Taoism, Shintoism, and the Ethics of Technology: An Ecocritical Review of ‘Howl’s Moving Castle’

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Co-written with Dr Garrath T. Wilson. Resilience: A Journal of the Environmental Humanities, Vol 2, No.3 (Fall 2015). You can continue to read the pre print copy of the article here: Loughborough University Institutional Repository

Building on the continuing tropes that director Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli often reflect upon in the cores of their feature films, in Howl’s Moving Castle, the themes of war, industrialisation, and metamorphosis compete, contrast, and comment upon notions of peace, nature and self-understanding.

In Howl’s Moving Castle, Miyazaki is interested in exploring harmony through Taoism, especially through the notion of yin-yang, whereby oppositional forces are complementary, interrelated, and a part of nature. Howl is the central conduit through which many of these expressions can be found. The wizard Howl, dressed in white, is an adult with ‘the heart of a child’ who becomes increasingly infantile in his behaviour as a counterpoint to his fear that in joining an ‘adult’ conflict, he may lose his own humanity and permanently become a hideous, black crow-like creature of war, whose magical abilities will become co-opted into a great industrial war-machine that serves little purpose other than nihilistic destruction, eventually turning against nature itself. Man versus man; man versus nature (as magic); industry versus nature (as magic); and so on, are all encapsulated within Howl’s conflicted being as he fights soldiers, wizards and flying machines. Yet, at no point does the film suggest that Howl should follow a redemption path to a hidden better-self which one might expect from a Western narrative of metamorphism such as Disney’s Beauty and the Beast (1991). Instead, Howl’s existence contains both yin and yang. Much like the pernicious threats facing No-Face in Spirited Away (2001) and Nago, the Boar God of Princess Mononoke (1997), Howl is a reflection of an environment that has been manipulated by mankind. With the help of young protege Markl, Howl already benevolently helps his various neighbours with his magic powers, so the use of spell craft is never suggested to be inherently malevolent or corrupting. The implication is that the harmony within Howl’s being depends upon an interconnected natural balance rather than denial, suppression and exclusion.

Sandwiched between Miyazaki’s Spirited Away and Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea (2008) – films which focus on the maturation of the child as they adjust to the Shinto/spiritual nature of the environment in which they live – Howl’s Moving Castle also presents the viewer with Sophie Hatter. Sophie is an 18 year old girl who’s coming-of age story is ironically epitomised by a magical curse turning her into a 90 year old ‘shriveled’ lady. In contrast to Howl’s development, Sophie constantly reiterates that she does not find herself ‘pretty’, but it is only once she, like Howl, is capable of attuning herself to her environment – not as an altruistic hat maker or cleaning lady who distances herself to a safe vantage point from which to help others – but as a self-confident woman, that the spell is lifted.

Meanwhile, other characters in Howl’s Moving Castle are pursuing their own aggressively self-serving agendas, whether it be the Witch of the Waste’s ‘greedy’ capturing of Howl’s heart, or Madam Suliman’s manipulation of the war effort and disempowerment of rival wizards. Both of these characters have attained their place through an abuse of the equilibrium, but they know nothing about interpersonal relationships and are desperate to manipulate and control the environment in which they exist. The Witch is revealed to have put an anti-aging metamorphic spell upon herself, eventually becoming a lump of lipid goo – a transformative reflection of her true selfish state; and Suliman, who has legions of cloned servants comparative to the Witch’s golem footmen, appears to reside within a self-contained greenhouse in contrast to the less controllable but more spectacular utopian environment that Howl helps to guide, shape, and share with Sophie, because ‘he just wants to be free’…


The full 2,100 word version of this journal article is published in Resilience: A Journal of the Environmental Humanities, Vol 2, No.3 (Fall 2015). You can continue to read the pre print copy of the article here: Loughborough University Institutional Repository

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