Howl's Moving Castle is one of the best Studio Ghibli films, on par with Spirited Away. Like Spirited Away, there is plenty to witness and analyze in Howl's Moving Castle, most of which necessitates rewatches.
Most fans consider the first-time watch of Howl's Moving Castle to be rather odd, considering the various twists and turns the story takes. Some have attested to needing multiple rewatches just to get everything the story is trying to say. There are a few plot points and twists like Suliman's true allegiances, the time loop story, and the true nature of Sophie's curse, which only makes sense upon a second viewing.
Note: This article contains spoilers for Howl's Moving Castle. Furthermore, it reflects the author's opinions.
10 things that will make sense only after a rewatch of
Howl's Moving Castle
1) Sophie Hatter's arc is one of self-esteem and confidence
When Sophie starts out in Howl's Moving Castle, she is a messy hat maker. She is even called a mouse by the soldiers who harass her. When she is initially cursed, the the culprit seems to be the Witch of the Wastes, even though she denies it. The curse turns Sophie into an elderly woman, with all the physical problems to match.
Gradually, it is revealed that the curse weakens when she gets strong enough to stand for herself. Sophie Hatter gets enough energy to clean the castle in Howl's Moving Castle, and makes it up the stairs to the King's palace while carrying Heen. This is also foreshadowed during the confrontation with Madame Suliman as Sophie reverts to her younger self.
As the curse weakens throughout the film, Sophie's true self is revealed. She grows out of her belief that she isn't beautiful or important by helping others. It is the ultimate expression of loving yourself that gets her to finally break the curse.
2) Metaphors abound
As with many Studio Ghibli films, there is symbolism and metaphor packed into the DNA of Howl's Moving Castle. The titular Castle represents Howl: he is a highly powerful and disorganized mess with tons of baggage. The doors all lead to physical locations, such as the red door being Sophie’s after Howl starts falling for her. The black gateway is off-limits, for good reason.
The black gateway is a portal into Howl's psyche and unconsciousness, which Sophie accesses to save him towards the end. The metaphor for Howl’s love being rekindled is seen in Sophie winning over Markl and Calcifer, who can be interpreted as Howl's literal innocent soul and heart.
There are others, like how Sophie and Howl walk on air in the beginning. Then there is Sophie having to reconcile Howl's heart with himself by going back in time. The anti-war messaging of the movie, despite having a WWI-era aesthetic, was inspired by Miyazaki's critique of the Iraq War.
3) Anti-War messaging
Like most Miyazaki films, Howl's Moving Castle is about as anti-war as it gets. While the war is the background of the title, plenty of imagery is there to suggest how horrible it truly is. While the tank and soldier marching parade is initially a normal patriotic display, the truth of the matter is later displayed prominently.
The ugly cost of war is shown in many ways throughout the movie, such as the soldiers who harass Sophie in the beginning. It is portrayed in the mindless black ink-like minions that pursue Sophie and Howl, and the armed men that do likewise.
It is seen in a cracked and broken ship that barely sails into port in the first quarter of the movie. It is also shown when Sophie's hometown gets destroyed in an air raid, with fires, broken houses, and people screaming as they flee.
4) Suliman's servants
The King bursts in on Suliman's meeting with Sophie and declares Howl to be her best double yet during the middle of Howl's Moving Castle. This is already odd enough, though expected, since leaders of nations are usually targeted in wartime. What is even odder are the servant boys she has around her.
Namely, they look nearly identical to a younger Howl but with different hair. This implies more than a few things, including that Suliman may still have lingering feelings for her former pupil. That, and/or she keeps them as a nostalgic reminder of what once was.
As part of a Q&A, film producer Toshio Suzuki revealed that Miyazaki made a short prequel film regarding Howl's backstory called The Day I Bought a Star. Long story short, both the Witch of the Wastes and Madame Suiman lay claim to Howl's heart. Howl eventually rejects them both, and so the Witch of the Wastes pursues him and Madame Suiman keeps her servants with his appearance.
5)The story is effectively a time loop
One of Howl's first words to Sophie in Howl's Moving Castle was that he has been looking for her everywhere. This stands to reason that he either knows her somehow, or upon first viewing thought she was pretty. The film does explicitly mention that he goes after pretty faces, after all, and is rumored to steal hearts.
