Department of Theatre and Film
War, Wizards, and Words: Transformative Adaptation and Transformed Meanings in Howl’s Moving Castle
Hayao Miyazaki’s 2004 adaption of Diana Wynne Jones’s children’s novel Howl’s Moving Castle broke the record for the largest theatrical release for any film—animation or not—in Japan, screening in one out of every six theatres in the nation and earning a worldwide box-office gross of $235,184,110 (Cavallaro 157).1 A critical approach to the film, with special consideration to its source novel, allows for a study of Miyazaki’s version of Howl’s Moving Castle as a transformative adaptation. While the film retains many elements from its source text, from the fire demons to the eponymous moving castle, it also adds a new component to the story: war. In the book version, the protagonist, Sophie Hatter, is a young woman working at a hat shop who is cursed to look like an old, withered crone by the villainous (and beautiful) Witch of the Waste. Rather than face her friends and family, the elderly Sophie exiles herself and ends up living with the lecherous Wizard Howl in his moving castle as she attempts to free herself from her curse (a goal eventually accomplished in the novel through Sophie’s resolution of a conflict between her sisters and their lovers). Miyazaki retains Sophie’s curse and her refuge with the Wizard Howl as the film’s backdrop, but makes a war raging through the country the conflict to which the reversal of Sophie’s curse is tied. In this way, while Jones’s book explores the crucial role that communication plays in preventing and ending conflict, Miyazaki’s film demonstrates that the loss of open dialogue can lead to war. The film thus transforms the narrative of Howl’s Moving Castle into a critique of the contemporary, international politics surrounding the Iraq War.
The film version of Howl’s Moving Castle illustrates an approach to adaptation that moves beyond “borrowing,” what film critic Dudley Andrews describes as the “casual appropriation of stories, ideas, or situations” (113). It also eschews the process of” intersecting,” in which a work is recreated as closely as possible in another medium. Instead, Miyazaki takes a more controversial approach to textual adaptation: transformation. “Adaptors,” critic H. Porter Abbott argues, “if they are good at all . . . steal what they want and leave the rest” (112). As this essay will examine, a transformative approach to adaptation allows Miyazaki to remain more or less faithful to the book version of Howl’s Moving Castle, while simultaneously infusing it with new themes, issues, and possibilities. At the same time, as this essay will also argue, the transformative approach to adaptation encourages critics to move beyond a mere study of how a book and a novel differ when analyzing the adapted text. Instead, by requiring critics to familiarize themselves with both works, the analysis of transformative adaptation opens up a critical space in which the focus can shift to the “possibilities of connection between [source text and adaption],” and, as Abbott argues, the “creative symbiosis” in the works. In the case of Howls Moving Castle, this not only makes it possible to consider what, if any, connective tissue remains between the novel and the film in the form of themes or motifs, but also the ways in which those remnants, where they do exist, are transformed to alter the meaning of the narrative.
In a 2005 interview with Newsweek, Miyazaki commented on the radical departure the film takes from the book, saying “the film was profoundly affected by the war in Iraq” (Gordon 62). Producer Toshio Suzuki has also commented on the influence the Iraq War had on the adaptation, stating “When we were making it, there was the Iraq War . . . From young to old, people were not very happy” (Cavallaro 170). That sense of pervading gloom, of knowing that there was a war happening overseas that Japan could be dragged into as an America ally, seeped into the film. In 2003, when animators began to work on Howl, Japan officially announced its support for the American invasion of Iraq. Later that same year, the United States Ambassador to Japan, Howard Baker, informed the Japanese Prime Minister that the United States (expecting the war to end shortly) was requesting that Japan begin training troops to send to postwar Iraq in an active show of support for the United States (Ennis). The Japanese “unhappiness” over these events of 2003 had, by 2010, with the removal of active combat troops in Iraq, turned into bitterness; military relations have remained strained, with members of the Japanese government asserting that Japan “gained nothing” by involving itself with America in the Iraq War (Ennis). Japanese civilian support for the Iraq War was small from the outset. It was considered unwise, and the Japanese felt pushed into supporting American military operations more than they cared to (Ennis). In Miyazaki’s film, this sense of foreboding is captured in the first glimpse that viewers catch of Howl’s war-ravished world when Howl slips into the magical doorway that transports him to different places based on the color of the doorknob. Aptly, “black” leads to wherever the latest outbreak of warfare is taking place.
