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The Heart of a Home

Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)

Howl's Moving Castle | art by Tony Stella
illustration by Tony Stella

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.

The best example of Miyazaki food—its presentation, its uses, and the way it drives the story—is Howl’s Moving Castle. Howl is not as flashy about its food as Miyazaki’s other movies. But food, and the very concept of eating, is vital to the story; it’s woven into the fabric of the tale in a way that other Miyazaki films don’t always consider. Food is ever-present, invading the story in the edge of the frame or through half-heard dialogue. It pushes the story forward, even when we aren’t conscious of it.

Howl’s Moving Castle is a story set on the margins. Two kingdoms—it doesn’t matter which, although they look vaguely European—are about to go to war. All the wizards in the land have been summoned to the king’s palace to help. The wizard Howl won’t go. He’s afraid of fighting, thinks the war is stupid, and has more important things to worry about right now—including avoiding the clutches of his biggest rival, the Witch of the Waste. The story doesn’t center around the war though, nor does it care much about court intrigue. Even Howl’s drama with the other wizards is incidental to the plot. Instead, the movie focuses on a small, plain young woman from a small, plain town on the edge of the Wastes, where Howl’s moving castle wanders through the mists.

The first time we meet the protagonist, Sophie, she’s sewing berries onto a hat. The other girls at the hat shop are all knocking off work, and want her to join them, but she’d rather stay and finish. Suddenly the other girls spot Howl’s moving castle walking across the ridge outside town. The girls tease each other, saying that Howl will come to town, that he’ll eat their hearts, but “don’t worry, he only preys on pretty girls!” Sophie listens in, but doesn’t add to the conversation. This is a world full of magic, but she doesn’t seem to be interested in it, or even in her own work; the hat shop is a duty borne of obligation to her late father, and Sophie doesn’t seem to have much drive to shape a life of her own.

At least, until she’s cursed. Shortly after we first meet Sophie, she’s turned into an old woman by the Witch of the Waste. The spell, which is retribution for standing up to the Witch, turns Sophie into an old woman and renders her unable to tell anyone that she’s even been cursed, or who did it to her. Unwilling to continue working at the hat shop in her state, Sophie runs away from home, packing a bundle of bread and cheese to take with her into the Wastes. She takes shelter in the moving castle as it passes by, bluffing her way into Howl’s good graces by insisting that she’s been hired as his cleaning lady.

Howl’s castle desperately needs the cleaning. When Sophie first arrives, the kitchen is overrun with cobwebs. Dirty dishes pile up in the sink; dust invades the room from every corner. Ashes cover the entire hearth, where Howl’s servant, a fire-demon named Calcifer, lives. The sideboard is piled high with food: bread, slabs of bacon, and a massive wheel of soft yellow cheese. But even here there are signs of neglect. The onions are sprouting, and the potatoes are wizened and covered in green eyes. Howl’s apprentice, Markl, tells Sophie that he can’t remember the last time they ate a real breakfast. She grunts, takes the bacon and a pan, and makes for the fire.

Over Markl’s protestations—Calcifer won’t listen to anyone but Howl, he says—Sophie bullies the fire demon into cooking breakfast. The fire demon isn’t happy about it either. “I don’t cook! I’m a scary and powerful fire demon!” he insists, but he acquiesces once Sophie pushes the frying pan on top of him. Sophie’s presence grounds the rest of the people in the castle. She’s practical—a good counterweight to Howl, who disappears for days at a time, avoiding any responsibility if he can help it. At one point, Markl tells Sophie that Howl hardly ever eats.

But Howl himself is a good cook when he sets his mind to it. He takes over the frying pan from Sophie, adding slabs of fatty bacon and cracking eggs one-handed. He feeds Calcifer the shells, and the demon chews them with gusto as breakfast crackles in the pan on his back.

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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.

War is not the only thing that desires to consume in Howl. The Witch of the Waste, who was dumped by Howl before the story began, hates him but can’t get enough of him. Her curse on Sophie is not only revenge for Sophie’s backbone, but also an attempt to get back at Howl, who’d bumped into Sophie earlier the same day. The Witch is jealous because Howl has a reputation for being a lady-killer. She knows that he doesn’t love her back, but she wants his heart anyway. Her need is gluttonous, but not in a literal sense; her desire is a destructive, ravenous force. She wants to have Howl for her own, and even if she can’t have his love, she wants to keep him for herself, away from any other partner, romantic or otherwise. The Witch has had a bite, and won’t rest until she can consume the remainder.

Unfortunately for the Witch, Howl can’t provide what she desires, and wouldn’t be able to even if he wanted. Sophie slips into Howl’s childhood through an enchanted door. There, she sees the boy leaving his magical studies to follow a shower of falling stars. The stars are spirits crashing to earth, running along and then flaming out, dying, because there’s nowhere else for them to go. He catches one, talks to it. Sophie’s too far away to hear what the two say, but she can see Howl’s actions clearly. Howl cradles the star in his hands, then holds it up to his mouth, his eyes closed, the attitude of a connoisseur trying a new dish. He swallows, then doubles over, as though he’s going to be sick. Instead of vomiting, he draws a fiery mass out of his chest. It’s Calcifer. Howl gave the dying star a second life as a fire demon through the act of eating, and in turn, Calcifer took his heart. Howl’s gift sustains Calcifer, binding the two together. Howl’s magical talent increased, but in return he was rendered unable to truly love anyone.

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Howl, Calcifer, and the Witch are all locked in an unsustainable, codependent relationship, each one using or being consumed by another. The situation is untenable, a curse. Fortunately for the trio, Sophie comes along, and, in shattering the dynamic that curses them, breaks her own curse as well. She’d been indifferent in her old life; practical and spare, but not truly alive. She’s eaten up by self-pity. Her curse makes her realize that she cares, that she wants to live a life of her own, not to while away the long days in the hat shop. When she’s unconscious of herself, asleep or cleaning or taken up by the beauty of the Wastes around her, she loses her old woman’s shape.

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.