“Howl’s Moving Castle” Explained: Story and Analysis

This post includes a brief plot summary, an analysis and an explanation about the ending of the film Howl’s Moving Castle / Hauru no Ugoku Shiro (2004). Beware of spoilers.

Note: The 2004 Japanese anime is loosely based on a 1986 novel with the same name written by Diana Wynne Jones.


Howl’s Moving Castle (Novel)

Shop Now ↗

A curse transforms a young girl into an old woman, leading her to discover her inner beauty in unexpected ways. Join Sophie Hatter on her adventure through Hayao Miyazaki’s wonderful world of “Howl’s Moving Castle”.

“Howl’s Moving Castle” is a fantasy tale about love, courage, and self-discovery.

The protagonist of this story, Sophie Hatter, is a shy girl with very low self-esteem. One day, she runs into Howl, “The Wizard”, who rescues her from two royal guards trying to harass her. However, her day is about to get worse. One of Howl’s “old flames” walks into Sophie’s hat shop and transforms her into an old woman.

Afraid, Sophie runs to the countryside. During her journey, she meets a scarecrow with a turnip head who leads her to a magic castle powered by a fire demon named Calcifer. Since they both share a common problem, being cursed, they agree to help each other out. By the way, the place belongs to Howl, the wizard Sophie met before.

From then on, Sophie inadvertently embarks on a spectacular adventure in the company of Howl, his apprentice Mark, and Calcifer. She also meets another pivotal figure, Madame Suliman, the king’s wizard and Howl’s former mentor. This woman intends to strip Howl’s powers away to prevent him from using them for evil, like “The Witch of Waste”.

Suliman is serious about her intentions and transforms “The Witch of Waste” into an old and senile lady. Before she could harm Sophie, Howl steps in and takes her away, along with the witch. Then Howl gives Sophie a ring that points to Calcifer (the castle’s location). At this point, Howl and Sophie are slowly becoming an item.

During an enemy attack, Sophie tries to evacuate the moving castle. In the process, Sophie accidentally causes it to “shutdown” when she removes Calcifer from the fireplace and douses him off. After falling from the collapsing castle, the charmed ring gives Sophie a glimpse into the past. She realizes that Calcifer is the key to reviving Howl because he is his heart.

After putting the heart back where it belonged, Howl regains his senses, and Calcifer is finally free from the curse. Although the fire demon flies away, he eventually comes back. Sophie regains her youth and reanimates the seriously injured “Turnip Head” by kissing him.

The ending of “Howl’s Moving Castle” reveals that “Turnip Head” is, in reality, Prince Justin. His disappearance is the reason behind the ongoing war. Therefore, his return leads both parties to stop the conflict. After that, Howl, Sophie, and the other crew members fly into the air in a new moving castle.

There are a few details missing in Hayao Miyazaki’s “Howl’s Moving Castle” because the anime adaptation is not as detailed as the novel.

Right when the film starts, Sophie’s nation is already at war with another kingdom. The origin of the conflict lies in Prince Justin’s disappearance, who is from the other nation. That kingdom assumed that Sophie’s nation had done something to the prince and decided to declare war.

For those who are curious about Howl and “The Witch of the Waste”, these two met many years ago. However, Howl met the witch as a young and beautiful woman. And of course, he was infatuated with her good looks, which led these two to have a fling. Nonetheless, when he found out it was all a façade, he ran away.

“The Witch of the Waste” is also one of 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 Howl’s complete disinterest in her, she insists on stalking him and does everything in her power to win his heart.

Madame Suliman is the king’s advisor and the maximum authority amongst wizards. Howl used to be her apprentice when he was younger, but he never completed his training. Suliman has the power to strip wizards’ powers away if she deems them selfish and unfit for magic.

Howl doesn’t have a heart because he traded it with a demon when he was young in exchange for more magical powers.

During a flashback, Sophie sees Howl catching and then swallowing a falling star—Calcifer. So, contrary to the rumours, it wasn’t a woman that stole Howl’s heart, it was the fire demon. Now, what prompted Howl to do that? It’s not that clear in the film, but the novel explains it better.

When Howl was younger, he spotted a falling (dying) star, Calcifer. At the time, Howl felt terrible for the fire demon and decided to give his heart to Calcifer. This would allow the fire demon to live longer, and in exchange, Calcifer granted Howl additional powers and agreed to aid him with whatever he required, including powering the castle.

Calcifer and Howl are tied by this mysterious bargain, in which their lives are intertwined. If Calcifer dies, Howl will also die, 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 new powers came at a cost. Howl’s growing powers have steadily eroded his humanity (both emotionally and physically). Every time Howl transforms into a bird-like creature, it gets increasingly difficult for him to return to his human form. That is why Suliman wants to take Howl’s powers away; she is terrified he will end up like “The Witch of Waste”.

Sophie broke her curse through personal growth and self-realization.

Initially, “The Witch of the Waste” cast a spell on Sophie and turned her into an elderly woman. However, Sophie’s age keeps changing throughout the film, which 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 keeps changing is her mindset.

Before meeting Howl, Sophie was a painfully shy young woman who kept most of her thoughts to herself. That attitude was what made the curse work, as she was already acting “old”. The turning point came when Sophie began to stand up for herself and others. That is when she was finally able to break the curse and return to her true age. In the end, Sophie comes to terms with who she is and who she loves.


Howl’s Moving Castle (DVD)

Buy Now ↗

The original novel hints that Sophie might be a witch too, which explains why she was able to break Howl’s and Calcifer’s curse.

As the story unravels, there are a lot of instances showing that Sophie has special powers. When Sophie met Turnip Head, he was just a “thing”. However, when Sophie spoke to Turnip Head, he suddenly came to life. Having said that, Sophie’s powers are mainly related to her ability to give life to inanimate objects.

So, how did Sophie break Howl’s curse? When Sophie accidentally poured water on Calcifer, she put him in a weakened state. That explains why the castle fell apart and Howl became unconscious. Before “returning” Calcifer to Howl, she made a wish, which turned out to be a spell. She actually succeeds, therefore, Howl and Calcifer are now able to live independently, breaking their curse.

Through Sophie’s journey, “Howl’s Moving Castle” touches upon pertinent themes such as war, ageing and compassion.

War is ugly and, most of the time, unnecessary. The disappearance of Prince Justin proves exactly that. The neighbouring kingdom started a war without concrete evidence and caused havoc in another nation for no reason.

Another interesting theme in “Howl’s Moving Castle” is ageing. Actually, ageing was a “beneficial” curse for Sophie. As an elderly woman, Sophie stopped worrying about what others thought, which allowed her to be more spontaneous. “Young Sophie” would’ve never entered Howl’s castle without permission, but “old Sophie” doesn’t really care.

The film also shows that compassion is not a weakness. When Madam Suliman took the powers of “The Witch of the Waste” away, Sophie did not take the opportunity to exact revenge on the woman who cursed her. Instead, she took care of her. Sophie’s strength lies in her ability to feel compassion for other people.

Final Thoughts

“Howl’s Moving Castle” is a beautiful coming-of-age tale that challenges the audience to explore the unknown and become more brave. Now, this might sound like blasphemy to some, but personally, I enjoyed watching “Howl’s Moving Castle” more than I did “Spirited Away”.

Overall, “Howl’s Moving Castle” is a beautiful piece of art from Hayao Miyazaki that lingers in the audience’s heart. In addition, it’s possible to watch the film over and over again and still find new details or nuances. Hands down, “Howl’s Moving Castle” is a timeless masterpiece.