and clips from beloved Studio Ghibli films. It was a feast for the eyes; walls covered in hand painted backgrounds, displays of careful sketches and concept art. The exhibit was a captivating experience, as if stepping into the inner workings of Miyazaki’s mind. Visitors saw the careful vision and process behind Studio Ghibli films. I was left with a full heart, but I was also left wondering what items did not make it into the exhibit. I wondered what items would have added to the experience. Of the few hand-drawn sketches, I had thought about concept art from my favorite movie, Howl’s Moving Castle. It is not so common knowledge that Howl’s Moving Castle was first the first novel in a series written by Diana Wynne Jones in 1986. It’s subject matter still emersed in the realm of fantasy lends inspiration to Miyazaki’s film. However, there are stark differences between these two works. What interests me is that throughout the Ghibli exhibit, there was a lack of concept art and sketches pertaining to works that were adapted from literature. With my curiosity peaked, it led me to question:
- How much from the book does Miyazaki borrow for his film?
- What elements from the novel were important in maintaining his aesthetic?
- How similar or different are the film’s protagonists from the novel?
Miyazaki’s art style and film aesthetic are distinct in that he borrows from science fiction elements. In films like Howl’s Moving Castle the lines between fantasy and science fiction blur, creating a body of work that speaks to the theme of finding love amidst war. To understand how Miyazaki adapted literature to film requires an understanding of his aesthetic along with his interpretation of fantasy.
Understanding Miyazakiworld in the Context of Howl’s
“…Miyazakiworld, the immersive animated realm that carries delightfully from film to film but is always marked by the director’s unique imagination.”Napier, x.
To understand the fantastical elements of Howl’s, we need to go back and recognize central themes in what makes up the Miyazakiworld aesthetic. When I’ve thought about my favorite Ghibli films, a wave of nostalgia takes over me. I forget about my favorite scenes, or the lines that were spoken; however, I remember some of the feelings I first had and continue to have when I watch these films:
I’ve come to understand that Miyazaki’s films are very much rooted in the idea that however fleeting, his films make us want to look inward. His films bring forth a lighthearted calmness about the world we live in, and somehow it makes us want to reflect on those feelings or moments in our lives as well. To better grasp some of these elements, we also have to look at how his aesthetic shows up in Howl’s Moving Castle.
“…it is often females who lead us through end times.”Napier, xi.
A common theme among Ghibli movies is the idea of war, or post-apocalyptic scenarios. Napier attributes this inspiration to the painful history of Japan and Miyazaki’s childhood at the end of World War II. Interestingly, in Ghibli films that did feature war, Miyazaki has often placed female characters at the forefront of catastrophe. Rather than focus on war as a primary focus in his films, it becomes a backdrop for his characters to develop. In Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, the protagonist Nausicaa assumes the task of restoring a war-torn world. It is not what Nausicaa does to rescue her people, the empathy the audience ends up having for her comes from her caring and nurturing spirit. As she displays an empathy for all living creatures, Nausicaa serves as a blueprint for Miyazaki’s female characters in later Ghibli films. As Napier remarks, we see that Nausicaa’s motherly, caring persona is attributed to Miyazaki’s late mother. In facing the trials of war, Miyazaki’s female characters display a higher moral conscience to care for those close to them in times of strife.
“…that almost mystical combination of courage, acceptance, and joy is the emotional core of Miyazakiworld. While Miyazaki’s vision has darkened over time, Miyazakiworld is still a realm where hope triumphs over despair.”Napier, xi.
As for Howl’s Moving Castle, we also see the theme of war as a backdrop for his female protagonist Sophie. As we follow her journey, she is continuously being thrown into the middle of conflict. From her run in with powerful witches, a faceoff with the King’s army, and surviving an air raid, Miyazaki’s protagonist accepts the hand dealt to her and leads with courage to protect her loved ones. In this sense, Miyazaki’s protagonist still assumes their role in a war by relying on a motherly instinct to navigate danger. In scenes that focus so heavily on the brutality of war, Miyazaki’s protagonists find the righteousness to also lead with compassion for others. Something that both Sophie and Nausicaa share: their ability to express compassion within their war-torn, crumbling worlds.
“…the worldview that Miyazaki reflects in his films depicts human as an inseparable part of nature.”1, Mumcu and Yilmaz
The second and quite arguably the most important of Miyazakiworld aesthetic is the relationship Miyazaki’s characters have with nature. Regarding Miyazaki’s aesthetic, Ghibli movies include scenes of nature or humans coexisting with nature to illustrate their interconnectedness. Miyazaki’s characters understand that they are not the only inhabitants of their world and show a deep respect and appreciation for the environment. Nature is also used as a tool for intellectual reflection; older audiences may resonate and reflect on the roles they play on a global and environmental scale. Regardless of age, nature has allowed Miyazaki’s characters to step aside from themselves to think about how they interact with others. His characters understand the natural world by thinking of how they are potentially contributing to or hindering their environments.