In the novel, the magical black knob on the ever-changing door allows Howl to step into twentieth century Wales, at a time contemporaneous with the book’s 1986 publication. In fact, in the novel the doorknob leads not only to different places, but different dimensions, exploring the idea of parallel worlds. Whereas the film plays with this idea by allowing Sophie to travel in time, rather than space across parallel planes of existence (the film keeps the story confined to one world), beyond the black knob there is only the violence of war, an ominous landscape characterized by fires burning on the edge of the darkness. Miyazaki’s process of adaptation is not merely a process of abrupt change, however. Rather, the parallels created between the novel and the film allow for a comprehensive understanding of what is being portrayed in the film to children, the target audience.2 In retaining the doorway with the black knob, but changing its destination, the Iraq War slips through that same doorway into Ingary (Sophie’s country,) and becomes the moral center of Miyazaki’s version of the story. This injection of political commentary into the film is explicitly suggested in comments made by Marco Muller, the director of the Venice International Film Festival, upon its first international screening at the 2004 Venice Biennale, when he described Howl as “possibly the strongest anti-war statement we have in the entire festival” (Cavallaro 170).
Despite the different destinations that lay beyond the sinister black doorknob in the novel and movie, though, each holds the potential of leading the reader and viewer to the same conclusion: senseless conflicts can only be avoided, and resolved, through open communication. Peace—with oneself, with others, and with countries—is all possible if effective communication is allowed to step in as a positive force in relationships. Likewise, both the movie and novel avoid utopian idealism by depicting, through the active steps the characters take to resolve the war and their personal curses, that communication is only effective when it is transformed into thoughtful action. The plots of the movie and the book thus intersect in their portrayal of the redemptive power of language and words to restore conflict, but Miyazaki’s version also goes on to depict a world where communication, corrupted by the media and the government, leads its citizens to destruction.
War and Children’s Comprehension
Upon the film’s release, many critics were quick to dismiss its focus on war, ignoring the violence (such as burning cities or bloody footprints). For example, reviewer Rob Mackie wrote for UK’s The Guardian that the film had “nothing to alienate our kids—it’s the sort of colourful, simple, charming cartoon that Disney would once have put out, but with a fresher, cleaner look and less sentimentality” (Mackie). This interpretation ignores how, in Miyazaki’s film, war is the driving force of the story, and that it becomes the all-consuming, corrupting agent by which characters and countries are destroyed, and through which people forego the single most rational and compassionate power they possess: the ability to communicate.
At the same time, for some American audiences, the film was a timely comment on the wars overseas, wars that, with the growth of twenty-four hour news networks, invaded their homes and sense of security. Strikingly, in a study that was conducted between April and December of 2003, when Howl was in production, researchers interviewed forty-eight American children whose ages ranged from five to twelve to determine what they knew of the Iraq War, and more crucially, how. Their results indicated that “Children are political in that they are aware of government-related occurrences and are capable of forming political opinions,” that “most children understand war by age 8,” and further, that 74.2 percent of the American children had received their information on the war from television (Svitak 230-231, 237). Although the significance of including a violent air raid in an animated movie may have been lost on some movie reviewers, this study indicates that children were, despite their age, keenly in-tune with the adult world around them. Children not only knew what war was, but they also knew that it was impacting their lives, and they could often describe particulars about the conflict (such as who was fighting, and where). Thus, it is possible that the allusions to the Iraq War made in Howl’s Moving Castle were not lost on the children (or the adults) among its American audiences.
The study also concluded that depictions of war on television (such as in news reports) impact how children understand the world and lay the groundwork for grasping the politics of their own country as early as the age of five; even in entertainment, the opinions and themes in any given film could serve as propaganda to a developing mind, sculpting how one views the world, even if this manipulation was not the intent of the work (Svitak 230). In this sense, Howl’s Moving Castle might be read as anti-war propaganda, demonstrably teaching children that war is bad, and that adults should instead seek peaceful resolution to their conflicts. This may explain why the film was only moderately successful in the United Sates, grossing just under five million dollars. In discussing what forms of adaptation are successful, Abbott notes that “Audiences set limits on what is acceptable and unacceptable” (125) and that departures from cultural norms often find outlets for reaching mainstream audiences in times of cultural shifts, often through the adaptation of earlier works which provide pre-constructed settings, plots, and characters to play out contemporary themes. By the time of Howl’s release in America, the surge of American patriotism that had followed the attacks on September 11, 2001 was beginning to recede as war dragged on, and Howl’s implicit critique of the Iraq War perhaps stung families facing the reality of rearing their children in a time of international conflict.
