If you’ve found this, you’ve probably just watched Howl’s Moving Castle and are thinking, “huh?”. Well fret not, friend, for I was also fairly confused the first time I watched what is now one of my favourite films. Here’s a run down of the plot, and perhaps a few things you may have missed that have left you confused.
Part 1: Sophie the Hatter
The movie starts with Sophie creating beautiful hats quietly in her store while looking at Howl’s castle passing. She’s your average girl and doesn’t think much of herself (the scene of her trying her hat & cringing is honestly Me IRL). As the other ladies prepare to leave the store, one of them remarks that Howl once tore a woman’s heart out.
Sophie gets sick of working (same) and leaves to find her sister. As she moves around Town, we see that there is some sort of military celebration happening. She then gets hit on by 2 soldiers when bae appears.
A very extravagant-looking Howl comments that he’s been looking for her (this is very important) and that she’s with him, so back off bitches. He offers to escort her to her destination, and this is where we learn he’s being followed for some reason.
This is where we get the most iconic scene of the movie, no plot relevance but it establishes that Howl is the hottest Ghibli man. Everything about this scene is perfect, please take a moment to respect that.
Sophie finally meets her sister Lettie, the local hottie & we once again see that Sophie has low self esteem. She doesn’t even like making hats and just feels responsible for the shop as the oldest. Lettie informs her that the witch of the waste has also been out & about recently. We then see that the things following Howl came from a person being carried around in a palanquin (!!).
Sophie returns to her shop & a mysterious, oddly terrifying woman appears. She turns out to be quite the bitch so Sophie tells her to get out. She reveals herself as the witch of the waste & we see the figures carrying her palanquin by the door. She curses Sophie & part of the curse is that she can’t reveal that she’s been cursed to anyone. But what’s the curse? SOPHIE’S OLD AF.
The next day, Sophie’s mum comes to visit but Sophie isn’t at the shop. She pretends to be sick & here we really see that mentally, Sophie IS old. She says stuff like “it’s not easy being old” and “my clothes finally suit me”; we don’t condone hate of the chic grandma aesthetic in this household, Sophie. She then heads for the hills to find a way to break the curse. In town, there’s chatter of a war brewing.
While eating she finds a big ass stick which she thinks will make a good walking stick. As she pulls it out of the bush it’s stuck in we see that it’s actually a sentient scarecrow (because why not). Again, we are shown battleships signalling an impending war.
The sentient scarecrow literally brings Sophie Howl’s Moving Castle as thanks when she asks him to find her somewhere to sleep, what a plot-driving king. During this whole process, we see Sophie’s acceptance of her being old.
Also, could we take a moment to appreciate how much work it must have taken to animate this collosal mess Howl calls a castle. Sophie manages to hop on board & settles in next to a small fireplace.
But it’s not just a flame at the fireplace, it’s a sentient flame that can tell Sophie’s under a curse, hmm. He calls himself the fire demon (awfully cute for a demon), Calcifer and offers Sophie a deal: break the spell that traps him in Howl’s castle & he’ll break the curse on her. But to do that, she has to figure out a secret contract Calcifer has with Howl, HMMM.
Part 2: War of Cleanliness
The very next day, we are introduced to Howl’s apprentice, Markl. We also are introduced to a very important plot point: the door is actually a portal to 4 different spaces & the black one’s ‘Howl’s door‘. Authorities knock on the door to inform that Howl (and his various aliases) has to undergo mandatory conscription, orders from the big boss lady.
BREAKFAST SCENE, love it. Howl returns from the black door & cooks breakfast, LOOK AT THOSE EGGS. Anyway, Howl can tell the witch of the waste has left a spell in Sophie’s pocket and it wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume he can tell Sophie’s under a spell as well. The spell says “He who catches a falling star, oh heartless man, your heart will be mine“.
CLEANING SCENE, this scene is so satisfying. Anyways, while transferring Calcifer, we can see he has an oblong butt (core), yes this is important alright. Pay attention to the way it moves when Howl blows on it.
Calcifer says if he dies, Howl dies. We also see that Sophie, who previously had trouble even walking, suddenly has no problem cleaning the whole house after getting riled up. Scarecrow also makes a return at this point and we see that the war has begun, and that Howl isn’t fighting on the same side as the rest of the Wizards. While sleeping, Sophie returns to her original form.
Part 3: Evading the Law
Howl has a complete meltdown when Sophie mixes up his potions and spells, causing his hair to turn orange, ok drama queen. Sophie has an outburst and looks physically younger while crying, but soon realises Howl’s just throwing a tantrum. We see Howl’s obsession with pretty things and that he’s a bit of a hoarder.
As with all meltdowns, there was something else bothering Howl – He’s been trying to evade the Queen (technically the King’s chief wizard, but imma call her queen), who has been chasing him for conscription, and the witch of the waste, whose heart he seems to have broken in the past.
That’s when Howl gets the genius idea of sending Sophie to pretend to be his mum to decline the Queen in participating in the war, like that would make any difference.
