This post includes a brief plot summary and an explanation about the ending of film Howl’s Moving Castle / Hauru no Ugoku Shiro (2004). Who has Howl’s heart? Beware of spoilers.
Directed by Hayao Miyazaki, the 2004 Japanese anime is loosely based on a 1986 novel with the same name written by Diana Wynne Jones.
The World Of “Howl’s Moving Castle” Explained
The anime adaptation is not as detailed as the novel. So here’s a little introduction to the world of “Howl’s Moving Castle”.
Sophie (the main character) is a young woman working at a hat shop. At the moment, Sophie’s nation is at war with another kingdom. The war started with the disappearance of Prince Justin from the other nation. That kingdom put the blame on Sophie’s nation and they declared war on each other.
Who is Howl? He is a powerful wizard with several aliases. Howl owns a moving castle powered by a fire demon named Calcifer. The door to Howl’s house is essentially a portal to different cities and in each of them, people know Howl by a different name. Many years ago, Howl had a brief fling with the Witch of the Waste. He met her as a beautiful young woman, so when he found out it was all a façade, he ran away.
The Witch of the Waste is also one the most powerful magicians in the kingdom. However, fifty years ago, the king sent her to “The Waste”. The king banned her from the kingdom, because he deemed her dangerous. Despite of Howl’s complete disinterest in her, she insists in stalking him and does everything in her power to get his heart (literally).
Madame Suliman is the king’s advisor and the maximum authority amongst wizards. Howl used to be her apprentice when he was younger but never completed his training. Suliman has the power to strip wizards’ powers away if she deems them selfish and unfit for magic.
Howl’s Moving Castle (2004) – Plot Summary
Sophie is an introverted young girl. On her way to meet her sister Lettie, two royal guards stop her. They harass her, but a young man named Howl comes and removes her away from the situation.
After visiting Lettie, Sophie heads home. At the hat shop, a woman known as The Witch of Waste walks in. The woman casts a spell on Sophie and turns her into a very old woman. Afraid of her family’s reaction, Sophie leaves the house and heads to the countryside. During her journey, she meets a scarecrow with a turnip head. She befriends the scarecrow and he leads her to Howl’s castle. Sophie enters and meets a fire demon named Calcifer. He proposes to help Sophie break her curse, only if she agrees to help him with his.
The next day, Sophie meets a young boy named Mark, he’s Howl’s apprentice. When Howl arrives home, Sophie introduces herself as the cleaning lady.
Howl often leaves the house to stop the war between the two kingdoms. The king is calling all the powerful wizards to fight, which includes Howl, but he refuses. Therefore, he fights against both sides to stop the conflict from escalating.
During her cleaning sessions, Sophie switches a couple of Howl’s bottles (hair dying products). The switch led Howl’s hair to change colour, which made him very upset. After he calms himself down, he confesses his inability to confront people and his habit of running away from problems.
Howl is against the war, but he’s too afraid to confront the king. Therefore, Howl sends Sophie (as his mother) to convince the king that her “son” is too coward to fight.
On her way to the palace, Sophie bumps into The Witch of Waste, apparently she received an invitation to meet the king. Meanwhile, an old dog follows Sophie on her way to see the king. At the palace, Sophie meets Madame Suliman, the king’s wizard and Howl’s former mentor. During their meeting, Sophie learns about Howl’s curse (he has no heart).
Suliman reveals her intentions of taking Howl’s powers away, just like she did with The Witch of Waste. Nonetheless, Sophie is not very content with Suliman words and defends Howl’s character. Then, Howl appears. He disguised himself as the king to take Sophie out of the palace. His plan fails as the real king walks by, leaving him with no option but to reveal himself. Suliman tries to stop them, but Sophie and Howl escape, along with the witch and Suliman’s dog Heen. Later, Howl gives Sophie a ring that points to Calcifer (the castle’s location).
Sophie eventually learns that Howl frequently morphs himself into a bird to fight both sides of the war. However, each time he shape-shifts it comes more and more difficult to go back to human form. Meanwhile, Howl changes the interior of the castle and makes it look like Sophie’s old home.
Later, the enemy bombards Sophie’s town. Howl is now back to save Sophie from the attacks and Suliman’s henchmen. Shortly after, he heads out again to protect the group. A desperate Sophie tries to take everybody out of the castle. However, when she removes Calcifer from it, the whole castle collapses. During the process, the witch realizes that Calcifer is one holding Howl’s heart. Without thinking, she grabs Calcifer to feel Howl’s heart. Seeing the witch on fire, Sophie pours water onto her, dousing Calcifer. Without an active fire demon, the castle splits into two and Sophie is separated from the group.
The charmed ring leads Sophie to a moment in the past. She sees Howl catching a falling star (Calcifer) and giving his heart to him. After this revelation, Sophie falls into a dark pit that teleports her back to the present. Then, she finds Howl waiting for her and tells him to take them to Calcifer. Reunited with the group, Sophie kindly asks the witch to give back Howl’s heart, she complies. Sophie takes the heart and places back where it belonged.
Howl regains his senses and Calcifer is now free. Although the fire demon flies away, he eventually comes back. Sophie regains her youth. Turnip Head becomes almost inanimate because of the serious damage caused by the fall. Sophie kisses him and he reveals himself as Prince Justin, the one that was missing. He calls off the war and heads back to his kingdom. Heen reports the events to Suliman and the king’s wizard decides to end the war. As the war ends, Howl, Sophie and the others fly in the air in a new moving castle.
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Howl’s Moving Castle (2004) – Ending Explained
The film focus a lot on Howl not having a heart. However, how did Howl lose his heart? And who has Howl’s heart?