Certainly, as Abbott suggests, “the creative leeway between script and performances . . . is enormous when adaptation crosses media boundaries” (112), but Miyazaki begins his film the same way Jones opens her novel: one day Sophie is working at the hat shop, when she finds herself inexplicably cursed by the Witch of the Waste, and transformed into an old, wrinkled woman who is unable to tell anyone about her curse. Sophie then sets out for the land of the Waste, a slow journey made more difficult by her sudden transformation into an old woman. She comes upon the Wizard Howl’s moving castle, a structure that is to unsettling everyone in Ingary because of its uncanny habit of getting up and moving to wherever it wants to go. Soon, Sophie meets Howl himself. In the book, he is a dashing young wizard characterized by his vanity and lechery; in the film, he is no less handsome, but he now has become a tortured soul, burdened by war.
As expected from a transformative adaptation, it is at this point in the plot that the stories diverge as Miyazaki becomes “a new author in his own right” (Abbott 112). The novel finds Sophie working out the relationships of her two sisters while trying to keep up with Howl’s love life. The tone is light-hearted until the explosive final showdown with the Witch of the Waste and her fire demon. In Miyazaki’s film, on the other hand, Sophie is introduced to the violence of a war she has only heard about soon after entering the moving castle. The mobility of the castle creates a new outlet for experiencing the immediacy of a war that seems to be happening everywhere all at once; the ability to actually go to where the war is taking place removes the façade that the war is merely happening elsewhere, and instead brings the characters into direct conflict with reality. In invoking the Iraq War in its representation of Ingary’s war (described by characters in the film as “senseless” and “idiotic”), the film performs a similar function for viewers, providing them with an account of war that more accessible than the televised news reports on the fighting taking place in Iraq at the time.
As the movie demonstrates early on, war invades every aspect of human life, beginning with the surrounding natural world. Ingary, with its imagery based on the countryside of France, is a world that exists in soft blues and peaceful greens. However, as war encroaches on the environment, the film literally grows darker as the story moves from peace to chaos. In contrast to the environment that becomes a helpless victim to the fires that consume it, the film depicts war as something that happens not only to people, but because of them. It sweeps people away, it terrorizes them, and worse, it takes good people and transforms them into something evil. In short, it is a curse on the people, transforming them inwardly the way that Sophie has been outwardly changed into a feeble old woman.
Indeed, in the novel, it is a literal curse that is plaguing Howl, and the language used to describe the effect it is having on him seems to have been appropriated by Miyazaki for the way in which war begins to change people in the movie, moving from the macrocosm of nature to, as producer Toshio Suzuki describes, “the personal lives of the characters” (Suzuki). Howl’s curse is twofold in the novel, but only one element is retained for the film. Miyazaki limits the curse to the result of Howl trading his physical heart to the fire demon Calcifer for the amplification of his magical powers. Paying a price for becoming the greatest wizard in Ingary, Howl’s lack of a physical heart leaves him incapable of loving anyone, including himself, and dooms him to eventually wasting away into a shell of a human being. Calcifer, having become friends with Howl, intervenes by urging Sophie to find a way to break what he calls the “contract” between himself and Howl, because he doesn’t want to destroy the wizard. However, whereas the novel presents Howl’s transformation after the curse as entirely inward, having only to do with his character, in the film he is literally mutated by the curse.
Just as in the book, the film gives audiences a glimpse of what the curse has done to others before they begin to anticipate the hideousness of the monster Howl will change into (although hints are dropped that beneath Howl’s handsome exterior, a hidden, monstrous form is lurking). In the book, we learn that the Witch of the Waste, was, in fact, exactlylike Howl—she was once young and beautiful, before she gave part of herself to a fire demon who made her powerful, but who after time devoured her and became the true antagonist of the novel. The foreshadowing of a similar fate for Howl is suggested by the insect-like creatures swarming in drones that audiences learn were once wizards like Howl. Rather than be consumed by a fire demon, these wizards have been consumed by their own use of what is essentially black magic (magic used for violence) and have thus been reduced from men to beasts.
