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kottke.org posts about Howl’s Moving Castle

The Importance of Food in Howl’s Moving Castle

posted by Tim Carmody   Dec 14, 2018

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Howl’s Moving Castle by Hayao Miyazaki is one of my favorites if not my very favorite movie. I’ve written about it here before at some length. I use pictures from it as my Twitter background, as my login prompts on both of my computers, and my pinned tweet is a quote about the film and its simple-yet-allegorical applicability to understanding your own life and psyche.

One aspect of HMC I haven’t touched on here, but is essential to understanding the film and its appeal, is the importance of food in the film. Luckily, Sarah Welch-Larson at Bright Wall/Dark Room has you covered.

First, there’s this remarkably concise and comprehensive survey of food in the Miyazaki-verse:

In Studio Ghibli movies, food is a feast for the eyes. Nearly every one of Hayao Miyazaki’s films includes a memorable shot of food, some more extravagant than others. A monk stirring a pot of soup on a cold night in Princess Mononoke. A herring pie, golden and steaming, fresh from the oven, in Kiki’s Delivery Service. Ramen noodles piled with toppings in Ponyo. Piles of roasted meat and dumplings spilling across the counter of an enchanted restaurant in Spirited Away. Even the Miyazaki films that don’t focus so heavily on food still allow their characters a chance to pause and eat. Nausicaä stops for a moment to eat a small bag of nuts as the world falls apart around her. Porco Rosso eats spaghetti bolognese as he hides out from the Italian authorities. Extravagant or simple, quick or languorous, the shots of food in Miyazaki films all tempt the senses.

Then this close reading of food and its themes in Howl:

In Howl’s Moving Castle, food is more than just a necessity. It sustains life, in every sense of the phrase: it helps a body hold skin and sinew together, and acts as an expression of love and care. We get the sense that Howl is a good person from the way he prepares breakfast. He has a sure hand, and a light touch. He might be flighty, but he cares enough to put together a well-cooked breakfast big enough for everyone in the room, including Sophie the interloper.

Food is also an expression of identity. Howl’s cooking is simple and elegant, but feels like a feast. The bacon is thick and crackling, and the eggs are perfect, cooked sunny-side-up with not a single yolk broken. Sophie’s own choices of food are plain and practical, like her, but that doesn’t make them any less valuable than the more extravagant examples of food we see in other Miyazaki films. Her bread and cheese look just as tasty as Howl’s bacon and eggs, and they’re likely just as satisfying. Calcifer, too, needs to eat, despite being a supernatural creature. He stuffs logs into his mouth, one by one, every time he needs to move the castle. When he isn’t active, he’s still perpetually consuming wood, albeit at a slower pace; fire is a hungry creature, and will go out if it is not fed.

Hunger in Howl is twofold: it can be the desire to be sustained, and it can be the desire to possess. This second desire takes the form of gluttony, and it is a destructive force. While he’s out in his wanderings, Howl comes across battles between the two rival countries. He refuses to fight, but he can’t stay away; the war is encroaching. Other wizards who swore loyalty to the king take part in these battles, and on more than one occasion, Howl is chased through the skies by the “hack wizards” who turned themselves into monsters in service of the war. They’re horrible half-lizard, half-dragonfly things, all oily skin and gaping mouths full of sharp teeth, open as if ready to devour. Miyazaki’s war imagery tends toward images of devouring, but the action of eating here is neither life-giving nor sustaining. War is gluttony, a force that needs to mindlessly consume until there is nothing left.

And this remarkable conclusion:

The kitchen is said to be the heart of a home, and Howl’s kitchen was empty until Sophie talked her way in to clean it. Food and love are both life-sustaining forces, but only when held lightly, without thought of possession or ownership. Sophie saves Howl without a thought for her own happiness, and, in return, Howl loves her back of his own free will. Neither takes what the other is not willing to give. Their love is neither greedy nor ravenous, but rather a hunger for food that sustains and leaves the hungry satiated.

I’m convinced: food, and the overlapping and contradictory economies of food, are the keys to this movie! This puts it up with Babette’s Feast as my favorite movies about food, love, and community. Thank you, Sarah, for helping me appreciate this remarkable film in a whole new way.

(Thanks too to @nandelabra for pointing this my way.)

The hidden heart of Howl’s Moving Castle

posted by Tim Carmody   Oct 26, 2017

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1.