“These films provide a mechanism for provoking and contributing to debates concerning environmentalism and offer audiences a way to find meaning about human life and our place in a wider interconnected web of ontological existence”4, Mumcu and Yilmaz
Sophie’s reflection by the lake shows a contrast to earlier Ghibli films where his characters interact with nature to achieve a common goal. Rather in this scene, Sophie is interacting with nature to think about her perception of herself and the world she lives in. Thinking of her own mortality she remarks, “When you’re old, all you want to do is stare at the scenery. It’s so strange, I’ve never felt so peaceful before” (0:41:17). Her relationship with nature is something she understands to be profound because of her inability to explore the world before being thrust on her journey. Her reflection in this scene resonates with a very human emotion of taking stock of one’s life during moments of relaxation. Sophie becomes more in tune with her existence and even accepting of it. Her removal from a city allows Sophie the clarity to experience and understand the beauties of nature.
Interpreting the Characters of Howl’s
When moving from novel to a screenplay, not everything will be accounted for in the final version of a script. Perhaps some details get left out; entire chapters may end up omitted from the final draft of a screenplay. In the case of Howl’s Moving Castle, the novel’s major plot points serve as merely a fantastical framework for Miyazaki. In his film, he takes the barebones of Jones’ novel and runs in an entirely different direction. In reworking the plot, the perceptions of Howl and Sophie are also turned on its head to create a world representative of Miyazakiworld aesthetics. In doing so, Miyazaki’s interpretation of Howl’s Moving Castle opens the door for a subgenre of science fiction and fantasy to coexist. The synergy of these two genres creates a unique blend of the technological and the fantastical while also focusing on the consequences that war has on the environment.
Howl vs. Howl
The protagonists of Howl’s Moving Castle have personalities unique to both Miyazaki and Jones’s version of the story. In her novel, Jones writes Howl as the narcissistic, selfish wizard that we have grown accustomed to seeing in the film version. Using beauty and charm at his disposal, Howl is described as a womanizer with a taste for young women who easily fall in love. The film’s version also leans into this trope. At the beginning of the film an employee of the hat shop remarks, “don’t worry, he only preys on pretty girls” (0:04:11). Howl’s charm is what gets him into and out of trouble in both versions, we see this during the sky walking scene where he and Sophie escape Suliman’s henchmen while on their way to the bakery. However, the most apparent contrast in Howl’s character comes from the novel. Howl is far more avoidant of his responsibilities in the novel. While having the duties of a young wizard, Jones writes Howl as one who tends to “slither out” of situations that do not serve him. The resistance in his behavior and his focus on courting women blows up in his face when he becomes rejected by a love interest. Similar to the film version, he throws a tantrum and emits green slime. However, in the novel Howl displays insecurities more openly to Michael (Markl in the film) and Sophie.
“I love her so dearly, but she scorns my deep devotion and gets sorry for another fellow. How can she have another fellow after all this attention I’ve given her? They usually get rid of the other fellows as soon as I come along.”(123)
Miyazaki’s Howl is a lot more composed in the company of Sophie. Perhaps as a front, but it is done so in a way that adds to Howl’s overall allure throughout the film. Miyazaki’s choice in portraying a sensitive, yet vain character shows the dualities he is willing to explore in his male characters. Howl’s personality still charms viewers, but it leaves us wanting to root for someone to change instead of writing them off as unlovable. When he emits green slime in the film version, he throws a tantrum over his lack of beauty while Howl from the novel throws a tantrum over a lack of romantic attention. The two still share a sense of entitlement and vanity, but it is interesting how Miyazaki changes this idea to be more about Howl’s self-image than his desire for attention. In doing so, Miyazaki’s choice in portraying Howl as someone who seeks self-reflection creates a deeper connection to his child characters in previous Ghibli films. In most films the child protagonist does not yet need to reconcile with their behavior. It becomes meaningful when Miyazaki creates a relation to an adult acting as a child by showing a character who is coming to terms with the consequences of their behavior.
Sophie vs. Sophie
To my surprise, Sophie in both the novel and film mirror each other rather closely. Miyazaki’s Sophie is self-reliant and a go-getter. Jones’s Sophie exudes those same qualities; however, the difference from these two is that Sophie sees her confidence come to fruition through her use of magic and spells. Jones’s Sophie also has a knack for getting on Howl’s case; she does so a lot more in the novel than she does in the film. Which I found interesting because of Miyazaki’s tendency to make his older female characters with motherly personalities. A prime example being Dola from Castle in the Sky. Her personality boarders the tough exterior of an adventuring pirate out for treasure while softening to become a nurturing presence for the film’s protagonist Sheeta.
