Practical Witchcraft and Style in Howl’s Moving Castle (2004) and Earwig and the Witch (2020)

Howl’s Moving Castle installs a delicate balance between practicality and magic. The film initially presents these themes in opposition by comparing Sophie’s behaviour with Howl’s. Sophie is level-headed and practical while Howl, although more fun and magical, initially seems like a self-obsessed toddler, often throwing chaotic tantrums. However, the film eventually suggests that practicality and magic match perfectly, as Sophie learns to fight for herself as well as those around her, whatever the stakes, and Howl discovers that he is not the only person in the universe (shocking). The film is never strictly linear with this message, as it bounces around before settling on this reading, essentially balancing these terms before uniting them. That is because Sophie ages back and forth rather than aging one time and then becoming young again. The film is a complex commentary rather than a one directional morality tale, as Sophie and the other characters are developing, sometimes growing as a person, other times succumbing to fear and anxiety. There are certainly morals in the film, but they are nuanced and have time to develop, moving back and forth instead of linear, which makes each character’s progress and transformation far more engaging.

“The Nice thing about being old is you’ve got nothing much to lose”

The closest comparison, narrative wise, to Howl’s Castle is Beauty and the Beast, although Howl somewhat reverses characters and curses. Sophie is cursed with old age, much like the Beast’s curse which changes his physicality and causes people to treat him differently, and it is possible to read the film through the true love trope that appears in this fairy tale. However, Howl’s Castle is infinitely more engaging because of Sophie’s unique characterization, not to mention its lack of Stockholm syndrome. Sophie is arguably the most level-headed cartoon protagonist I’ve ever seen. She is dealt with this terrible curse, but still does something with her life and has no patience for people who aren’t willing to work. The only time she complains about her curse is when she is trying to be more practical, like climbing a mountain or doing housework. She is only upset then because she feels old and tired, it has nothing to do with her physical appearance. Compare that to the frequent rages the Beast falls into, suggesting that these characters both suffer because of somewhat similar curses, but handle those curses in radically different fashions.

Sophie has a complicated relationship with her appearance, and aging simplifies it. She often dismisses herself in a rather off-hand way, as though she is resigned to being plain and ignored. For instance, when she is talking to her sister, Lettie, Sophie mentions that she would be perfectly safe with Howl because he only eats the hearts of beautiful girls. Her sister doesn’t disagree with her, and they quickly drop the subject once Sophie promises to be more careful. Sophie’s explanation, that she is too plain to be in danger, is quite telling. She isn’t complaining that she is plain, instead, she suggests that being plain is like wearing armor. It is an invisibility cloak, a mask that let’s you get work done.

During this scene with her sister, the two are constantly interrupted by flirty men who are obsessed with Lettie. Unlike Sophie, Lettie is surrounded by men and cannot get any work done or have a conversation without being pestered. It’s a different work environment than what Sophie deals with in her all-female hat shop, where she works in a discrete back room. Sophie appears to like her job, although she ends up giving most of her time and life to other people instead of herself. That doesn’t really change during the film, but she learns to let people help occasionally, rather than doing everything herself.

While searching for her sister, Sophie is stopped by two soldiers who flirt with her and then threaten to assault her. Seeing as it’s a kid’s movie, the film doesn’t spend much time with this moment, but the implication is certainly there. One guards states, “she’s even prettier when she is afraid” as he leans in, which is absolutely horrifying. If Sophie had not been rescued by Howl, its hard to say what would have happened to her. Sophie’s experience is never mentioned again, but it is the catalyst behind her curse. If she had not been in danger, she may not have met Howl, and the Witch of the Waste would not have seen or cursed her. Perhaps. I want to emphasize that none of this is Sophie’s fault, and I don’t want to suggest that this abusive moment motivates her actions. I think it is more that Sophie recognizes the way people treat her when she is young, and how dangerous and inconvenient it is. Being cursed with old age is equally inconvenient, but at least people treat her in a more respectful way.

It’s noteworthy that when Sophie describes what happened to her sister, she doesn’t mention the two guards. Or at least, Lettie doesn’t mention it afterwards, perhaps because she is more concerned by Howl’s rescue than the cause of his rescue. She seems more upset that Howl pretended to be Sophie’s boyfriend so she could escape, as though the guard’s behaviour was perfectly normal, and that Sophie should have known better than to take a short cut through an alley. I find it interesting that after this moment, Sophie refuses to take any thematic or metaphoric short cuts, as though she is afraid that something similar will happen. She is always willing to do the work and even clean up other people’s messes. She is also highly suspicious of people who take the easy route, like when Howl suggests that she pretend to be his mother in front of Madame Suliman. Sophie goes along with it, but never believes that it is going to work. This perspective contrasts with the Witch of the Waste, who is powerful but has become too reliant and lazy because of that power. When she and Sophie arrive at the palace, both struggle to walk up the massive staircase without magic, but Sophie still finds the energy to walk back, pick up a dog, and then continue up holding the dog.

