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Howl's Moving Castle

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Howl's Moving Castle (ハウルの動く城, Hauru no Ugoku Shiro) is a 2004 Japanese animated fantasy film written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki of Studio Ghibli and based on the novel of the same name by Diana Wynne Jones. Mamoru Hosoda, director of one episode and two movies from the Digimon series, was originally selected to direct but abruptly left the project, leaving the then-retired Miyazaki to take up the director's role.

The film had its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival on September 5, 2004 and was released in Japanese theaters on November 20, 2004. It went on to gross $231.7 million worldwide,[1] making it one of the most financially successful Japanese films in history. The film was subsequently dubbed into English by Pixar's Peter Docter and distributed in North America by Walt Disney Pictures. It received a limited release in the United States and Canada beginning June 10, 2005 and was released nationwide in Australia on September 22 and in the UK the following September. The film was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature at the 78th Academy Awards in 2006.

Wynne Jones's novel allows Miyazaki to combine a plucky young woman and a mother figure into a single character in the heroine, Sophie. She starts out as an 18-year-old hat maker, but then a witch's curse transforms her into a 90-year-old gray haired woman. Sophie is horrified by the change at first. Nevertheless she learns to embrace it as a liberation from anxiety, fear and self-consciousness. The change might be a blessed chance for adventure.[2]


Sophie, a hatter, is a responsible-yet-plain 18-year-old girl who runs her late father's hat shop. When on her way to the bakery to visit her sister, Lettie, she encounters by chance the mysterious (and handsome) wizard Howl, who takes a liking to her. This arouses the ire of the Witch of the Waste, who has been seeking Howl's heart for herself. Later that night, she comes to the hat shop and curses Sophie, transforming her into an old woman. As the curse prevents her from telling anyone of her condition, Sophie decides to run away and seek out a cure. Along the way, she befriends a sentient scarecrow which she names "Turnip Head", who eventually leads her to Howl's castle.

Once inside, Sophie meets the fire demon Calcifer, who powers the castle and recognizes that Sophie has been cursed. Calcifer offers to break the curse in exchange for Sophie's help in breaking the spell between him and Howl, which keeps Calcifer bound to the house. The next morning, Markl, Howl’s young apprentice, comes downstairs and begins to create potions and spells for Howl’s patrons. He is perplexed by Sophie’s presence, but does not try to throw her out. Throughout the course of the story, he comes to love her like an older sister. When Howl appears, Sophie announces that she is the castle's new cleaning lady, hired by Calcifer because he was sick of how dirty the castle was. As she adjusts to life in the castle, she discovers that the front door is a magic portal leading to several places.

Currently, the country Sophie is in is caught up in the beginning of a war with its neighbor following the mysterious disappearance of the other realm's Crown Prince Justin, and slowly the war begins to creep into Sophie's country itself. Howl receives summons from the King, who orders his various assumed identities to fight in the war. However, Howl fears Madame Suliman, the royal court's magician and his former mentor, and comes up with an idea to send Sophie, with the protection of a magic ring and Howl himself in disguise, as his mother to announce what a coward he is and that he would "be of no use". At the palace, Sophie runs into Suliman’s asthmatic dog, Heen, who she originally thinks is Howl undercover. She also meets the Witch of the Waste, who had previously been expelled from the court many years ago and now seeks to regain the royal house's patronage; instead, Wizard Suliman punishes the Witch by draining all of her power, causing her to regress into a harmless old woman, with little memories of her past actions, only remembering her obsession with Howl. Suliman tells Sophie that Howl will meet the same fate if he does not contribute to the war. As Sophie vehemently protests these measures, the Witch's spell temporarily weakens due to the love in her words. Suliman realizes Sophie's true relation to Howl and her feelings towards him and allowing the witch one small victory over Howl: she knows of someone he cares about. Howl then arrives to rescue Sophie, dressed up as the King, but his cover is blown when the real King enters. Suliman tries to entrap Howl, but with Sophie's help, they manage to escape, with the now-senile Witch and Heen tagging along. The magic ring Howl gave Sophie guides her to Calcifer, but Suliman begins tracking her to get to Howl.

