About a month ago I went with a couple of my friends to Santa Monica to see a showing of Howl’s Moving Castle in 35mm film. For anyone who hasn’t seen this film, it’s an animated movie by Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli and it’s based on a fantasy novel by Diana Wynne Jones published in 1986. The movie follows a young woman named Sophie who lives in this bright world that’s full of magic. Sophie has a spell put over her that turns her into an old lady, and she sets off to try to figure out how to lift the spell. She stumbles upon this castle that is able to move and walk thanks to being animated by a fire demon, and it belongs to a wizard named Howl. Like Sophie, Howl is trapped in a spell that binds him to the fire demon, Calcifer. As the story progresses, Sophie tries to lift the spell over Howl and Calcifer in the hopes that Calcifer will be able to lift her spell. Eventually Sophie succeeds in breaking Howl’s spell as well as her own, restoring Howl’s heart to him (Calcifer had it because of the spell), and Howl and Sophie fall in love and live happily ever after.
Given my description, it might seem like the movie is just a really sweet kids’ movie, and in a lot of ways it is. But there’s one component of this movie that lifts it out of the “children’s” genre and renders it a deeply compelling story regardless of a viewer’s age. In the midst of magic and fire demons and love, Sophie and Howl’s world is being ravaged by a senseless war. The kingdom in which Sophie and Howl live has gone to war with a neighboring kingdom because a prince from that neighboring kingdom has gone missing. Howl, like all wizards in his kingdom, is summoned by the King to use his magic to wage war. Instead, Howl uses his magic to change into a human-bird-hybrid-thing and he regularly goes about sabotaging both sides. At one point he and Sophie spot a battleship, and Howl explains that the battleship is off to “...burn cities and people.” Sophie asks whether the victims will be from their kingdom, or the enemy kingdom, to which Howl responds: “What difference does it make?” Howl’s sabotage poses a serious problem for him, though. The more he uses his magic to change into the bird-thing, the harder it is for him to return to his fully human form. In a discussion with Calcifer, Howl talks about other wizards who have “...turned themselves into monsters for the king.” Calcifer notes that those wizards won’t be able to return to human form after the war is done, to which Howl replies: “After the war, they won’t recall they were ever human.”
The backdrop of war was a deliberate choice on the part of Miyazaki. He wanted to challenge norms about old age, about gender roles, about the power of compassion. But more than this he wanted to show what war really is, and to defiantly tell a story in which life and a very particular kind of love are triumphant. It’s this particular kind of love that makes the film as powerful as it is. There are displays of familial love between Sophie and her mother and sister, and between Sophie and Howl’s apprentice Markl. There are displays of friendship between Sophie and Calcifer, and between Sophie and the witch that initially cursed her to be an old lady. There’s romantic love between Howl and Sophie, and between the missing prince (who goes home to stop the war) and Sophie. There’s one scene in particular, though, that displays a kind of love that doesn’t quite fit into any of these categories. As bombs are falling on Sophie and Howl’s flower shop, Howl catches one of the bomb’s in the courtyard outside the shop, preventing it from exploding. Sophie, worried that Howl is going to die, begs Howl to run away from the fight. Instead, Howl turns to her and says, “Sorry, I've had enough of running away, Sophie. Now I've got something I want to protect. It's you.”
The love Howl shows here is a love formed by a deep personal bond, and that love is willing to sacrifice and fight and die for another, it’s willing to give everything for the sake of the other, and it’s a kind of love that Howl has never shown or given before. Sophie responds to this love in kind by removing herself (and the others) from the shop so that Howl won’t have to keep protecting them. In the process, she ends up finding Howl’s heart, and she’s the only one who’s able to give it back to him. Side by side you have Howl’s love as sacrifice and Sophie’s love as sheer gift working together to save not only themselves, but eventually these acts of love save their kingdom from war as well.
In the movie there’s no mention of God or Jesus; nothing is said about faith or prayer. As a Catholic, though, it’s a familiar kind of story, one that I’ve read before in the lives of the saints or in the life of Christ Himself. This story is about people finding courage and hope in one another and using kindness and compassion to reform their world. It’s a story about the senseless horrors that human beings inflict on one another and the abiding power of love - not merely the emotion of love, but the loving choice to will the good of another even at cost to oneself - to defeat inhumanity, to heal broken people, and to create something new. There’s a fierceness to it; it sometimes feels like the film is daring you to live in such a way that you go out into your world and do likewise. I’m glad that in a world like ours, we have stories that dare us and challenge us like this; we need them.