Like many of Miyazaki Hayao’s films, Howl’s Moving Castle has a multi-dimensional female lead. Sophie, however, is unusual for a Ghibli protagonist. While most are young women, she is an aged hero: a young woman turned old by a witch who was jealous of her beauty and youth. While this might be a curse, and while Sophie despairs at first, across the story she gains strength, freedom, and wisdom from her time spent in a “cursed” body–all of which is then used to challenge classic definitions of beauty.
When the movie begins, Sophie is timid and demure and full of self-doubt. Even when Sophie is rescued by Howl, the magician, she denies this, telling her friends that Howl only seeks out beautiful girls. Sophie doesn’t consider herself to be beautiful, and it informs her self-worth.
In dominant social narratives, beauty represents youth, and young and beautiful is the most important thing for a woman to be. Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth explains that youth and beauty are so interconnected that older women are cast aside and seen as worthless, such that they are rarely even seen in media. Wolf also explains that the beauty myth keeps women self-focused and self-doubting. Wolf explains that the media “ignore older women or pretend they don’t exist: magazines try to avoid photographs of older women, and when they feature celebrities who are over sixty, ‘retouching artists’ conspire to ‘help’ beautiful women look more beautiful; i.e., less their age.” (p83)
This dismissal of older women is found even in anime, where infamous “Christmas cake” jokes devalue the worth of any woman who dares to be unmarried and over 25, an idiom which is thankfully being phased out. Even if she is under a curse, Sophie is still unique as she is not only aging but visibly elderly for much of the movie.
The Witch of the Waste, seeking out Howl’s heart and jealous of Sophie, casts a curse that turns her into an old woman. As Sophie can no longer be conventionally beautiful, the witch believes she has eliminated all competition–labeling Sophie as such even though she has shown no intention of pursuing Howl at the time. The beauty myth naturally pits old and young against one another, breaking the bond between women of different generations: “The links between generations of women must always be newly broken: Older women fear young ones, young women fear old, and the beauty myth truncates for all the female life span.”
Afraid of her age, the witch tries to cast spells to make herself more desirable. Like many women, she strives for a youthful appearance and draws on potions and rituals to maintain her youth. Wolf explains that women are never able to escape these rituals. Aged women are not free to put the rites of beauty behind them, even when society tells them they are unwanted.
Cursing Sophie with old age is the ultimate defeat through the eyes of the witch, because the beauty myth does not show age as desirable. Like many women, Sophie is upset and frightened by her age. She initially tries to hide it, concealing herself from her mother. Her mother, in turn, shares traditional beliefs about beauty by pointing out that Sophie sounds like a “ghastly” 90-year-old woman. Sophie, distressed by her appearance, runs away and hides in the wastes. As Anushka Rees notes in Beyond Beautiful, hiding is a very common choice for women who believe they do not meet conventional standards of beauty.
While hiding in the wastes, Sophie finds a haven in Howl’s castle. Still uncomfortable with her aged appearance, she once jokes that she is the scariest witch of them all, which aligns with Wolf’s observation that older women are often seen as dismissable old hags. Though Sophie initially believes that her only value is as a housekeeper, she finds that her strong feelings are providing her with vitality. Once timid, Sophie becomes aware of her strengths. She also becomes aware of her contentment. She begins to appreciate her age, declaring that it sets her free. The more alive and self-accepting Sophie feels, the more beautiful she becomes. It is by accepting her age, wisdom and deep feelings that she can project herself into the world—and, though she does not notice it at first, begin to break the curse itself.
While Sophie begins a path of self-growth, Howl shows that the harmful impact of beauty myths are not only limited to women. Howl colours his hair badly after Sophie has cleaned and rearranged the bathroom and dramatically wails that “there’s no point in living if [he] can’t be beautiful”—echoing Wolf’s discussion about a lack of beauty being the worst thing that can happen to a person. For a moment, both Howl and Sophie are overcome with grief. Sophie declares that she has never been beautiful and runs into the rain to cry. Even in his despair, it is simple for Howl to magically fix his hair in a moment; Sophie, however, is still trapped under several additional layers of social stigma.
Howl reveals that his obsession with beauty hides deeper fears, as he is being pressured to use his magic to intervene in the ongoing war. Sophie, no longer burdened with expectations of prettiness, finds herself able to engage with political life for the first time as she goes to the palace in Howl’s place. On her way there, she meets the Witch of the Waste and asks her to break the spell upon her. The witch reveals that she cannot. Her powers stripped from her at the palace, she is revealed to be a harmless old woman.
Sophie is juxtaposed against the witch, who once used spells to create beauty, but is old and frail. However, she, too, ultimately regains her vitality. Initially selfish and vain, pursuing a man who did not want her, she ends up showing her own growth by helping Sophie. As the movie comes to an end, the witch and Sophie are no longer rivals. Sophie takes care of the witch in her elderly state, and the witch both metaphorically and literally relents her supposed claim on Howl’s heart.
When Sophie tells the witch that she has “a big heart,” our younger and older women are united as both leave the beauty myth behind. While the beauty myth is designed to artificially pit generations of women against each other, acceptance of the wisdom of age does the very opposite. As Sophie and the witch grow together, each is able to offer value to the other. Sophie and the witch grow more vital and alive once the false “competition” over Howl is left behind.
As Sophie reveals her inner strength and passion, her youth begins to return to her. Sophie reveals that passion, self-acceptance and wisdom are the true roots of beauty. No longer timid, Sophie doesn’t need potions to break the spell of age. Instead, she stands in her strength and power. This enables her to free herself, Howl and her friends from sorcery. As Howl has his heart returned to him, he comments on Sophie’s grey hair, telling her it has all the beauty of the stars—a poetic compliment that rejects grey hair’s usual association with old age and thus ugliness. Even more importantly, Sophie’s response is that she too likes her new hair; ending the story with her self-love equally important to that of her romantic partner.
Howl’s Moving Castle shows the strength of a female protagonist who is willing to embrace her age, and whose age sets her free from convention and lets her explore her wisdom and her deep feelings. Sophie’s true transformation is her reliance on inner strength to survive the curse of not being beautiful. In doing so, she not only shows true beauty but restores the hearts of others.
While chasing after youth, vitality and appearance seem to promise love, Howl’s Moving Castle shows a different truth. In this narrative, self-acceptance, wisdom and growth are powerful. Sophie’s strength is juxtaposed against the fragility of the Beauty Myth, which causes jealousy, insecurity and the need for women to compete.
By presenting a complex female lead with a beauty that is more than skin deep, Howl’s Moving Castle shows that beauty does not die with age. Instead, it increases with wisdom. In this way, the movie challenges ageism as well as the limited roles women can play in a hero’s story. Howl’s Moving Castle shows that true love defies age and that true strength comes when we no longer run from the aging process.