Hayao Miyazaki is our Ovid, a fluent, majestic storyteller with a gift for deep connections and sudden transformations. At the end of his career, he’s rightfully acquired a reputation as a curmudgeon, a traditionalist with a dim view of human nature and our technological prostheses. I worry that this obscures the other Miyazaki, the environmentalist pacifist, a perfectionist who nevertheless sought and found miracles in everyday life. In the 1990s and early 2000s, this was the only Miyazaki we knew. We saw him much more dimly then, but I do not know if we see him better now.

My favorite Miyazaki film is 2004’s Howl’s Moving Castle. I would not say it is his best, his most beautiful, or his most perfectly realized. Princess Mononoke is more epic, more careful in its throughlines and narrative choices. The Wind Rises is more personal, more human and moving. Spirited Away is a masterpiece of story, art, and character, every scene and frame indelible. Nausicaa: Valley of the Wind and My Neighbor Totoro will last forever in a way that Howl’s Moving Castle may not.

None of this matters: Howl’s Moving Castle is my Miyazaki film; you may choose your own.

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2.

A number of Miyazaki’s films deal with fractured and unlikely families. It is probably fair to say the residents of Howl’s castle are the unlikeliest.

At the same time, despite their differences in appearance and circumstance, the characters are all so much like each other. It is as if each one stands in for different sides of all the others, like the brothers of The Brothers Karamazov.

Howl, Sophie, Calcifer, Markl, the Witch of the Waste, and Turnip-Head are all, in one way or another, shapeshifters. Some of them by choice, others by curse; the choices become curses, the curses choices. They are all orphans. Before we meet any of them, we learn that they have committed themselves to something that they did not fully understand, which they would undo if they could, but which they are powerless to speak about or tackle on their own. They are all fearless and cowardly, timid and reckless. They understand each other in ways outsiders never could.

In most Miyazaki movies, he resists turning the narrative into a love story. In Howl’s Moving Castle, he resists his own resistance. All of the characters are in love with each other. Instead, they have to learn how to accept love. There are lessons in this.

3.

Here I have to confess that I have never read the Diana Wynne Jones novel on which the movie is based, or any of the others in the World of Howl series.

I have a friend who is an enormous fan of Morrissey and The Smiths, who collects anything and everything associated with the singer, but has refused multiple opportunities to meet him in person. “My relationship with him now, exactly as it is, is perfect,” she says. “It could only change for the worse.” This is how I feel about reading Howl’s Moving Castle.

4.

The story’s plot is about as coherent as the castle itself. It’s a dozen stories bolted together, creaking and wheezing, pieces falling off, until it collapses altogether. Like other Miyazaki films, we’re thrown into a world we don’t understand, and gradually the universe’s rules are revealed.

But the rules somehow never really pay off. Sophie’s curse is never really broken, by Calcifer, the Witch of the Waste, or anyone else. It just unwinds itself. The climactic moment, where Sophie travels into the past to see the first meeting of Howl and Calcifer, offers no attempt at explanation. (Like Dante into the Inferno, Sophie just trudges into a hole in the ground, a mute dog as her silent Virgil.) All the plot lines end simultaneously not really due to any underlying logic but because the movie simply runs out of time.

None of this matters. Like Turnip-Head, I will throw myself in front of this film’s catastrophic collapse to protect its characters, not because I am strong, but because it is my turn.

5.

I asked my friend Margarita Noriega, a digital strategist, social media genius, and Miyazaki fan, to tell me what she finds compelling in Howl:

Howl’s castle, like many of Miyazaki’s objects-come-alive, is powered by a terrific, dazzling magic that contradicts itself. It has an opalite quality, akin to a clear opaqueness. To his enemies, the magic all around Howl is a sinisiter curse in need of purging by the righteous. To his friends, it can heal a broken heart or give flight to the grounded.

What kind of thing can make one person see evil and good? In Howl’s world, like ours, perspective is everything. The indescribable beauty of living and loving is a contradiction to the realities of aging, death, and war. It is magic because it is a power which defies a dark reality.

The most relatable thing about Howl, Sophie, and the other residents of the castle is how they experience emotions so big and so complex that they don’t fully understand them. They don’t understand each other’s motives. They don’t understand their own. But somehow they learn to trust and care for each other anyways. And that care — not power, knowledge, or any other transaction — manages to save them.

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