She meets a dog along the way, whom she mistakes for being Howl in disguise. The Queen also seems to have summoned the witch of the waste to participate in the war and the two comedically bicker up the stairs.
Sophie is led to the Queen, who is revealed to be Howl’s teacher, while some sort of spell in performed on the witch of the waste. The Queen claims a demon stole Howl’s heart and that she can teach him to break the contract if he works for her. She reveals that she has removed all the witch of the waste’s powers and threatens to do the same for Howl if he doesn’t submit. It seems her care for him came at a price, she wants some investment returns.
But Sophie realises that this would come at the cost of Howl’s freedom and would force him into committing war crimes. While defending Howl, Sophie turns back to her younger self in an honestly magical sequence. Whenever she gets passionate or is full of life, she always seems to turn time backwards.
Howl shows up in the single stupidest disguise ever (as the King) and the Queen immediately sees through him. She begins the process of striping him of his powers but they manage to break free and escape, with Howl’s ring showing her the way to Calcifer.
When howl finally returns home from the fighting, Sophie’s her younger self again. She searches for him in his man cave & she confesses that she wants to break his spell because she loves him, but he remarks that she’s very late.
Part 4: Starlight
Sophie threatens to murder Calcifer but he refuses to reveal what Howl has given him, alright asshole. The next day, they have a bunch of fun eating & cleaning again, god I love this movie. Howl also reveals the scarecrow is under some sort of spell.
Howl rebrands his castle to a much simpler, cleaner look and moves it to evade to queen to the spot where Sophie’s shop is! As the movie progresses we see how Howl changes from a superficial, pretty thing lover to someone who loves more deeply and values substance, cleverly illustrated through the design of the castle & his outfits. He then shows Sophie her present – he takes her to his secret, GORGEOUS garden where he used to spend his childhood running around. As she frolics about she turns young again but when her negative mentality sets in she reverts back to old age.
When a battleship flies past them, Howl decides to mess with it, causing him to suffer from side effects. The two quickly run away and Sophie return home. Then, out of nowhere, Sophie’s mum finds her in their home and leaves a little purse as directed by the Queen (that bitch). The witch of the waste finds a magic slug in it and FEEDS IT TO CALCIFER (psycho lady, she’s the only character I still don’t quite like) reducing his powers and letting the magic through his protection.
As the air raids bombard the town, Howl returns and restores the integrity of the castle and Calcifer. Sophie pleads with him to run away, but Howl refuses as he wants to protect the home they have (melting). In a bid to draw him away from the war and run from the Queen, Sophie removes Calcifer from the castle and it collapses.
Having successfully lost the Queen, Sophie begs Calcifer to move the castle once more, but a weakened Calcifer requires her to give him something of hers in exchange for power. She gives him her hair and Calcifer goes wild. He says, “imagine what I could have done with your heart” and the damn old lady grabs Calcifer realising he has Howl’s heart.
This, along with Sophie splashing water on him weakens Calcifer further and the remaining castle collapses entirely, sending Sophie falling. The ring that Howl gives her then leads her through the black castle door, and she arrives at Howl’s secret garden. She sees shooting stars falling and a young Howl – She’s travelled back to his childhood. Why? – Because that’s the door where Howl’s heart (mind/soul – both figurative and literal) lies. It’s Howl’s door, after all.
We then see the deal made between Howl & Calcifer – he saved a dying star by giving it his heart. The ring breaks and she’s whisked away, but tells the two to wait for her in the future, saying she’ll come back for them.
When she returns, she sees a dishevelled Howl, tired from war and barely keeping it together with his heart being severely weakened. She apologises for making him wait and asks that he take her to Calcifer.
Sophie asks Calcifer if returning Howl’s heart could possibly kill him, but Calcifer realises that they were fine even when Sophie poured water on him and that she could probably be the one to return his heart (perhaps as her ownership of his heart is unconditional 💖). She then says something that sounds a little like a spell that wishes both Howl and Calcifer long lives as she returns his heart.
The contract breaks and as they fall, are saved by the scarecrow for a last time. Sophie kisses him as thanks and that breaks his spell too! He is revealed to be the Prince of the neighbouring country and promises to end the war. Calcifer and Howl are both finally free and they all live happily ever after as one big family.
How fitting that in a movie all about giving and taking hearts, pure selfless love is what sets everyone free.
So what was Sophie’s curse, anyway?
Throughout the movie, we see that her physical appearance changes with her mental state. When she’s full of life, happy or passionate, she reverts to her younger self. But when negativity consumes her, she speaks badly of herself to others or thinks of herself as being unworthy, she appears older. While up to interpretation, I feel that her curse was that her physical appearance reflect her mental state. As the movie progresses, she learns to be kind to herself, as she is to others and not talk down to herself. She too, is worthy of love and happiness. When she finally gains real confidence in herself, remains as her young self from that point forth.
I really love Howl’s Moving Castle, and as with all Ghibli movies, implore you to re-watch this movie if you haven’t. All Ghibli movies, and especially this one get better on re-watches, trust me.