Hayao Miyazaki is responsible for creating some of the most beloved characters and locations to have ever graced the silver screen. From the eponymous, cuddly spirit in My Neighbor Totoro to the iconic bathhouse in Spirited Away, Miyazaki’s films are brimming with visually stunning and imaginative creations the likes of which viewers rarely see in other films.
But of all of Miyazaki’s many memorable screen creations, few are quite as well-constructed or wondrous as his rendering of the magical, titular fortress in Howl’s Moving Castle, which inspires awe practically every time it appears on-screen. Fortunately, the magic of Howl’s Moving Castle can be felt in nearly every frame of the film, even when its most astonishing creation is nowhere to be seen.
Based on author Diana Wynne Jones’ 1986 novel of the same name, Howl’s Moving Castle follows a young woman named Sophie who finds herself cursed to live in an old body by a narcissistic witch. Seeking help for her situation, Sophie hops on the traveling castle of a handsome wizard named — you guessed it — Howl, only to find herself trapped in the middle of a conflict between him and the king who demands Howl participate in a conflict with a neighboring kingdom.
Assuming the basic structure of a road movie, Howl’s Moving Castle is one of the most visually breathtaking films Hayao Miyazaki has ever made. As anyone familiar with Miyazaki’s work will know, that’s saying a lot, but in addition to its titular castle, a misshapen building that shakes, groans, and spews smoke with every step its mechanical chicken feet take, the film is full of gorgeous background landscapes and vistas.
As he does in all of his films, Miyazaki takes many moments throughout Howl’s Moving Castle to pause and let the beauty of the natural world wash over its characters. One scene revolves entirely around a character sitting by a lake and watching the sunset, while another sees Howl catch a falling star and hold it in his hands — its light popping and radiating like that of a tiny cosmic firework.
Like every Miyazaki film, Howl’s Moving Castle is also populated by unique and lively characters. Calcifer, a charming and spunky fire demon that resides within Howl’s castle, makes a particularly lasting impression. The same goes for Sophie, whose intelligence and warm heart make her one of Miyazaki’s most well-realized and likable protagonists.
Of course, Miyazaki has more on his mind in Howl’s Moving Castle than just the creation of unforgettable images and characters. Motivated by his outrage over the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Miyazaki sought to make Howl’s Moving Castle one of his most explicitly anti-war films. That same year, he declined to accept his Oscar award for Spirited Away in person, telling the LA Times: “I didn’t want to visit a country that was bombing Iraq.”
In response, he fills Howl’s Moving Castle with moments of sudden, unnecessary destruction. These are only made all the more devastating by the fact that they’re surrounded by so many scenes of undeniable beauty and compassion.
Miyazaki knows that the best way to make a case for both peace and people is to show the world and its inhabitants at their very best. He does just that in Howl’s Moving Castle, which is what makes watching it such a profound and moving experience.
Howl’s Moving Castle is streaming now on HBO Max.