The problem with Howl’s Moving Castle is that no one can agree on what it means.
Not just what the author meant but just… the narrative doesn’t make sense?
Howl’s Moving Castle (ハウルの動く城) (2004), written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki and produced by Studio Ghibli, is technically based on the novel of the same name. Technically. In reality, a lot of changes were made to the originary text. The original book (1986, by Dianne Wynne Jones) does not leave narrative gaps. There’s no ambiguity about how the contract between Calcifer and Howl works, there’s no weird ‘Howl is turning into an animal’ thing that is hinted at being a result of the contract but doesn’t make sense in the context of other wizards having the same problem, there’s no Witch of the Waste maybe working against Suliman but also earning rewards from her in the next scene…
The film, however, leaves some pretty big gaps.
In general, it is agreed that Miyazaki’s version “criticize[s] the Iraq war and Japan’s ”political support” of it, since these decisions encourage the Japanese nation to abandon its pacifist ideals and deepens the Japanese political identity crisis” (Smith 2011 cited in Akimoto 2013). But there’s a lot of the story that isn’t about the war, and a lot of the war elements that don’t quite make sense to the narrative.
Like Cats and Ulysses*, it’s tricky to boil Howl’s Moving Castle down into a short synopsis. At least, one that is true to the narrative’s complexity, and how much of the story is left in the silences and things left unsaid.
Usually, leaving things unsaid can be very interesting – but there needs to be enough left in the narrative that the viewer can connect the dots, right?
The film creates an opportunity for the viewer to find meaning for themselves. Or attempt to.
So that’s what I’m doing.
Here’s what I think: I think that Calcifer is the key to understanding what the hell Howl’s Moving Castle is even about.
Fire, as a motif and as a metaphor for inner strength, love, and home, is the central defining thread that holds the plot of Howl’s Moving Castle together. Calcifer the fire demon is the personification of this thread. his characterisation as a demon whose primary role in the narrative is ‘nurturer’ and ‘protecter’ serves to strengthen the themes and love and home, as well as suggesting a more poignant connection to the eco-critical themes that are central to Miyazaki’s work at Studio Ghibli.
In general, fire seems to be a destructive force in the film. Pollution and smoke (from the internal combustion engine) characterise the early scenes in Sophie’s home town, a fictional kingdom, loosely early 20th century, with fantasy and steampunk elements. There are explosions and fire during the battle scenes, and significant juxtaposition during the market scene, between Sophie’s joy in the peaceful atmosphere and the burning warship limping into the harbour.
And let’s not forget the image of Howl as a monster, surrounded by fire (we’ll dive into the way that Howl’s animal form is more justified when we consider Calcifer as the main character of the film later). This image is striking in the context of an overall use of fire in the narrative as a motif of destruction.
So if fire acts as a destructive force, and Calcifer is a fire demon, then what does the story have to say about demons?
When we see Calcifer fall from the sky in a flashback, he and the other demons are falling from the sky like stars, which recalls with their place in the canon of culture as fallen angels**. In the film, demons are known to make deals with humans, but these deals usually involve taking something of the human’s in order to make the demon stronger (apparently this is often the heart, though Sophie barters her hair so that Calcifer will have the strength to move the castle in the story’s climax).
We meet one other character who canonically gave their heart to a demon: the Witch of the Waste. More on her in a second.
Madame Suliman, the antagonist, seems to employ demons. It is not clear if she has made deals with them, because it’s never actually brought up that the creatures helping her are demons – it is just made clearer when we see a dying demon later in the film and make the connection with the creatures that helped Suliman de-power the Witch of the Waste and attack Howl. It is implied but never stated outright. Yet another crucial part of the narrative left unsaid.
Regardless of her apparent willingness to use demons, she states that Howl and the Witch of the Waste cannot be trusted because they have given their hearts to demons. That kind of implies that she hasn’t done it. She must have come up with a different way to enslave them. Again, it’s never explicitly stated one way or the other.
So… fire destroys and demons steal hearts. Where does that leave Calcifer?
Calcifer owns Howl’s heart, which Howl traded with the demon when he was a young boy in exchange for more magical power. Howl’s lack of heart is Suliman’s motivation for trying to capture him and take control of his power (“That boy is extremely dangerous, his powers are far too great for someone without a heart.”). This indicates an apparent fear that perhaps Howl will not be able to control himself or lose his humanity. That perhaps he is likely to turn on the ‘good’ people of the kingdom, much in the same way that the Witch of the Waste did.
In the film, we actually see many magic users – not just Howl, Suliman, and the Witch of the Waste. Many of the antagonistic creatures that Howl encounters while fighting off war machines.
HOWL: My own kind attacked me today… some hack wizards who turned themselves into monsters for the king.
CALCIFER: Those wizards are going to regret doing that. They’ll never change back into humans.
HOWL: After the war, they won’t recall that they ever were human.
Like these wizards, Howl transforms himself into an animal in order to fight, but he does it of his own volition. Howl continues to use his animal form – a black feathered bird of prey – to fight, even when Calcifer warns him that the transformation could become permanent: “You shouldn’t keep flying around like that. Soon, you won’t be able to turn back into a human.”.
And maybe… maybe that’s where Suliman got her demon lackeys? Not from her own dabbling with demon contracts, but from the other wizards who have apparently turned themselves into monsters for the king.