In this way, Miyazaki adapts Jones’s consequences of the curse in the novel and gives them physical form in his film. As Dani Cavallaro points out, “More disturbing still is the fact [that] in dramatizing the magician’s successful attempts at vanquishing the military machinery, Howl highlights the non-human nature of the goopy creatures that drive it, while at the same time unsentimentally exposing the fate of real human troops and civilians in the raided town” (171). Cavallaro’s observations accurately highlight the nature of war in the film; when it ends, utopia does not take its place. Instead, the after-effects remain. That point is conveyed by the film when Howl painfully grips his arm where black feathers have begun to push their way up through his skin, a physical representation of what is equivalent to post traumatic stress disorder. Fighting against the wizard mutations, we are shown, encourages Howl’s transformation into something even more frightening than the mutations.
Miyazaki builds on the idea that war is a transformative force by taking Howl’s inner psychological state as a soldier and depicting it as a physical, bodily metamorphosis. Miyazaki moves beyond “good” and “evil” as the dividing forces of conflict in the film; these states are not static, but flowing and interchangeable. For example, the film suggests that the insects were not only once human, but therefore, once good, and now, because of the violent acts they have committed, they have become evil, a descent that Howl himself is experiencing. “After the war,” Howl says to Calcifer that the insects “won’t ever recall being human.” Describing the way characters engaged in combat for the sake of helping others (specifically, to protect their country, friends, or family) are still unavoidably contributing to bloodshed, A.O. Scott, in his review of the film for The New York Times, notes that Howl’s Moving Castle manages to depict “the catastrophic irrationality of war and other violence,” while at the same time considering “the moral complications that arise from ordinary acts of selfishness, vanity and even kindness” (Scott). This is an objective worldview that clashes with the American ideal of troops who “protect our freedom,” and supports Miyazaki’s unflinching depiction of the disaster left behind in the wake of combat as a commentary on the Iraq War. Perhaps gesturing to the “preemptive strike” justification of the Bush-Cheney doctrine, the movie creates a scenario in which even the act of opposing an obvious evil creates that same evil in those attempting to do good.
A Message for a New Generation
Howl’s Moving Castle, as a critique of American violence in Iraq, exposes the callousness of wars waged with disregard to “collateral damage” through the graphic depictions of the destruction inflicted on civilians in the film. Its climactic battle pits Howl against both sides in the conflict, his country’s soldier-wizard mutations (now attacking Howl, the defector) and the enemy nation’s airships, as he fights to deflect falling bombs from landing on Sophie’s hometown. Ultimately, he fails. Sophie’s hat shop explodes into flames as the small town is systematically bombed by war planes. The countryside turns black with smoke in a scene that invokes the infamous bombing of Dresden during World War II. Miyazaki’s film stresses the senselessness of armed conflict by depicting the destruction of this innocent world. By doing so, it conveys the idea that it is not who or what a nation is fighting for or against that is bad, but instead, the problem is that the nation is fighting at all.
Howl’s Moving Castle is thus a counterstatement to the American administration’s argument for waging its War on Terror, a position that was being actively promoted to the nation’s youngest citizens at the time of the film’s release in the U.S. In 2003, for example, former President ‘George W. Bush, speaking to a group of elementary school children, said
It’s very important for the schoolchildren here to listen to what I'm about to say. You’re probably wondering why America is under attack. We’re under attack because we love freedom, is why we’re under attack. And our enemy hates freedom. They hate and we love. We differ from our enemy because we love. We not only love our freedoms and love our values, we love life itself. Our enemy hates innocent life. (Bush 1632).
Miyazaki’s film presents children with an alternative message: both sides in any war are responsible for the death of innocent life, and moreover, both sides are fighting for their lives in the conflict. The film’s alternative worldview openly contradicts the American government’s justification for the Iraqi invasion. Viewed as a message to a new generation of children growing up in a time of war, Miyazaki’s film presents violence as meaningless, where dyadic divisions of “us” and “them” are irrelevant because all sides will be swept up into futile conflict. Underscoring the pointlessness of war, toward the end of the film, Howl and Sophie stare off across the flower meadow at a battleship in the distance. “Still looking for more cities to burn,” Howl remarks. Sophie turns to him and asks, “Is it the enemies’, or one of ours?” and in a moment that captures the ethos of Miyazaki’s message, Howl replies, “What difference does it make?”
