Metaphor and Howl’s Moving Castle


With reference to specific scenes in a film from a particular genre, director or producer, discuss the screen techniques used to progress the narrative.

Use images where appropriate to show what you mean.

Metaphor and Howl’s Moving Castle

In Howl’s Moving Castle metaphor and allegory are used as techniques of story-telling to tell two stories in one, the literal one of a magical fantasy to both hide and reveal another story with a totally different meaning.

This movie is a fantasy anime about a young girl named Sophie who gets turned into a 90 year-old woman by the Witch of the Waste. She takes refuge in a moving castle that is owned by the wizard Howl. Howl leads Sophie through enchanting adventures. While watching it the whole film appeared to reveal itself as a metaphor or allegory for a love story. It was intriguing as to why the male screen writer portrayed the story from the point of view of a woman until further investigation revealed that the movie is based on a book of the same name by a British female author, Diana Wynne Jones, and this seemed to confirm that the movie is a metaphor for a love story from a woman’s point of view.

Howl’s Moving Castle is by director and screen writer Hayao Miyazaki. He is a co-founder of Studio Ghibli. He champions hand-drawn cel animation but more recently uses computer graphics to enhance the traditional art. (Animation Art: from pencil to pixel, the history of cartoon, anime & CGI, 2004  pp 296-7) He has been creating wonderfully hand illustrated animated films of soaring imagination with delightful scenery and characters for more than 20 years. He does everything from scriptwriting to storyboard sketching  to correcting many of the final frames by hand. (Morrison, 2011)

Allegory is a form of extended metaphor, in which objects, persons, and actions in a narrative, are equated with the meanings that lie outside the narrative itself. (Schwartz, 1999)  The underlying meaning is religious, political, social, or moral and characters are often personifications of abstract ideas such as charity, greed, or envy. (Open School BC Educational Resources and Services)

Screen techniques used in this film are metaphor and allegory. Metaphor is a figure of speech which  literally means one thing but is used to suggest something else. (Harold Schiffman, 2003) eg ‘She’s a pillar of the community’… a metaphor because she isn’t really a pillar  or ‘It’s a jungle out there…’  when we are in the city.

Allegory is a story with two meanings, a literal meaning and a symbolic meaning, as a way of suggesting a likeness between the two. In other words the whole literal meaning of the story is a front for something else (Harold Schiffman, 2003) as it seems is the case in Howl’s moving castle.

 In Howl’s Moving Castle many of the things happening on the screen seemed to suggest hidden meanings, at first the literal walking on air- a metaphor we use in everyday speech for feeling extremely happy.  “walk on air- Fig. to be very happy; to be euphoric. Ann was walking on air when she got the job. On the last day of school, all the children are walking on air.”  (McGraw-Hill Dictionary of American Idioms and Phrasal Verbs. © 2002 by The McGraw-Hill Companies)

On researching metaphors used in this film, online and in books, most of what seemed evident in the movie seemed missed by others eg ‘the narrative of Howl’s Moving Castle ‘is’ a critique of the contemporary, international politics surrounding the Iraq War’ (Smith, 2011) even Miyazaki himself said this, ‘the film is profoundly affected by the war in Iraq’  (Blanc, 2009 p127). I think he too might have missed the metaphors in the original story. The war is a major departure from the original story in the book – Richmond. (Richmond, 2009 p61)‪
“There have been many reviews saying that this is not the best of Miyazaki’s work. Sadly, this is true. Howl’s Moving Castle is a bit more perplexing and a lot more mysterious than his other works…. A lot of people complained that this movie wasn’t very deep or didn’t have different metaphors like other Miyazaki movies. ” (Yu, 2005)
 “If you’ve seen any of Miyazaki’s other films (Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke), it’s all the same style of complex characterizations, blurry motives, meandering storylines, and the complete absence of the usual black-white movie moral dichotomy… there are the ever-present themes of pacifism, flight, and personal evolution (Post Punk Cinema Club, 2007) 

Some of the metaphors discovered while watching the film, their meanings and how they progress the story are as follows.

–        ‘It was said Howl, who is very good looking, liked to suck the souls of young girls’…. a metaphor for a player, this sets up the character of Howl.
–        the Witch of the waste is metaophorically Howl’s old girlfriend who seeks his heart again. She has sent blobby spies trying to find Howl, her friends that spy on Sophie.
–        Howl meets Sophie then they walk on air. This visual metaphor shows them first falling in love and the way that feels.-        the witch visits Sophie and belittles her and her place. The old girlfriend confronts her and ridicules her.

–        Sophie turns into an old woman as the witch curses her, she feels  very ugly and worthless after the criticism because her self-image was low to start with. These visual metaphors show the character of the witch and the damage she does to Sophie.

–        Sophie roams the cold barren wastes. Here the metaphor shows how lost she feels and sets the scene for the arrival of Howl’s castle.

–        The castle is actually Howl, it has different faces and lots of baggage which makes it heavy, it moves around to keep hidden, metaphors for a man who presents different faces to the world and keeps his true self hidden because of past hurt.

–        the fire that runs the castle, Calcifer, is his heart.

–        Markl is a small boy who lives in the castle, his inner child. These visual metaphorical characters describe the different parts of Howl’s character.

–        Sophie is in Howl’s castle/life and gains control of his heart, Calcifer, like no-one else ever could before because he loves her. She befriends all the inhabitants, the whole of his being.

–        the ring that Howl gave her draws her to the castle, a wedding ring and their marriage binds them together.
–        Sophie makes it all clean and ordered where it was messy and dirty before, his life is better for having her in it
–        Through the movie the witch gets older, and Sophie gets younger. These metaphors add to the magical fantasy and also show what their characters are really like.