Sophie learns that Howl transforms into a bird-like creature to interfere in the war, but each transformation makes it more difficult for him to return to human form. Howl shows his appreciation for her by transforming the castle interior so that it can lead to Sophie's old home as well as Howl's childhood residence, which he gives to Sophie as a gift. During their walk together, Sophie changes back and forth between her old and young selves until she temporarily stops at her young self, albeit with silver hair. Sophie fears that Howl is preparing to leave them, as his remaining time as a human is limited. A bomber ship flies over Howl's home and he causes it to malfunction. However, he is then forced to leave Sophie back in the castle while he returns to interfering in the war. Soon after, Sophie's mother visits the house and somehow recognizes Sophie, despite her old appearance. They then have a happy reunion. However, Sophie's mother is actually under Suliman's threats and leaves behind a bag containing a "peeping bug" under her orders. The former Witch of the Waste discovers it and promptly destroys the bug by tossing it into Calcifer. Unfortunately, Calcifer gets sick after eating the bug, rendering him unable to protect the castle from being discovered when Markl opens the windows to air out the Witch's cigar smoke.

A few hours later, the city is carpet-bombed by enemy aircraft while Suliman's henchmen invade the hat shop. After arriving in the nick of time and protecting the hat shop from the bombing, Howl draws the guards away, while Sophie and Calcifer bring the castle to the west. Sophie pulls Calcifer out of the castle to destroy the magic and cut off all ties to the city, so that Howl would not be continually forced to defend them (During this time, Sophie has continuously stayed young). They replace Calcifer in the castle's remains and create a smaller version of the moving machine so they can rescue Howl. Unfortunately, the Witch discovers Howl's heart in Calcifer's flames (after Calcifer explains that he needs a part of someone for assistance in powerful magic) and grabs it. To save her from burning, Sophie douses her and Calcifer with water. With Calcifer extinguished, what is left of the castle breaks apart and Sophie and Heen are thrown over a cliff and separated from Markl and the Witch, with the now barely-glowing Calcifer still in her hands.

Sophie recovers in tears, believing that she has killed both Calcifer and Howl, as their lives are interconnected. As she is sobbing, Howl's ring points to the remains of Howl's castle door; she walks through it, with Heen reluctantly following and finds herself in Howl's past, where she sees Calcifer being caught by a young Howl as a falling star. Howl and Calcifer make a contract with each other; Howl swallows Calcifer, who then emerges from his chest with Howl's heart as well. Sophie is pulled back into present time, but before leaving, she yells to Howl and Calcifer that she knows how to help them and they should find and wait for her in the future. They watch in surprise as she is swallowed up by the ground, with a little dog following her. Lost in time and space and falling to the earth, Sophie is guided back to the present by Heen, who keeps urging her to hurry, before the passageway collapses.

Back in the present, Sophie finds Howl, having now lost his human consciousness in bird form, and realizes that he has been waiting for her all along. When they return to the others, Sophie pleads with the Witch to give back Howl's heart, which she puts back in his chest after Calcifer agrees to it. Although Howl has not yet regained consciousness, Calcifer returns to his original form and flies away. With Calcifer gone completely, the remains of the castle, with everyone still atop, slides down the cliffs, and Turnip Head is forced to almost sacrifice himself to stop the fall. As a result of his brave actions, Sophie gives him a kiss, transforming him back into the missing Prince Justin, who had been cursed by a witch until he could receive a kiss from his true love.

By now, Sophie has fully transformed back to her youthful self (with the exception of her silver hair) and Howl recovers, immediately feeling the new burden of his restored heart, though glad to see Sophie again and comments on her "starlight" hair. Though he has come to love Sophie as well, Prince Justin realizes that her love is for Howl and leaves to put an end to the war, as does Suliman, who spies on the group using Heen. Calcifer returns, realizing that he could not bear to leave his friends (that, and "it looks like it's going to rain."). Howl, Sophie, and the others are later seen aboard a new, flying castle powered by Calcifer of his own free will, high above the bomber planes now returning home from the end of the war. The film ends with Markl and Heen playing on a grassy area of the castle, overlooked by Calcifer, with the former Witch of the Waste watching from a chair like a kindly grandmother, while Howl and Sophie share a kiss on a balcony at the head of the flying castle.

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  1. "All-Time Worldwide Box office". Internet Movie Database. Retrieved May 8, 2008. 
  2. Howl's Moving Castle (2004) NYTimes Critics' A. O. Scott
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