That sentiment is driven home in the film as the senselessness of conflict goes on. Immediately following this line, Howl reaches out his hand to use magic against the battleship saying, “Those stupid murderers. We can’t just let them fly off with all those bombs.” Even his act of resistance against “those stupid murderers” will turn him into a creature even worse than what they have already become, though. This is underscored by the fact that after his intervention he clutches his hand, where the bizarre black feathers have begun to sprout again. Violence thus makes Howl indistinguishable from the transformed wizards even if he feels he is acting morally in attacking them because their actions contradict his worldview. We see a similar moment of violence turning Howl into the very thing he is fighting against in the novel; it is during a brief but heated battle Howl engages in with the Witch of the Waste. Jones describes the monsters as follows:
It was a long, black, clawed thing, half cat, half sea lion, and it came racing down the wall toward the quay. Another burst out of the wave as it smashed into the harbor, long and low too, but scalier, and came racing after the first monster. (Jones 235).
As this battle continues, Sophie asks, “Which is who?” to which Michael (renamed Markl in the movie) replies, “No idea” (Jones 235).
It seems clear that Miyazaki has built upon this motif tremendously in his adaptation; the act of somehow remaining true to yourself in a chaotic world becomes the ultimate goal. Deeply unhappy with the transformation she has been forced to undergo, Sophie spends the entirety of the novel and movie trying to get back to her original self. Her sense of identity is taken away from her first by the Witch of the Waste, and then again by the war; both of these two forces exert pressure on Sophie to enact some form of de-humanizing change. According to Suzuki, “Miyazaki is fundamentally interested in exploring the qualities that make people human and enable them to retain their humanity in a world brutalized by bloodshed and greed” (Cavallaro 170). Even against the futility of war, Miyazaki allows his morally good characters, trapped in the violence of their own actions, to display “the viability of constructive emotions in a destructive environment” (Cavallaro 170). Ultimately, the war is ended in Miyazaki’s Howl when Madame Suliman, a witch with the status of Commander of War, decides to “put an end to this idiotic war.” Her decision is arbitrary and without reason. It is preceded only by her comment that “The game is over. Get me the prime minister and the minister of defense.” Her command emphasizes the absurdity of the entire affair. In the end, it is nothing more than a game for the people employed in the bombing of another’s nation. This senselessness heightens sympathy for the characters whose “constructive emotions” (Sophie’s perseverance, Howl’s determination) are the only things that keep them alive.
A Mediated War, An “Idiotic” Conflict
Both the novel and the film versions of Howl’s Moving Castle convey the idea that war is the force by which relationships, countries, and even personal identities are broken down and destroyed. They also suggest that it is humanity’s willingness to communicate with one another that can begin to set everything right again. The very fact that the Japanese animated movie was adapted from a British children’s book speaks to the ability of language to cross cultural and political boundaries. However, as the film shows, people’s ability to openly communicate does not remain untouched by war; like everything else, it too becomes altered.
In the film, war has not only transformed the people of Ingary; it has also altered how they communicate about war by stifling open communication. In what can perhaps be seen as a critique of the American media’s role in selling the Bush administration’s plans in Afghanistan and Iraq, the film includes people in the background reading newspapers in addition to snippets of civilians discussing what they read therein. For example, as Sophie leaves her hat shop after being cursed, the sweeping musical score almost obscures the dialogue spoken in the background. Two citizens whisper, “They say their prince is missing, and they’re blaming us.” Communication has been twisted; no one knows what has really been said, but the already confused message is then disseminated and altered further by the media.
Sophie walks on after the dialogue, past the tanks that role into her town for the military parade, past the citizens celebrating a victory that means nothing. Later, in the coastal town of Port Haven, a warship makes its way into the harbor where Sophie is buying food. Billows of black smoke pour out of its bowels, where holes from cannons have torn through the hull. The warship presents a stark contrast to the pastoral countryside, for it is a dying, dirty thing from which men jump into the water to escape. Suddenly, bombs drop from the sky and explode. Someone cries out “An enemy airship!” Fliers come falling down from the sky, and a voice of authority shouts “Ignore the fliers, they’re enemy propaganda!” The scene is reminiscent of what was billed as United States’ “propaganda assault” that took place in 2002, when the United States engaged in “psychological warfare” by dropping 480,000 of pamphlets in Iraq (Esterbrook). The pamphlets, which were designed to coerce the Iraqis to not attack U.S. forces, warned that “Coalition air power can strike at will. Any time, any place. The attacks will destroy you at any location of Coalition choosing. Will it be you or your brother? You decide” (Esterbrook). Another phrase cautioned the Iraqis to “Think about your family. Do what you must to survive” (Esterbrook).