During a flashback, Sophie sees Howl catching and then swallowing a falling star – Calcifer. So, it wasn’t a woman that stole Howl’s heart, it was the fire demon. Now, what prompt Howl do that? It’s not that clear in the film, but the novel explains it better.
Why did Calcifer take Howl’s heart?
When Howl was younger he gave his heart to Calcifer to save him. When he caught Calcifer he was a falling (dying) star, so Howl felt sorry for him and gave Calcifer his heart to extend his life. In exchange, Calcifer gave him more powers and agreed to assist him in whatever he needs, such as powering the castle. That’s the mysterious bargain that bound them together. If Calcifer dies, Howl will die too and vice-versa.
Madame Suliman’s comment on Howl’s heart (or lack of it) stems from the deal that the wizard made with the fire demon. Gaining more powers, came with a cost. Howl’s increasing powers have gradually taken his humanity away (on an emotional and physical level). Every time Howl morphs himself into that bird-like creature, the more difficult it becomes for him to go back to his human shape. That’s why Suliman wants to strip Howl’s powers away, she’s afraid that he’ll eventually use his powers for evil and end up like the Witch of Waste.
How did Sophie break the curse?
There are two curses going on: Sophie’s curse and Howl’s curse. Let’s start with Sophie. What happened to Sophie? The witch cast a spell on Sophie and turned her into an elderly woman. However, why does Sophie’s age keeps changing throughout the film? That has to do with the nature of the spell. Sophie didn’t age with the spell, the curse was only limited to her physical appearance. The real reason why Sophie’s physical appearance kept changing is her mindset.
In the beginning, Sophie wasn’t a very confident young woman. She rarely spoke her mind and kept most of her thoughts to herself. That’s the attitude that made the curse work, because Sophie was already acting like an elderly person. However, when she started to stand up for herself and others, Sophie’s age started to change too. Finally, when she comes to terms with who she really is and who she loves, Sophie was able to break the curse and go back to her real age.
Now, let’s talk about Howl’s. What is exactly Howl’s curse? Howl and Calcifer cannot exist without each other, if one dies the other will die too – that’s the curse. In addition, Howl traded part of his humanity in exchange for more powers. That’s why every time he transforms, it becomes harder and harder for him to get back to his human shape. So, how did Sophie break Howl’s curse?
When Sophie poured water onto the witch, she accidentally put Calcifer in a weakened state. Calcifer was pretty unconscious, that’s why the castle split apart and Howl became unconscious too. When Sophie took Howl’s heart (Calcifer) from the hands of the witch, she made a wish before she returned the heart to Howl. That wish was a spell. It allowed Calcifer and Howl to live independently, hence, breaking their curse.
Is Sophie a witch?
The novel hints that Sophie is a witch too. Throughout the film, that are also some hints that Sophie has special powers. For instance, when she meets Turnip Head. He came to life when Sophie spoke to him. Another instance of Sophie’s powers is the scene where she whispers to Calcifer: her wish became true and Calcifers was able to return the heart to Howl. Having said that, Sophie’s powers are mainly related with her ability to give life to inanimate objects.
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Howl – Character Analysis
Howl is a charming wizard with his own inner demons. At first, he looks all put together and powerful, which he is, but there also a side of him that behaves like a little boy. For instance, the orange hair incident. Turns out, Howl has self-image issues too. Though often praised by other women for his beauty, he lies a lot of his self-confidence on his hair, the colour of his hair to be more specific. Howl was born with natural dark hair, but he likes his hair blonde. Therefore, he dyes it on a constant basis. So, when Sophie switched his hair bottles and made his hair orange, Howl threw the biggest tantrum and went into an almost catatonic state.
By the way, Howl has a big fear of confrontation. Whenever he faces a problem, he just runs away from it. Remember the Witch of Waste? After finding out how she really looked like, he never really broke up with her. Howl just ran away from the witch, hoping that she would get the message, which she obviously didn’t. In addition, he uses aliases for his personal and professional life. Howl is basically running away from everybody and he’ll go to extremes such as making terrible rumours about himself (eating girls hearts) just to get some privacy and time alone.
In the end, Howl matures mainly because of Sophie, now he has someone to love. The love he feels for Sophie made him strong enough to face Madame Suliman and fight to stop the war.
Howl’s Moving Castle is a beautiful coming of age tale that touches upon pertinent topics such as war, ageing and compassion.
War is ugly and most of the times, unnecessary. The disappearance of Prince Justin proves exactly that. The neighbouring kingdom started a war without concrete evidence and caused havoc in other nation for no reason.
Another interesting theme in Howl’s Moving Castle is ageing. Here’s an interesting aspect about Sophie’s curse: being older was actually beneficial for her. As an elderly woman, Sophie stopped worrying about what others think. In addition, being old also allowed Sophie to be more spontaneous. Young Sophie would never enter Howl’s castle without an invitation. However, old Sophie doesn’t really care.
The film shows that compassion is not a weakness. Sophie’s strength lies in her ability to feel compassion for other people. Take the Witch of Waste as an example. Sophie had everything to hate that woman. When Madam Suliman took the witch’s powers away, you would expected Sophie to be happy about it and exact her revenge on the witch. However, Sophie didn’t do that. Instead, she took the witch to Howl’s castle and took care of her.
Another example of Sophie’s big heart is the last scene. When the witch was holding Howl’s heart and causing havoc in the castle, Sophie hugs her and begs her to give the heart back. A natural reaction would be resorting to violence to solve the situation, but Sophie chose the opposite and saves Howl.
Overall, Howl’s Moving Castle is a beautiful piece of art from Hayao Miyazaki that lingers on the audience’s heart. In addition, it’s possible to watch film over and over again and still find new details or nuances. Hands down Howl’s Moving Castle is a timeless masterpiece.