You might know director Hayao Miyazaki for films like Spirited Away, My Neighbor Totoro and Princess Mononoke. Each of his works carries meaning below the surface, but perhaps his most political triumph is Howl’s Moving Castle, produced in the aftermath of America’s 2003 invasion of the Middle East.
It’s one of the most textually complex movies ever produced by Studio Ghibli, starting with its analogues for the 2003 Iraq War. Miyazaki himself stated after winning an Oscar for Spirited Away that he felt deeply conflicted.
The director recalled having a lot of rage about the war, waged mostly for reasons of politics, racism and pursuit of wealth. And so Howl’s Moving Castle was a manifesto in opposition of armed conflict. The film’s antagonist, Madame Suliman, is wrapped up in violence to a degree that it has no purpose; she is simply at war for the sake of war.
Miyazaki’s intent was to expose war as a capricious act, pursued by leaders with shallow desires and little understanding of their actions. The hero, Howl, lives in a state of despair that there is no alternative to war, swept up in violence he cannot stop.
One of the most striking images in the film is a field of flowers overshadowed by ugly instruments of destruction, identifying imperialism as a destroyer of peace.
As usual in his films, Miyazaki expresses a fondness for less technological times, reminding the viewer of the importance of being connected to nature. The castle in which much of the film is set is a strange balance of futurism and organic matter; it’s a walking machine, half alive and half built.
Positioned as it is as one of the characters in the film, it’s fair to say that the house represents a blending of nature and tech, representing a healthy harmony rather than a full rejection of either.
The movie also contains a powerful message about feminism and age. A character in the film straddles a line between very old and very young, but even when she presents as elderly, her actions are presented as heroic. It’s seldom, if ever, that you see an old woman allowed to save the day in a movie, but the characters of Howl’s Moving Castle wield skills typically thought of as innocuous (housework, health care) as tools that can change the world.
“I wanted to convey the message that life is worth living, and I don’t think that’s changed,” Miyazaki said of the film, citing it as his favorite of his works. He’s also said that he expected it to be received poorly in America, due to the country’s war-mongering and greed. But in fact it was embraced and nominated for an Oscar; and it became one of the most profitable Japanese films in history, making a quarter billion dollars worldwide.
Sadly, its message seems to have gone largely unheeded in America, with the country still gleefully sowing conflict and pursuing monetary gain over the well-being of others. With the United States pushing ever-closer to destruction, it’s high time for a deeper look at Howl’s Moving Castle.