Sophie’s practicality makes her the most sensible and empathetic character in the film. The film goes on to suggest that being practical is a type of magic and power, and that Sophie is as strong as any other magical figure. Both Howl and the Witch of the Waste are utterly self-obsessed because of their magic, Howl is even missing his heart. Sophie saves each of them in her own way, largely by calming them down and reminding them that their self-pity puts everyone in danger. Her practicality in these situations not only stops a dangerous event, but it also puts her in control of these figures. She cures them of their inner demons, literally in Howl’s case, through the powers of empathy and rationality.

“I’m the worst kind of witch ever: the kind that cleans”

This brings me to Sophie’s curse, which is largely up for debate. Those who have not read the book might argue that Sophie’s curse is broken by true love, which is standard in fairy tale curse stories. I have not read the book either, but from what I understand, it suggests that Sophie is in control of the curse and can break it anytime she likes. I enjoy this idea as it implies that after Sophie transforms, she realizes that being old is the only way people will leave her alone. She often talks about how much easier it is to be an old woman, as people treat you with respect and they don’t try to sexualize you. For example, as Sophie runs away from home, she meets several people who seem genuinely concerned and try to assist her. One gentleman offers to help her down some stairs, which she refuses because she might be old, but she is not weak. Another man let’s her travel on the back of his cart, and he and his wife are quite upset as she wanders into the wastelands. Each of these cases strongly contrasts Sophie’s earlier interaction with the two guards, which is arguably the reason she stays old most of the time.

Grandma Sophie can get work done because people largely leave her alone and their concerns are genuine, not some performance which is ultimately about Sophie’s attractiveness. Let’s compare this to the Beast in Beauty and the Beast, as like Sophie, he is cursed to look different. While the Beast isolates himself and drags all his employees into a world of depression and self-hatred, Sophie just sort of shrugs and gets on with things. She never wants to be a burden, she would much rather earn her place, and being old lets her do this. No one is interested in a little old lady, so being invisible is easier than being seen. Sophie operates in the shadow of that dismissal, which was never something she could do as a young person. The book takes this further and suggests that Sophie wants to be old, and because she has some magical power, she maintains the curse. Sophie could easily have broken the curse; we even see that her age fluctuates based on her emotional state. When she is distracted by other people, or she feels fulfilled by her chores or actions, she becomes younger. This explains why the Witch of the West refuses to help Sophie, as she isn’t heartless, just amused that her curse is still around.  

No one notices Sophie’s changing state except for Howl, who arguably always sees her as the same person, regardless of her age. It is never specified exactly, but it is certainly implied that Howl immediately recognizes Grandma Sophie when he returns home. This would ultimately suggest that Sophie isn’t cursed, she is just uncomfortable with herself and her position in the world. It is actually rather refreshing, as Sophie isn’t a victim in need of some magical cure, she can cure herself whenever she wants to. We see her personal growth mapped out throughout the film based on her age, and that is incredible. The very fact that her age fluctuates suggests that her growth is a complicated and non-linear journey towards self-worth. Howl and the rest of the family can support her along the way, but Sophie is in control.

“Here’s Another Curse for You- May All your bacon burn”

Although Sophie is arguably the most sensible of Studio Ghibli’s female protagonists, she embodies the ongoing morals of these other films. Most Hayao Miyazaki movies praise hard working individuals who speak their mind but are also willing to put others above themselves. The very style of these movies is indicative of that sensibility. Miyazaki is often praised for his attention to detail and his focus on small moments. Many filmmakers skip seemingly unimportant moments and jump to the next important event. By comparison, Miyazaki films prolong themselves, they give just as much detail to something small and they make into something significant. For instance, in my other favourite Miyazaki film, Spirited Away, there is a scene where Chihiro travels down the bathhouse to meet Haku. Rather than cutting from her in the boiler room to the gardens, we see Chihiro putting on her shoes, even tapping them to make sure her foot is in the right place. And then we see her journey, every footstep she takes and the things she sees. These moments don’t necessarily move the plot along, but it gives viewers a strong sense of where Chihiro is and the kind of environment she finds herself in. Not everything is a huge and dangerous event, sometimes its just putting on a pair of shoes. Each of these moments tell you something about the character, which is one of the reason Studio Ghibli films are renowned for dynamic characters. We see how they behave in big events, but more importantly, in the very way they position themselves in a frame, doing something like eating or sitting.

Howl’s Castle follows this model as we see the attention Sophie puts into cleaning and cooking. These things don’t simply appear, work goes into them. And that is work in two senses. We see the effort Sophie puts into things, but we also see the work the animators put into the story and characters. It is why Miyazaki worlds feel so authentic, as they look different than our own, and they have their own rules and magic, but they are still practical and there is a visible process and layout to the world.

Each of these seemingly small moments builds character in more ways than one. It builds the character for the viewer, as we see how they interact in this world, but it also builds character for the character, as it forces them to slow down and consider their environment and the people in it rather than taking it for granted. Howl’s Moving Castle is my favourite demonstration of this sensibility, as the film’s style is an extension of Howl and Sophie’s characterization. It is a beautiful film, filled with fantastic and magical displays, but it is also interested in less fantastic and more practical things. That is essentially Howl and Sophie, and so the film’s style is related to its characters’ perspectives.