Sophie has motherly qualities in both the novel and the film, the difference we see in the film is that Sophie moves away from this role the more she finds herself falling in love with Howl. In an opposite reaction, the less she mothers Howl, the more he comes to hold himself accountable for his actions. As seen in the air raid scene, out of desperation Sophie begs Howl to give into his avoidant tendencies, “Let’s run, don’t fight them Howl” (1:35:18). Oppositely, Jones’s Sophie maintains her motherly personality throughout the novel. Even in the moments after her spell is broken, she leans away from that personality and allows a more playful side of herself to shine through with Howl.
“Sophie,” said Martha. “The spells off you! Did you hear?”
But Sophie and Howl were holding one another’s hands and smiling and smiling, quite unable to stop.
“Don’t bother me now,” said Howl. “I only did it for the money.”
“Liar!” said Sophie.(428)
Sophie in both the film and novel versions of Howl’s Moving Castle tend to get on Howl’s case when he refuses to act his age. Sophie did not nag Howl nearly as much as she did in the novel, but she expresses the same care she holds for him through what feels like moments of tough love. Her appearance of being a crotchety old lady mirrors her personality of a nagging, mother-type. In both versions she even jokes about how her sense of style matches that of an old lady. Though Sophie was not a magic user in the film, Miyazaki’s portrayal of older women shows they are capable of exerting power through their words and actions. The qualities that Miyazaki’s Sophie portrays are similar to what Jones’s Sophie utilizes when she casts spells. Both are an intersection of agency and speaking one’s power into existence. Sophie’s self-assuredness in the film came from having to be resilient through the horrors of war. Oppositely, Sophie manifests literal magical power for herself by speaking to and enchanting objects to work in her favor. While Miyazaki uses less of a fantastical lens to portray Sophie, his choice in representing older women who choose to continuously step into their confidence is what represents the female characters of Miyazakiworld. However reluctant or uncertain of their journeys, their determination to face their metaphorical (and sometimes literal) demons head-on is what makes up the qualities of his self-righteous female protagonists.
The scope of Miyazakiworld evokes an array of emotions that resonate with the most empathetic parts of ourselves. Through Ghibli films we understand the fleeting moments of life and are reminded to have gratitude for ourselves and the world we exist in. Upon leaving the Ghibli exhibit, the gratitude I had for myself, and the environment felt restored. I left inspired and thinking how much Ghibli films have inspired countless fans to move through their world with an appreciation for the messages Miyazaki’s films convey. If there were any objections to the exhibit, it was that I was left wanting to see more of what Miyazaki’s process looked like. Perhaps notes, doodles, written ideas, scrapped or altered storyboards. My biggest curiosity was wanting to see how he interpreted Howl’s Moving Castle and how those concepts looked compared to Jones’s work. Finding those gaps that bridge between text and film would have been an interesting process to see unfold throughout the exhibit. Yet, I do feel it was justified to show only glimpses of Miyazaki’s animation process. On the surface, the items in the exhibit were displayed as finished products, looking into one’s creative process can reveal a more intimate side of a person that one may not wish to share with the public. For that, I respect the museum curators for selecting the work best representative of Miyazaki.
“Miyazakiworld contains many utopian visions”Napier, xvii.
Perhaps one of the most enduring elements of Miyazakiworld is the concept of utopia. Though constructed differently throughout these films, the idea of utopia in Howl’s Moving Castle is the home Howl and Sophie create at the end of the film. Still held together by the same members of the household, it represents freedom as it is seen flying across the sky. Miyazaki’s emphasis on a found family in Howl’s Moving Castle becomes a personal theme for his audience, perhaps conveying the message that family can be messy (much like the exterior of Howl’s castle), but it is constructed by the ideals of those that inhibit the space.
The takeaway from understanding Miyazakiworld aesthetic is that it exists between both reality and fantasy. It speaks to the very real possibilities of our world while reminding us to still make room for the fantastical to exist in our lives. Not only to uplift, but to ground us in the environment we cultivate in our present world. Just as Ghibli movies let our minds wander into an untethered, whimsical reality, it also brings us back down to see the relation it has to our own lives. Howl’s Moving Castle creates a fine balance of romanticism and quickly sobers its viewers with the escalation of war. It is in this juxtaposition that this film operates within Miyazakiworld aesthetics. However fantastical a moment may feel, reality is not too far behind to remind us of the roles we play in nature and life.
“Howl’s Moving Castle: Weapons Design Scene.” Youtube, uploaded by yuksamgak, 15 July 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-98z4kb3rs4
Jones, Diana Wynn. Howl’s Moving Castle. Greenwillow Books, 1986.
Miyazaki, Hayao, director. Howl’s Moving Castle. Studio Ghibli, 2004.
Mumcu, Sema, and Serap Yılmaz. “Anime Landscapes as a Tool for Analyzing the Human–Environment Relationship: Hayao Miyazaki Films.” Arts, vol. 7, no. 2, 2018. ProQuest, https://libproxy.csun.edu/login?url=https://www.proquest.com/scholarly-journals/anime-landscapes-as-tool-analyzing-human/docview/2211352543/se-2, doi:https://doi.org/10.3390/arts7020016.