–        Howl rearranges thecastle, his life, with new rooms and a place for Sophie, they moved into a new home.

–        The old witch works out that the fire holds his heart and snatches it and holds it in her hands, burning her, it is too hot to handle. Sophie throws water on them and the castle splits in two and falls apart leaving Sophie all alone in the bottom of the ravine. The other side has the witch holding Howl’s heart. Their life together falls apart when the old girlfriend and Howl have an affair, leaving Shophie depressed and alone. This metaphor progresses the story by showing the effects of the witch’s bad character again and the effect on the happy home life. This is the climax of the film

–        Sophie gets the heart back and pushes it into his chest where it belongs, she forgives him and it transforms him

–        at the end the castle is  better than ever now and they happily get back together. These metaphors are the happy ever after ending to the magical story and the marriage.

‘Spirited Away’ and ‘My Neighbour Totoro’ are 2 more allegorical films by the same director.

In 2001, the Oscar-winning Spirited Away, told the story of a 10-year-old girl’s quest to save her parents from a spell that turned them into pigs after they greedily ate the food of the spirits (Morrison, 2011) The movie is an allegory against materialism and pollution- the male lead, Haku, is really a dragon that represents a river that was blocked up and lost.  In the Bath house Sen manages  to clean a very large ‘stink spirit’ which turns out to be the spirit of another polluted river.  Miyazaki himself says

‪        ” The main theme of this film is to describe, in the form of fantasy, some of the things in this world which have become vague, and the indistinct world which tends towards erosion and ruin.” (Miyazaki, 2002 p15)

“My Neighour Totoro”, it has been said, is about the death of children,  they no longer cast shadows  after it really was May’s sandal that was found in the water and big sister Satsuki searches frantically for her ( this really happened in the 60s, 2 sisters were murdered in the place where it is set). Totoro is the messenger of death and they are whisked around in the catbus on the way to the land of the dead, they can see their mother and father in the hospital but they can’t see them. At the hospital, the mother says “I think I feel May and Satsuki smiling there in that tree…” they just leave the corn there instead of visiting in person. It is said that the sisters were dead at that point, the Japanese pronunciation of “corn” is similar to “kill child”. (whaleking, 2007)

The screen techniques of allegory and metaphor are used in Miyazaki’s films, and in particular Howl’s Moving Castle, as a technique for progressing the story, in this case, of a 90 year old girl cursed by an evil witch and taking
refuge in a magical walking castle owned by a handsome wizard. The metaphor hides but also describes the story of an ordinary relationship for those who can read between the lines (another metaphor). It is a very successful technique used in many movies to educate, influence or tell another story from real life.


Animation Art: from pencil to pixel, the history of cartoon, anime & CGI. (2004). Rowville: Five Mile Press.

Blanc, C. O. (2009). Studio Ghibli: the Films of Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata. Harpenden: Kamera Books.

Dick, B. F. (2005). Anatomy of Film. Boston: Bedford/ St Martins.

Harold Schiffman, I. P. (2003, July 13). Handout for Language and Popular culture. Retrieved April 13, 2012, from School of Arts and Sciences- University of Pennsylvania: <;

Miyazaki. (2002). the Art of Miyazaki’s Spirited Away. San Francisco: Viz Communications.McGraw-Hill Dictionary of American Idioms and Phrasal Verbs. © 2002 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, I. (n.d.). Retrieved June 13, 2012, from the Free Dictionary by Farlex: <;

Morrison, T. (2011, June 23). 60 years of Asian Heroes: Hayao Miyazaki. Retrieved June 2012, 13, from Time Asia: <;

My Neighboor Totoro: Tears Come To Mind. (2009, Spetmeber 3). Retrieved June 13, 2012, from Smash Boards: <;

Open School BC. (n.d.). Glossary of terms. Retrieved June 13, 2012, from Educational Resources and Services: <;

Post Punk Cinema Club. (2007, April 19). Howl’s Moving Castle (2004). (blogspot, Editor) Retrieved April 12, 2012, from the Post Punk Cinema Club: <;

Richmond, S. (2009). The Rough Guide to Anime: Japan’s finest from Ghibli to Gankutsuo. London: Rogh Guides Ltd.

Schwartz, D. D. (1999). Introduction to Medieval Allegory. Retrieved April 13, 2012, from English Department, California Polytechnic State University: <;

Smith, L. (2011, Spring). the Projector Film and Media Journal: Wars, Wizards and Words Transformative Adaptation and Transformed Meanings in Howl’s Moving Castle. Retrieved April 12, 2012, from BGSU, Bowling Green State University, Department of Theatre and Film : <;

whaleking. (2007, October 28). My Neighbor Totoro (1988) . Retrieved June 13, 2012, from IMDb: Internet Movie Database: <;

Yu, E. (2005, June 26). Howl’s Moving Castle Review and Analysis. (Blogspot ) Retrieved April 12, 2012, from Manganese: <;

4 thoughts on “Metaphor and Howl’s Moving Castle

  1. Andrew says:

    Greatly appreciate this. Watched this film in my dorm with a bunch of guys last night. We all fell in love with Sophie and agree we need to find one in life, haha. This essay makes me appreciate the film even more!

  2. Jeanine says:

    Thank you so much for the easy explanation. I really appreciated it, because while watching the film, I understood that there’s a deep meaning in the different settings but can’t completely figure it out. Thanks to you I was able to have a wider view and felt the story.

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