Gothic Ghibli is a blog series hosted by Sheffield Gothic , exploring the Gothic flavours of Studio Ghibli films. In this post, Sheffield Gothic’s own Mary Going discusses the Gothic elements of Howl’s Moving Castle.
A girl with a curse. A strikingly attractive but enigmatic wizard. And a magical, mysterious, moving castle. These are the foundational parts of Studio Ghibli’s 2005 animation, Howl’s Moving Castle, adapted by directed Hayao Miyazaki from Dianna Wynn Jones’ fantasy novel of the same title. Miyazaki transforms the story of Sophie, Howl, and his Castle into the widely recognized and beautifully stunning aesthetics of a Ghibli production. This adaptation draws on the traditions of the fairy tale and the Romance, but arguably it also emulates the traditions of the Gothic Romance. This post will explore the Gothic elements present within Howl’s Moving Castle, a film that can be viewed as a Gothic Romance and that places a very Gothic castle at its heart.
|Howl's castle here depicted with the same structural integrity|
as our PhD Theses.
However, in the true fashion of Gothic heroines, Sophie maintains her resolve and strength of mind. It is with determination that she leaves her home town and seeks out Howl and his famed moving castle. Carving her own path, Sophie travels across the wastes despite warnings: ‘I don’t recommend it grandma. There’s only witches and wizards ahead.’ Eventually Sophie situates herself in the castle as Howl’s cleaner, still in the guise of an old woman. Since her first encounter with Howl, it is clear that Sophie has fallen in love with Howl, but she assumes that he could never love her back. Instead, she resigns herself to her new (old) identity, taking charge and choosing to care for Howl, the inhabitants of his castle, and the castle itself.
Of course, Howl has more pressing matters to deal with besides his hair. He is being chased by the Witch of the Waste and her very creepy blob men; he is being sought by the King’s own Sorceress, Suliman; and he is actively participating in the ongoing war that serves as the backdrop for the narrative. It is not clear on what side Howl is fighting for, but as the film progresses, it’s anti-war message becomes evident and Howl’s actions are directly shown as attempts to lessen civilian casualties. However, in order to fight in this war, Howl has to physically transform his body into a black feathered, bird-like creature, eerily human and not-human at the same time. This monstrous metamorphosis becomes increasingly grotesque the more he participates in the war, and starkly contrasts with his original self, a blonde, suave wizard who appears fixated with his appearance. Moreover, returning one night from fighting, it is noted that he ‘reek[s] of burnt flesh and steel,’ adding a sensory element to his grotesqueness. It also becomes clear that Howl is losing his control over these changes, and only one person can stop his permanent, monstrous transformation: Sophie.
This, then, is the story of Howl’s Moving Castle: the love story of Sophie and Howl, one cursed to appear like an old woman and believing her love to be unrequited, and the other dangerously transforming into a monstrous, grotesque creature and close to the point of no return. The backdrop for the story is war, but there is another setting, or rather another character, that needs to be discussed when exploring the films Gothic elements: the castle itself.
Howl’s moving castle is the very title of the film, and a central part of the narrative. Indeed, it is the castle, and not Howl or Sophie, that is first depicted in the opening scene of the film. Through a thick sea of fog Howl’s castle emerges; a strange amalgamation of parts walking on two mechanical legs. Comprised of different buildings and compartments inexplicably attached together, with a few sails and chimneys billowing smoke as well, the castle has an industrial, mechanical, and almost steampunk aesthetic.
In many Gothic texts, the castle assumes the status of character in its own right, with the castle’s gloomy walls, labyrinthine passages, and small eye-like windows often personified to create an oppressive, overpowering character. Here, Miyazaki employs a similar personification. Howl’s castle not only walks, but the animation deliberately ensures the movement and smoke emissions of the castle mimic that of a breathing, living being. Moreover, the exterior of the castle is undeniably crafted to imitate a face complete with eyes, a nose, and even a mouth that opens to reveal a mechanical tongue. The interior of the castle is no less mysterious. The labyrinthine passages of traditional Gothic castles are transformed into a labyrinthine interior that can be changed and altered through Howl’s magic, and that can transport its inhabitants to multiple geographical and temporal locations through a magic door. Again, through Howl’s magic, the door to the castle can open onto different locations depending on the colour selected on a dial. This dial creates a doorway between the castle and different locations, and at one point create a doorway into Howl’s past though which Sophie can pass.
The castle is quite literally the heart of the film, and the heart of Howl himself. It is powered by Calcifer, a fire demon bound to Howl by a magical contract and confined to the hearth of the castle. If Calcifer leaves, the castle falls apart, and if he is destroyed, Howl is destroyed too. When Sophie first glimpses the castle up close, she exclaims: ‘What is this? You call this a castle?’ and while it is not a conventional castle – with a solid, immovable foundation and towering foundations – it is castle nonetheless, and a very Gothic one at that.
Mary 'Soot Sprite' Going is a PhD Researcher at the university of Sheffield and member of Sheffield Gothic. Her research focuses on representations of Jewish figures in Romantic and Gothic fiction