‘Howl’s Moving Castle’ (2004): Emotional-Support Ghibli and Learning to Love Myself

I remember clearly the first time I learned what the term “jack of all trades” meant. I never thought it could apply to a story, but as the waves of my life washed over me I learned how deeply valuable this feeling was. The feeling that a story could simultaneously whisk you away, rest its hand on your shoulder, and somehow, in the marvellous act of comforting you, teach you things about yourself you thought you’d never learn. For me, this deep sense of emotional support and healing came in the form of Hayao Miyazaki’s Howl’s Moving Castle.

Set in a magical kingdom plagued by the looming threat of war, Howl’s Moving Castle follows Sophie Hatter (Chieko Baisho) as she’s whisked away by the wizard Howl (Takuya Kimura) and subsequently cursed to live life as an old woman when the bitter Witch of the Waste (Akihiro Miwa) learns of this encounter.

It’s hard not to be immediately entranced by the magic the film envelops you in from the very second it begins. We’re shrouded in fog, a giant, mechanical “castle” hurdling towards us. And then, the music starts. We see that it isn’t fog we’re trapped in, but merely rolling cloud-cover amidst a crisp meadow on a beautiful summer’s day. Then we meet Sophie, hidden from the outside world by tufts of train-smoke, too caught-up in her internal world to join her co-workers on their escapades through the town.

This sense of foreboding, only to be undercut by immediate changes in scene, feels much like insecurity. It is always there, sometimes bubbling up when you least expect it, menacing, cruel and hard to look past – and it is something that, for most of the film, deeply haunts Sophie. She tempts, but ultimately avoids even her own reflection because of this – and I quickly found that I could relate.

Sophie, wearing a hat and a green dress, looks at her reflection in the mirror with disgust.
Image courtesy of Studio Ghibli

I spent much of my life being told what to perceive: my hair was too frizzy, voice too loud, thighs too big, nose too bumpy, eyebrows too bushy. I never thought about these things till they were handed to me. Things I had grown to see as inherently Iranian, ways my friends and family looked and acted, were somehow enough of a nuisance to be brought to my attention almost every single day for the first few years of my life.

Comments swirled about me in the hallways, in class, and after school, often leading to questions I answered with gritted teeth and tears in my eyes. I grew to be resentful. Why had I endured all my years of school under a microscope; to be scrutinized and discussed by others so consistently that I, much like Sophie, couldn’t even bear to look at my own reflection?

And this is precisely when Howl’s Moving Castle entered my life.

When I first watched the film, I remember feeling immediately heart-broken. All I could focus on was the way Sophie must’ve been feeling, and how I wished I could have a ‘happy ending’ like hers. I cried when she outwardly draws attention to her insecurities for the first time after Howl’s tantrum, and then immediately felt silly for resonating so deeply with a cartoon. But as she walks out, engulfed by the rain, weeping loudly and unapologetically – I allowed myself to do the same. I wanted to call attention to the grief the comments had left me with. And then, as I leaned on the film as source of support throughout my life, I suddenly realized that what had brought me so much catharsis and comfort wasn’t just about Sophie’s internal struggle or that moment at all.

Sophie’s self-loathing is a constant theme from the moment we meet her, but it’s never dwelled upon. We’re too busy focusing on the hustle and bustle of the town, the colours vibrant and the initial theme, Merry Go Round of Life by Joe Hisaishi, that’s much rowdier than its first appearance at the start of the film. 

Then, before we can catch our breath, Sophie meets Howl and is completely entranced by him and the grandness of the adventure she’s about to partake in. We are too. There is hardly a moment of the film that’s not painted by excitement, magic, or the flamboyancy of a world that’s plagued by the threat of war, yet so preoccupied with its own little pleasures and ways its characters are too.

For Sophie, we see her partake in these pleasures fairly early on, despite actively dealing with a literal curse. We see her thankful for being led to a horizon similar to the one at the start, patches of sunlight shining through dark cloud-cover as she makes a home in her new body. She’s still at the beginning of her journey, but she’s at peace, and moments like this begin to piece together all the vignettes of the film. A break after a long hike, cooking food with loved-ones, commuting – all seemingly mundane moments, but ones that invite magic and comfort into our lives. In fact, it is many of these ‘mundane’ moments that lead Sophie towards actual magic. Living her life authentically is enough to invite magic in. Us watching her live this life is enough to invite the magic in for us.

Sophie and Markl have tea outside while looking at the dark horizon.
Image courtesy of Studio Ghibli

Suddenly, I was no longer focused on Sophie’s internal struggle, nor my own. It didn’t mean they didn’t exist, but my view shifted and I found myself (much like the character’s) focused on something entirely different. Despite the comments made about me, despite the insecurity it left me with, and despite the way it carried into my life – I was still me. I was so much more than my insecurities, one’s people couldn’t even outwardly see. And so was Sophie, the same Sophie who had initially broken my heart. Turnip-head (Yo Oizumi) loves her enough to actively pursue helping her, Howl loves her before he even knowing who she really is, Markl (Ryunosuke Kamiki) and Calcifer (Tatsuya Gashuin) depend on and cherish her despite even her worst days. The insecurity is always with her, we see it countless times, but we never dwell on it.

And the film does this on purpose. You never think about what these characters are internally going through for too long. It doesn’t erase it, but the scenery, the food, the music, and the over-arching plot are enough to distract the viewer from ruminating over the insecurity, and add something incredibly comforting in its place. A sense of normalcy, a view into the vastness of nature, the busyness of life, etc.

Even Howl, who is plagued by constant fears of inadequacy, opens up about his internal struggle in scenes adorned with so much more than what he has deemed himself to be. The first time he admits to being a coward he is shrouded in elaborate trinkets, gems, and spells that point to his talent as a wizard. And when he experiences trauma he is unable to cope with, he physically transforms into a monstrous bird he feels ashamed of, but that’s keeping countless people safe.

Suddenly, I found that much like the film, I started to inadvertently focus on the ‘mundane’ in my own life, and the ways magic could be let in throughout. I would relish the five-am bus rides swim practice would give me, the way my chai tasted after a hospital appointment, and the way my stomach hurt after laughing with a friend or my family. It didn’t take away my insecurities, but it reminded me that I deserved comfort and peace as I learned to live with them, even on the days it was hard, and that we all do. It reminded me that I wasn’t alone, that people, and even characters, struggle too and that we owe each other kindness as we experience life.

That’s the beauty of the film and its ability to somehow bring an immense sense of comfort to the viewer while also unapologetically displaying what insecurity looks like in its many ‘ugly’ forms. It helped me learn to love myself and my life in moments I desperately needed to, and I still lean on what I like to call Emotional-Support Ghibli when I find that the waves of my life become more turbulent than I’d like. I’ve leaned on it when I was called a terrorist growing up, when threat of war would strike Iran– and I still do, especially when the state of the world feels like far too much to take on alone.

Learning that life is more than a prolonged, positive moment in time has been an ongoing lesson for me because life falters, leaves you with scars, insecurities, and days you wished never happened. But something about the normalcy of these days Howl’s Moving Castle so effortlessly displays, all while sewing enchantment and calm into the lives of its deeply insecure characters, made me realize that there is an inherent beauty in not only my so-called flaws, but the in flaws of life itself, and that that’s okay. “A heart’s a heavy burden,” but it doesn’t have to be any of ours alone.