This essay was originally written and performed on September 28, 2016 for Scene Missing Presents: Studio Ghiblanta.
You’re the best.
Seriously, Howl’s Moving Castle needs to be renamed Sophie Gets Shit Done. I am in awe of you. You must be one of the most competent characters in the history of cinema. When the Witch of the Wastes curses you to advance in age AND not to be able to tell anyone about it, you give yourself one moment of panic, and then wake up in the morning and deal with it. You are pragmatic and positive, packing up your bread and cheese and taking off to the Wastes to solve this mess. When you start your hike up towards the Wastes, some asshole stranger call you a “crazy Grandma” for heading out to an area inhabited by witches and wizards, and you’re still nice to him. “Thank you, I’ll keep that in mind,” you said. C’mon, fuck that guy!
Sophie, you are kind to everyone you encounter along your travels. Calcifer does nothing but complain, and you compliment his spark. Little Markl derisively calls you “Grandma” when you first meet, and you respond by making breakfast. You thank Turnip Head for his assistance with your cane and with finding you a place to stay, even though you acknowledge that turnips are your least favorite vegetable. If Red Cabbage kept following me around after I told it to go away, I would be decidedly less pleasant.
I’m so glad I didn’t watch Howl’s Moving Castle until adulthood. As a child, I think your magnificence might have been lost on me, Sophie. I think you might have even bored me. You’re an eighteen year old girl who literally cleans up other people’s messes, especially those of the men around you. Not very feminist, little Dani would have felt superior in being able to point out. But I can see now that for you, and for so many of the other badass older women in Studio Ghibli films, taking care of others and being helpful are actual superpowers.
I mean, when you start to really go to town cleaning-wise on the titular Moving Castle, you sweep with righteous fury. You threaten to bite the heads off of the bugs if they get in your way, and you shout that you’re sick of being treated like some timid old lady. And you’re right! Because you haven’t been timid in your old age at all.
We first see you as a timid young woman, quietly finishing up hats and watching the trains through your window. We watch you become frustrated when you look at yourself in the mirror, a move that I sadly think a lot of the women watching you know all too well. You visit your sister at the bakery across town, just to make sure she’s doing all right, and she tells you, “It’s your life, Sophie. Do something for yourself for once.” Do something for yourself for ONCE.
Today I sat in the forest, as I was thinking about you and all the things I wanted to tell you. I had sunshine, shade, a place to sit, and I thought a very unique thought for me.
“This is probably plenty.”
Thank you for that, Sophie.
Okay, here it goes.
I think you should break up with Howl. Hear me out! You’re too good for him! Listen, girl, I get it. Howl? I spent my formative years working at the Renaissance Festival, so I absolutely understand the allure of skinny dudes in capes. I promise. Howl’s gorgeous, and he’s got a super sweet place, and he’s how you met a lot of your other cool new friends, so sticking with him would be super easy, and, really, truthfully, I see the appeal.
Hear me out, though.
Red Flags 1 & 2: When you’re still working in the hat shop at the very beginning of the movie, all the other girls who work with you get super excited to see Howl’s castle in the distance. Through these young ladies we learn two things: 1) Howl preys– never great terminology, by the way– on pretty girls, and, 2) Martha from South Haven won’t go outside anymore because Howl “tore her heart apart.” WON’T GO OUTSIDE ANYMORE.
Now, of course, there are two sides to every story, and we don’t actually get to hear from Martha from South Haven in this movie, so maybe the hat shop girls are exaggerating a bit. But this looks pretty bad. Howl has a reputation for moving his castle into town, and sweeping young girls literally off their feet, and then bailing. On the one hand, sure, be a hot young, fancy caped wizard and roam around to sow your wild magical oats.
Whatever. Gross, but whatever.
Howl’s dalliances with girls like Martha from South Haven, though, seem to be a symptom of a larger problem. I’m not sure we ever see Howl having a positive relationship with any woman in this movie, regardless of their age. There’s poor Martha from South Haven, the vengeful Witch of the Waste of whom Howl says, “She was once quite beautiful, so I decided to pursue her,” his former magic teacher Madame Sulliman who’s essentially started a war just to get back at him, and then you, Sophie. And Howl’s first impressions to young and old Sophie are both pretty bad.