“Anyone who choose me would be pretty unusual”
– An Earwig and the Witch tangent

I recently came across some reviews for Studio Ghibli’s newest film – Earwig and the Witch. I have not seen the film, but I have read multiple reviews, seen a few clips, and saw a summary of it. Based on this, I will admit that I am deeply frustrated with the film’s reception. For context, Earwig is directed by Miyazaki’s son, is based on the unfinished work of author Diana Wynne Jones (who also wrote Howl’s Moving Castle), and is the studio’s first CGI project. The film received bad reviews even before it was released, based solely on peoples’ unjustified anger at Studio Ghibli for simply working with a different animation style in ONE film. I have even seen artists try to ‘fix’ the animation to match other Miyazaki works, which is entirely dismissive. I am not suggesting that the criticism of the film is not justified, just that I am sick of seeing the exact same review for it in my YouTube suggestion bar. I have a sneaking suspension that this film was never going to do well just based on this group’s opinion of what the Studio does and what it shouldn’t do. I find this perspective so disappointing, as it puts Studio Ghibli into a specific category without realizing that its form is always tied to it’s subject.

The protagonist in Howl’s Moving Castle refuses to take short cuts and is an extremely meticulous person who pays attention to every detail. She watches the tiny things that others might dismiss, like an upside-down scarecrow or a little feather on a hat. The film’s style is thus indicative of her meticulous persona. The same goes for Spirited Away, as we get these big otherworldly beings that take up the entire screen and move in uncertain ways, sometimes blocking out the environment or almost swallowing Chihiro. That is how Chihiro experiences this world, and we see through her startled and young eyes. I am confused why people haven’t realized the same thing about Earwig. The protagonist, Earwig or Erica, is a reckless and selfish person, in complete opposition to figures like Sophie. She manipulates people and environments and sort of drifts through them, using them for her own needs and then abandoning them. Is she a sympathetic protagonist? No, not yet at least. But the film never tries to make her one, and so she is quite different than any of their other protagonists. She is essentially the worst aspects of Chihiro and Kiki, the whiny parts of them. Yet, like any Studio Ghibli film, we see through her perspective, and therefore, animation style is symptomatic of her quick and determined attitude. It’s not as detailed as other Studio Ghibli works because Earwig doesn’t care about what is in the room, nor does she see the same way as earlier Miyazaki protagonists. The style is likewise loud and new, just like Earwig.

I could go further with this analysis once I have seen the film, but for now, I will say that its abrupt ending is again connected to this style and character. Earwig is a child, and she hasn’t finished her moral journey to becoming a better person. There is a specific reason for why the film refuses a clear resolution; Earwig isn’t done. She will continue to change outside the confines of the film. The film isn’t celebrating Earwig’s manipulative personality, rather, it is a demonstration of what not to do. It is a moral tale, much like any fairy tale with a spoiled protagonist. There is also some speculation that Earwig isn’t human, and that she embodies the band featured in the film, which is also named Earwig. This might explain her rebellious behaviour, as she is the literal personification of rock and roll.

When her mother arrives at the end of the film, it suggests that things are about to change, and Earwig will have to change alongside them. It implies that some resolution is about to happen, and that Earwig will change somehow, but she is unwilling to see that in the time being. She is so single minded that the possibility of her mother finding her is totally out of the question and that is why the film ends on such a strange note. The Earwig we have seen so far cannot comprehend what is about to happen, and the film cuts off before she can find out, as though it is making a clear distinction between the Earwig we know and the one she might become. I am not agreeing with this ending, as I can understand why it would be so frustrating, but I do appreciate how bizarre it is. It feels unique, and it highlights that the original source text was also unfinished, a sort of tribute to the author. I appreciate the film’s refusal to oversteps the original work. Perhaps they will make a sequel, although, it would be the first sequel in Studio Ghibli history. Or perhaps the reappearance of Earwig’s mother, the missing band member, suggests that the band will get back together, and that their music will develop alongside Earwig’s moral development.

“One Thing You Can Always Count on is that Hearts Change”

If Howl’s Moving Castle is in communication with these other Studio Ghibli works, you can see each film as a member of this collection or as an independent story. Either perspective is valid, but keep in mind, people will constantly compare the quality of these works. Perhaps, as Sophie suggested, it is easier to be dismissed than to draw too much attention to yourself based on the reputation of others. Sophie’s struggles mirror Earwig’s reception, so hopefully Earwig will gain the same independence and comfort that Sophie does, and eventually be criticized in a more detailed way and for things other than it’s CGI style, which I confess, I enjoy. I do not understand why Studio Ghibli must be the same thing in every film. Why can’t it experiment with other kinds of protagonists? Other kinds of art? Why must it repeat the same style, is it not allowed to age and try other things occasionally? Sophie was allowed to age and change, why can’t her makers?

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