The audience of Howl’s Moving Castle never finds out what is written in the pamphlets. Viewers are never told what is on those fliers, whether it is a plea for understanding or a declaration of the evils of Ingary, and likewise, the civilians are explicitly discouraged from reading them. Whatever the message is, it is stifled, and the only one allowed out to the people is the message that the government has allowed, dictated in turn by the media. Later, Howl’s apprentice rushes in to tell the now infirm Witch of the Waste, who has become another member of the moving castle, “The newspaper says we won.” But the Witch, stepping into the role of a wise old woman, replies “Only idiots believe what they read in the newspaper.” Meanwhile, the fighting begins again. The Witch is correct; only an idiot would believe the war had been won during an air raid. She then turns to Howl and says, “We need to have a heart-to-heart chat.” “There’s nothing I would like more than that,” he responds, “But right now, there’s a war going on.” The implication of his words is that communication—true, open, honest “heart to heart” communication—cannot exist at the same time as conflict. Conflict ruptures the civilians’ sense of normalcy, carving a path for the government to invade their lives and stifle effective communication.
The Redemptive Power of Words
A critical examination of Howl’s Moving Castle as a transformative adaptation reveals the ways the film builds on the themes of Jones’s novel to create its allegorical critique of U.S. policies concerning the Iraq War. Jones’s novel stresses the need to use open communication to understand not only one another and implies that if people can manage this, they can avoid personal and international conflict. In the novel, as the curse on Howl progresses and he draws closer to the day when it will come true, words (the building blocks of verbal communication) become the only way of understanding what is happening to him. Not only is it words, but they are words that some readers will recognize, for Howl is not a native to Ingary in the book—he is from England, and his curse is outlined explicitly in John Donne’s poem “Song”: “Go and catch a falling star, / Get with child a mandrake root, / Tell me where all past years are, / Or who cleft the Devil’s foot. / Teach me to hear the mermaids singing, / Or to keep off envy’s stinging” (77).
Howl spends much of the latter half of the novel puzzling over the poem, trying to understand it; he is continually considering its language and possible meanings, and just as Miyazaki takes Howl’s metaphorical transformation and makes it literal in the film, Jones takes Donne’s rhetorical argument and makes its meaning literal in the magical world of Ingary. Donne’s poem “Song” is meant as a joke; all of the instructions are meant to be as impossible as the final one: that of finding a faithful woman (a sarcastic note from a jaded young lover). The events of the poem become the steps to fulfilling the Witch’s curse on Howl in the novel, though, beginning with “go and catch a falling star”; fire demons, we learn later, all begin as falling stars and die on impact with the ground, a fate that the demons can avoid if caught and saved from collision. Howl, who has already completed the first of the tasks by catching Calcifer when he was young, gives up on understanding the rest of “Song.” Still, he is sure that he can learn something by referencing texts from his own world in an attempt to use communication to return him to his old self even as the day of the curse’s fruition comes closer. Sophie, who understands little of England and less of British literature, watches as Howl grapples with these texts, searching for the words that will help him unlock his curse:
Sophie glanced at him and thought of the curse. Howl may have been thinking of it too. He picked the skull out of the sink and held it in one hand, mournfully. “Alas, poor Yorick!” he said. “She heard mermaids, so it follows there is something rotten in the state of Denmark.” (Jones 248)
The Hamlet reference is lost on Sophie, as is Howl’s snide comment, “We can’t all be Mad Hatters” (Jones 174). Here, the effort to communicate meaning is present but it is one-sided. Howl does not attempt to help Sophie understand his meaning, and so she is unable to help. The idea implied here, that problems can be solved by open communication, is repeated throughout the novel, not only on a grand scale but also on the literal level of Sophie and Calcifer’s contract, which is also incorporated into Miyazaki’s film:
“Tell me how I can break your contact,” Sophie said.
The orange eyes glinted at her and looked away. “I can’t. Part of the contract is that neither the Wizard nor I can say what the main clause is.” (46)
If only they could speak to each other openly, if they were not restricted by the curse in the same way the government restricts communication in the movie, they could help each other. Powerless and bereft of the ability to communicate, though, they are left to haphazardly attempt to understand each other’s plight. They ultimately get nowhere, just as Howl fruitlessly attempts to make sense of “Song” (of which he has lost the last stanza, and has since forgotten the joke involved in it).
