Studio Ghibli is known for its countless films stuffed deep symbolism, fantastic worlds, and strong female protagonists. To emphasize some standouts: Spirited Away is known as a masterpiece, Nausicaa and Princess Mononoke inspire people to work towards change. Some would argue that Howl’s Moving Castle is considerably low-impact beyond its anti-war message. But I’m here to tell you that way of thinking is wrong.
Howl’s Moving Castle is my favorite work from this renowned studio because there is nothing quite like watching Sophie Hatter accept herself and release her inner bad ass. Sophie’s progression makes Howl’s Moving Castle an incredibly impactful story, turnips and all.
From Sophie’s perspective, the main character of this film is an unremarkable, homely girl working in her late father’s hat shop to support her family. She is not her beautiful and constantly desired sister Lottie who wows everyone she meets, men and women alike. She is not her charismatic mother who travels the world looking for the next big fashion trend. Sophie is not worth the attention or the time; she is just an average person who expects to work in the back room of the hat shop alone until she dies. That is, until she takes a wrong turn on a walk, is saved by a heart-stealing wizard and cursed by a jealous witch.
And Sophie, quiet, unassuming Sophie, takes it like a champ.
She quickly assesses her situation, weighs her options, and decides to leave the shop in order to avoid causing unneeded drama. She leaves the only place she’s ever known and sets out on a quest to pursue a rumored lethal wizard in order to reverse the curse. Sophie’s inner spark is present in every moment of this film. The only person who doesn’t realize her determination and fortitude is Sophie herself.
Sophie’s curse transforms her into an elderly women, but that is not the definite curse. The spell itself takes how she views herself internally and brings it to the outside. Sophie thinks she is nothing more than an unattractive hag with no value; her curse is her soul’s reflection in a mirror. It is only when Sophie begins to see her strengths and passions, finds her inner spark, that she is able to break her own curse and become the person everyone else sees within her.
In the film, when Sophie forgets about her negative qualities or uses her inner strength to defend others, her appearance changes. She begins to turn young again. But, the moment she is reminded of her insecurities and reestablishes her low self-worth, her elderly self reappears. The movie does a great job subtly playing with these moments; slightly changing her appearance and age scene-to-scene to illustrate her mood and mental state. When sticking up for Howl at the castle, Sophie reverts back to her normal self as she fervently defends Howl’s choice to avoid the war. When Howl states his love for her, she immediately transforms into an old woman. How could anyone love her?
Sophie’s transformations throughout the film really connected with me. They viscerally show the thoughts and emotions that myself and many others go through. Thoughts such as I am not worth it, I am unimportant, in the grand scheme of things I don’t matter. But the best blaze burns brightest when situations are at their worst and Sophie still manages to find her inner spark and release herself at her own self-deprecation. If this young hat maker can change her perception and decide to live with the purest essence of herself, why can’t we? Why can’t I? I love this movie because Sophie taught me to try and think beyond my haunting thoughts and live my purest life. There’s only one life to live and old age, as Sophie finds out, is not fun.
Sophie is one of my favorite characters of all time. She inspired my cosplay at last year’s AnimeNYC. Whenever I’m down in the dumps or feeling insignificant, I remember her personal journey to self-acceptance, to breaking her own curse and changing her reflection in the mirror. Howl’s Moving Castle is my favorite Ghibli movie because time and time again, it teaches me that valuable lesson.
Sometimes it takes darkness to be able to see your spark.