When he first meets Young-You, you’re being harassed by some super creepy soldiers in an alley. Howl steps in to rescue you. Okay, fine. His tactic to enact said rescue is to put his arm around you and say, “There you are, sweetheart. Sorry I’m late.” You know, because now you’re his lady-property in front of the soldiers, so they’ll back off. Howl, you’re actually magic, and you can turn into a bird-monster. There were other ways to handle this. You don’t need to pretend to be her boyfriend; that’s not the reason why she shouldn’t be getting harassed. When the soldiers go away, Howl even says, ” Don’t hold it against them. They’re not all that bad.” What’s your point, Howl? What does this accomplish? They called Sophie a “little mouse,” and then commented on her being more cute when she’s scared. They are DEFINITELY bad. This is some #NotAllStudioGhibliMen bullshit, and you know it.
Red Flag 3! Howl’s vanity! Holy shit, Sophie. Howl’s so vain, he probably thinks this song is about him, but also, Howl’s so vain that this song is probably actually about him. That tantrum about his hair? Aggressively unsexy. The man doesn’t clean his own bathroom, doesn’t even thank you when you do, and then has the audacity to throw the hissiest of fits when his hair color changes as a result. He turns into a literal gooey, oozing puddle that threatens to wreck the whole castle, and says the following, “I give up. I see no point in living if I can’t be beautiful.”
Which makes you cry! Sophie, Howl’s ideals of physical beauty are unhealthy, and I worry about how they’ll impact you in the long run. You say a couple of times in the movie that you don’t consider yourself beautiful, and that you have nothing to worry from Howl’s dreaded reputation since he only goes after “pretty girls.” You don’t need that kind of pressure in your life. Don’t date people who prize physical beauty above all, don’t date people who make you feel bad about yourself, and definitely don’t date people who value fancy shampoo over you and your time.
Now, I know what you’re thinking, Sophie. Howl literally didn’t have a heart during the aforementioned incidents. Howl’s essentially been trapped in adolescence for however many years it’s been since he swallowed the shooting star and linked up with Calcifer. Howl might become a completely different and more mature, less selfish person over the days and weeks and months and years after the end of the movie. People usually change. Hearts change, as the Witch of the Wastes reminds us.
So, best case scenario is that Howl learns how to be a good and unselfish person now that he has his heart back. Awesome! Fantastic! Splendid, even! But Sophie, it’s not your job to deal with that. You already saved Howl, you don’t have to fix him. You have already literally had to be Howl’s mother, disguising yourself and going to the palace on his behalf. You cleaned his castle, soothed him through his hair temper tantrum, and gave him back his actual heart. That’s a lot. Look, maybe I’m being totally unfair, and maybe there’s nothing wrong with Howl. This shouldn’t be about what’s wrong with Howl. It’s about what’s right with you. Sophie, I have to side with your sister. It’s your life. Do something for yourself for once!
Your theme song in the movie is called “Merry Go Round of Life.” It’s a waltz. It plays the first time you meet Howl, and the two of you walk through the skies together, hand in hand above the rooftops. It’s breathtaking. “You’re a natural,” he says. Howl, with his flaxen hair and flowing cape, Howl who only preys on pretty girls, this Howl says that YOU are a natural. Like I said earlier, Sophie. I get it.
The Merry Go Round of Life. A romantic relationship can pretty easily turn into a Merry Go Round. Merry Go Rounds are pretty. Merry Go Rounds make you hear music. Merry Go Rounds make you a little dizzy. There are ups and downs, and those can be exhilarating, and they can give you that weightless feeling in the very pit of your stomach, but… you’re not going anywhere. You’re going in a circle. Eventually, maybe the paint chips away from the horses’ faces. Or the poles begin to rust, and each up or down turns into a creaking jerk. Or maybe things are fine forever, and even wonderful, on your little circle.
I shouldn’t try to tell you how to live your life, Sophie. You’re awesome as a young woman, and you get to live the rest of your life with the security that you’ll be an awesome old woman too. Not to go all reverse-Spider-Man on you, but your curse is kind of your gift. You’re not the girl in the hat shop anymore. Your potential is limitless. What I’m trying to say is: Yes, Merry Go Rounds are great. Just don’t forget that you’ve got admission to the whole carnival.