In the end, both the novel and film insist that the only way to survive any traumatic experience—whether it is, like Sophie, suddenly being turned into an old crone or, like Howl, being thrust into battle—is to work together to create open communication, in relationships and between countries. Once open communication is achieved, then it is time for action – and action is necessary, as is made clear in both Miyazaki’s adaptation and Jones’s novel. Just as action devoid of communication leads to war and communication without action leads nowhere, both the novel and film version of Howl’s Moving Castle illustrates a simple (if idyllic) solution. As difficult as it may be to implement, they each make the case for communicating and then acting in the best interest of all parties.
Sophie discovers this in the most unusual way. At the end of the novel, in a development only hinted at in the film, it is revealed that Sophie has a peculiar, latent magical ability: she can talk life into things. Her newly discovered magical power almost enables her to save Howl. Even though her words are enough to give life, she fears that words alone might not be enough and knows that she must do something as well: she must turn communication into thoughtful action.
At the climactic moment in the novel, with Howl’s life on the line, Sophie and Calcifer have the following exchange:
“I shall have to break your contract. Will it kill you?”
“It would if anyone else broke it,” Calcifer said hoarsely. “That’s why I asked you to do it. I could tell you could talk life into things . . .
“Then have another thousand years!” Sophie said, and willed very hard as she said it, in case just talking was not enough . . . Kneeling down beside Howl, she carefully put the black lump on his chest in the leftish sort of place she had felt hers in when it troubled her, and pushed. “Go in,” she told it. “Get in there and work!” And she pushed and pushed. The heart began to sink in, and to beat more strongly as it went. (Jones 324-325)
Thus, communication and action based on love and understanding are enough to redeem the quite literally heartless wizard Howl, and enough, as Miyazaki and Jones both suggest, to provide guidance for children (and even adults) looking to stay true to themselves in a violent world. Sophie communicates directly to Howl’s heart, and it responds by beating; this channel of communication guides her to performing the right action (“and she pushed and she pushed”), which successfully (and magically) pushes the beating organ back into Howl’s chest. In doing so, Sophie frees Howl and Calcifer from the contract while simultaneously breaking Howl’s curse. In the film, she then kisses the scarecrow—the object that Calcifer assumes she has talked life into—and it transforms into Prince Justin, the ruler of the nation currently at war with Ingary. Delighted to be able to speak again (having also been cursed by the Witch of the Waste, and thus silenced as well), he rushes off, eager to end the conflict with his country now that he can communicate again.
Although Miyazaki’s film introduces contemporary politics with a dose of criticism of the Iraq War into his adaptation of Howl’s Moving Castle, the film nonetheless builds on Jones’s motifs and creates a cohesive message across both works, constructing a bridge between the two that allows for a deeper understanding of each. Hayao Kawai writes in his work The Japanese Psyche: Major Motifs in Fairytales of Japan that “One of the characteristics of the Japanese people is the absence of a clear distinction between exterior and interior worlds . . . the wall between this world and the other world is . . . surprisingly thin one” (Kawaii 103). As this analysis of Miyazaki’s Howl’s Moving Castle has sought to suggest, so too might film critics consider an adaptation and its source work. Even with drastic changes to plot and the addition of new elements, in the end, there need not be a wall, the traditional “unbridgeable gulf” in adaptation studies that separates them as distinct works (Abbott 113). Rather, as in the case of the film version of Howl’s Moving Castle, themes and motifs of the source text can be transformed, but it is only by considering the adaptation in conjunction with the source text that critics are able to observe how these transformations can also transform the meaning of the narrative—in this case, how Miyazaki’s radical changes in situation and setting transformed a twentieth century children’s book into a political allegory rooted in 2004 that speaks directly to a new generation of children whose lives—like Ingary—had been changed by a new era of international conflict.
1 Diana Wynne Jones passed away on March 26, 2011 after a long struggle against cancer.
2 It is worth noting that in Japan (and in the last two decades, in the United States, as well) animation is not considered, by virtue of its form, exclusively for children. Instead, animation is enjoyed by all ages, with mature films directed at older audiences. However, Studio Ghibli has a long standing history of producing films aimed specifically at children, and its partnership with Walt Disney in the United States as the distributor of its films has focused on this target audience. For Howl’s distribution, Disney marketed the story as essentially a coming-of-age tale in which Sophie must embark upon an adventure to meet Howl, the male hero, who will free her from her curse (a decidedly different portrayal of what actually occurs in the film).
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