If she could gather the demons and control them, then she could likely effectively control their humans. The demon controls the heart, after all. The other wizards will likely forget that they were ever human because they spend so long in animal form. Which means that Howl’s potential ‘loss of humanity’ is linked to how often he appears in animal form. The power Howl got from Calcifer allows him to take animal form, and that leads to him losing his humanity, so the contract between them is only tangentially related to Howl’s slowly succumbing to the dangers of staying in animal form.
In the end, Howl became catatonic after Sophie poured water on Calcifer. Other wizards who’d lost their humanity did not become catatonic, so we know that ‘losing humanity’ does not lead to this state; losing one’s heart does. And since Calcifer had Howl’s heart, it makes sense that getting water poured on him would leave Howl reeling – both emotionally and physically. And perhaps Suliman worries about what may happen when Howl turns into an animal and can’t be controlled like the monsters who fight for the king – because she does not have Calcifer, and therefore doesn’t have the power to control Howl.
That might be a stretch, but I think it makes sense. With everything left unsaid in the film, some leaps in logic are required.
Now, in western culture, we also consider one ‘lacking heart’ to be synonymous with lacking courage.
Howl giving his heart to Calcifer could have made him a coward… Howl certainly believes that he is a coward, but he fights in the war and is constantly putting himself in danger in order to sabotage fighter planes. When I first watched the film, I thought this was a character inconsistency, and that the film-makers had committed the terrible sin of telling us one thing about a character while showing us another in practice. It just didn’t compute for me that Howl could be a ‘coward’ when all signs pointed to him being exceptionally brave and self-sacrificing. He even claims later in the film that Sophie has given him something to fight for, as if he hadn’t spent the last hour and a half fighting anyway.
Calcifer, on the other hand, is definitely a coward.
He claims to be a very powerful fire demon, but seeks Sophie’s protection more often than not and is constantly reminding people that he must be taken care of (“Be gentle with me, please.”). Calcifer is constantly reminding people of the danger that they’re in, recommending caution, and attempting to avoid physical danger. For a fire demon, he’s not particularly prone to confrontation.
Calcifer is the coward, not Howl.
There is evidence in the film that demons imbue their humans with their traits. The Witch of the Waste’s demon was Greed and, after Sulliman stripped her of her powers – perhaps severing the Witch’s connection to her demon – the witch changed. She became old and feeble, but less greedy. Though some habits are hard to break, in the end she is able to overcome her greed to give Howl’s heart to Sophie so that she can heal him.
I think that Howl feels Calcifer’s fear, and so he thinks that he is the coward even when his actions prove otherwise. And despite that fear, Howl continues to go out and sabotage war planes, putting his body in danger and – it is implied – his soul.
Although fire on its own seems to be destructive in other scenes in the film, and while the demons under Madame Suliman are antagonists, Calcifer breaks away from this characterisation to show another side of both.
Calcifer is not destructive. When he hears of people using fire to destroy towns, he tells Howl: “Those dopey guys have no manners.”. Calcifer offers advice to Howl about other wizards, and warns Howl not to use too much of his power. He also offers to help Sophie within moments of meeting her.
There is, in fact, a lot to connect Calcifer – as a fire demon – thematically with home and safety. While fire generally destroys, Calcifer’s fire nurtures and protects. This contrasts his character with the overarching fire motif as something dangerous. Here’s a few examples:
- Sophie smells fire in the waste, and then the castle appears over the hill as a refuge for the wandering woman.
- Howl tells Sophie to “Summon Calcifer with your heart” so that her ring will light up and lead her back to the castle.
- Calcifer defends the house. When the Witch of the Waste weakens him, the house is vulnerable and Suliman’s lackeys can find them
- Calcifer is able to keep the castle running and he responsible for changes that are made to the castle’s interiors and placement. When Calcifer leaves, the castle collapses
- He is literally the hearth; the characters tend to gather in his room during important scenes, and he is responsible for cooking and keeping the water warm
And, to connect even further with the ecocritical themes that Studio Ghibli has made its raison d’etre, remember when I said that pollution is ubiquitous in the early scenes when Sophie is walking through the town?
When Calcifer is under contract with Howl, and unable to leave the castle or choose his own destiny, his fire spews black smoke. It is a pollutant, and the castle itself stumbles along with all the grace of a drunk giraffe. When his contract is broken and he returns to the family by choice, his fire is clean and produces no pollution. Also, the castle can fly now. Because why not?
So what’s Howl’s Moving Castle even about? Thanks to the way that Calcifer seems to have been used in the story, I think it’s about intentions.
It is about how people and creatures can be destructive or nurturing, but both are dependant on choice. Power in the hands of bad people will do bad things, and power in the hands of good people will do good things. It is about being clear with your intentions, and knowing yourself well enough to recognise them, and their potential impact on the world. The heart – as symbolic of love, courage, and ‘what makes us human’ – is a power that we can hold over other people. We can choose for that to be a good thing or a bad thing.
PS – I love writing and I love eating! If you want to help with the latter (and ONLY if you want) you can maybe buy me a coffee? 🙂
*I studied Ulysses for a year, and still have no idea what it’s about.
** Interesting side thought: doesn’t ‘Calcifer’ sound an awful lot like ‘Lucifer’?