Well, as it turns out, it is not just a random line to save Sophie from being harassed. At the climax of the film, Sophie ventures into the forbidden dark door to save Howl's life. In turn, she sees Howl as a young man and how he comes to acquire Calcifer. Howl rescues Calcifer as a falling star and consumes him, giving his heart so Calcifer can live on.
Sophie witnesses this as a call back to Suliman's visions from the halfway point of the movie with the dancing falling stars. Sophie calls out to Howl to find her in the future. This effectively makes this love story a time travel story that ends well, with Howl and Calcifer both living.
6) The state of Howl's moving castle
With the large jumble of items that make up Howl's Moving Castle, you would think that Howl would maintain proper upkeep now and again. Unfortunately, that is wrong. Howl is away most of the time, either chasing girls or just in business, and is usually dead tired after using his bird form.
When Sophie first shows up, the castle is utterly filthy. There are massive webs with spiders on them, and dust and bugs cover the floor. It resembles the cave of a beast more than a great wizard until Sophie began cleaning the place up.
It also explains his room being overloaded with trinkets. Some birds are known for gathering trinkets to build nests and the like, particularly owls. While it is unknown what type of bird Howl turns into, the assortment of trinkets attest to the fact.
7) Turniphead's twist
The scarecrow with a turnip for a head following Sophie around Howl's Moving Castle turns out to be the prince of the enemy nation. At the start, the nation is gearing up for war and the prince of the enemy nation is said to have gone missing.
It turns out that the prince only needs True Love's Kiss to get him back to his proper form. The only thing is that Sophie was enamored by Howl. While the missing prince does acknowledge that, he also runs off to stop the war between the two nations. It certainly explains why the scarecrow follows Sophie around and is being excessively nice to her.
Judging by the dialogue, it seems that the Witch of the Wastes cursed him. The only remaining question is why. Fans have tossed around theories ranging from sparking war to him spurning her affections.
8) Calcifer's true nature
After Sophie goes on a cleaning spree in the first quarter of Howl's Moving Castle, Howl restarts Calcifer's fire after it is nearly extinguished. When Howl picks him up, Calcifer is depicted as a smoldering beating heart. This foreshadows Howl and Calcifer's true connection.
Calcifer is not only the heart of the Castle, but as mentioned above, he is Howl's literal heart. Calcifer takes Howl's heart when they meet during his childhood, which explains quite a lot. It explains how Howl truly fell in love with Sophie, since Calcifer is his heart and warmed up to her.
Falling stars are depicted as demons who die when they fall to Earth. It is quite disturbing, though, as Calcifer himself is quite charming once he gets close to someone. It does make some of the scenes where he nearly gets extinguished hard to watch.
9) The bait and switch
The Witch of the Wastes is a rather large woman with a beautiful face, cloaked in darkness. This is typical villain attire and behavior. Despite being the villain for the first quarter of Howl's Moving Castle, she is pitied by Sophie following her horrifying depower at the hands of Madame Suliman.
Contrasting the Witch of the Wastes, Madame Suliman is the Head Sorceress of the king. She is the head mage and powerful sorcerer. Her demands are simple: fall in line to aid with the war or be forcibly conscripted, if not killed. Her otherwise calm demeanor does not suggest that anything wrong until the Wastes Witch is brought before her.
Then again, attentive audiences can see that coming a mile away since, the waiting area only has one seat. That, and Heen helping Sophie into a secret room. Suliman is also a very smooth talker, whose temper never rises even when Sophie talks back to her. This makes her a very effective villain.
10) Beauty, Vanity, and Age
Piggybacking off of Sophie's entire arc in Howl's Moving Castle, the themes of beauty and vanity echo throughout. Sophie thinks of herself as a boring-looking woman, though she has plenty of suitors. She also gains confidence when she ages, as with age comes wisdom.
Of course, no discussion of vanity and beauty will be complete without Howl. Not only does he believe he has to be beautiful and summon dark spirits when his hair is red, but he is always in flamboyant outfits. He is outwardly happy but never truly so until the end.
Other than Sophie's curse, there is the Witch of the Waste being much uglier after her depowering but genuinely nice afterward. Then there is Suliman, someone who is calm and piercing, and looks like she ages well for a villain. It goes to show that judging by the cover never works well.
Poll : Planning a rewatch of Howl's Moving Castle?
Yes! That and other Ghibli films!
Once was enough.