Home in Howl’s Moving Castle

What Miyazaki has to tell us about our selves, families, and communities

Social contract theory supposes that marriages are formed by voluntary “mutual compact” between the spouses. John Locke reckoned the inherent purpose of these compacts to be procreation; specifically, the establishment of a partnership and an environment for the care and upbringing of children who are expected to result from sexual union.

This account of the family Locke deduces from two premises: (A) that human beings are by nature equal and independent; yet (B) by some failure on nature’s part to follow through on this promise, infants enter the world at an extreme disadvantage in these respects. The family, then, is an accommodation to remedy this inevitable inequity. Presumably, if infants somehow were rendered independent, the family would not have to exist. In fact, Locke supposes that after parents have finished raising their batch of children there is no longer any reason for them to stay together other than convenience. Locke has of course chosen only one out of three reasons the Prayer Book gives for sacramental marriage: procreation. The other two are mutual help and support, and remedy of concupiscence.

Today Locke’s understanding of marriage is halfway lapsed; everyone believes that marriage is a free compact, but for what purpose nobody knows. Only “mutual support” is even vaguely indicated by today’s popular understanding of marriage, and often even that purpose is counter-indicated by the view that the parties to a marriage are already almost entirely self-sufficient persons who seek in marriage only the fulfillment of intangible emotional benefits.

What is really created in marriage, though, is an actual and potential home; an establishment with great significance as human habitat and political institution. It is a place of permanence and change, where children are raised and socialized, elders are honored and cared for, and adults find personal fulfillment and impetus for self-mastery in the duties and joys of structured relationships. In short, it is a place of love.

Art can offer a view of the secret truths of human life which the broad statements of philosophy only grope at. Japanese film animator Hayao Miyazaki achieves this effect especially well. Last year I explored how all of Miyazaki’s work reveals a deeply conservative disposition. Here I am keen to show how Miyazaki situates a surprisingly traditional and full-featured concept of “home” in an unstable context similar to our modern world, in his 2004 film Howl’s Moving Castle.

The film opens on characters who are mostly lonely individuals, out for themselves and only loosely bound to others. Sophie, the heroine, is the most rooted, carrying on her work in the family hat shop out of respect for her late father, and visiting her younger sister in another town on her day off. Two magicians, Howl and the Witch of the Waste, are in conflict over a former romantic affair, and both are on the run from the government. The country is about to go to war with a neighboring kingdom, and soldiers and propagandists roam the streets. Even in a busy commercial town reminiscent of nineteenth-century northern Europe, there seem to be few personal ties. The government tells everyone, especially the wizards, to do their patriotic duty and fight for their “homeland,” but this is propaganda. The war, we later learn, is little more than a pretext for Madame Suliman, the king’s chief sorcerer, to bring the rest of the country’s wizards under her control.

Sophie gets mixed up by accident in the wizards’ quarrel, and the Witch of the Waste curses her with the body of an old woman. Out of place in her former life, she journeys into the Waste to find a way to get rid of her curse. There she encounters Howl’s traveling castle and its animating intelligence, the fire demon Calcifer, who takes her on as a housekeeper.

As “Grandma Sophie” wins the hearts of the young apprentice Markl, Calcifer, and Howl himself, the once filthy and dreary castle becomes neat and clean—a house set in order. Through Sophie’s care and Howl’s awakened generosity, new people are welcomed into the family, including their former enemy the Witch of the Waste (who has lost her powers and become senile), and Heen, Madame Suliman’s asthmatic errand-dog.

As this family of outcasts grows, they inevitably become drawn back to civilization. Howl acquires Sophie's former hat shop and tries to set her up in business as a florist so they can live a “normal life.” But their domestic peace is threatened as the war brings danger of enemy bombs and government spies. Howl fights to protect the home, but he is being destroyed by his own magical curse—a demonic heart-sickness consuming his soul. It ultimately falls to Sophie to redeem Howl, protect the family, and end the war through her faithful love.

In all of his work, Miyazaki is concerned with the problems of social alienation in the modern world. Howl’s Moving Castle suggests a way to overcome alienation by establishing homes in which people who are lonely and lost may find a place to live and truly belong to one another.

While a home is partly a refuge from the outside world, it also has a mission to change and supply what is lacking in modern society. The natural family is one way this takes place. Families bring old and young together through natural affection. Families birth children and prepare them for integration in society. But families and the households they establish benefit more than those persons who are biologically related. They become centers of hospitality and life, with an influence extending beyond their walls. Even a home on the fringe of civilization, like Howl’s castle, ultimately fulfills a mission to society. The family is never totally separate from society—it is that element without which society cannot exist.

Families are part of the essential character of human nature and civilization, and not only because someone has to take care of the children. Naturalistic accounts of the family are true as far as they go, but accounts of family formation concerned only with the “natural” origin of the family leave out the social and spiritual dimensions of family life—the way that healthy families bring life to society from within. The impromptu family that evolves in Howl’s Moving Castle comes into being by accident, not biologically, yet comes to resemble a natural family anyway in essential characteristics: man and woman, old and young, home and hearth, hospitality, even the family dog.

One thing is for sure: If this family is not biological, neither is it formed by a social contract. It comes together quite by accident, but inevitably, because the family is the form into which the power of love always articulates itself to meet the needs of those it embraces.

What do you think of this article?

Write a short response. It'll get sent to our symposium editors and, if approved, added to the symposium. People who read this article will see your response immediately following, and we'll promote your contribution individually to the John Jay Institute's network.


Image above from Flickr user longplay via Flickr Creative Commons license. Image used for identification purposes.