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Miyazaki’s Portrayal of Age in “Howl’s Moving Castle” Essay

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How did Miyazaki portray Sophie’s age through the anime “Howl’s Moving Castle? ” What is the message that Miyazaki tries to bring across to the audience with respect to her age? Discuss with relevance to Japanese society. In Hayao Miyazaki’s “Howl’s Moving Castle” (2004), 18-year-old Sophie Hatter was turned into a 90-year-old by the Witch of the Waste, making her leave her home on a journey. She meets Howl, and the adventures begin.

I had observed the film stylistics which I thought was rather interesting, and came up with the above question. It was Sophie’s fluctuating age throughout the film (she is in the body of a 90-year-old most of the time, but sometimes she appears young), which may be a critique of the issues of ageing or associated with ageing in Japan. In this essay I shall discuss the issues of ageing that is represented by messages implied in the anime.

The animated film is based on the novel of the same title by Diana Wynne Jones where he directed the anime based on many of his own ideas of character development and plot which substantially deviates a lot from the novel according to Diana Wynne Jones[i], and according to an interview with him, the film is meant for Japanese audience[ii], even though the setting is very much medieval European-style. Thus, Miyazaki could have an underlying intention or message for the Japanese audience in this anime. Firstly, the director implies that being old does not mean being incapable. Grandma” Sophie was seen as rather energetic for her age. She freed Turnip-head from being stuck in the bushes the first time and in a castle groove the second time with her strength. She is also seen spring cleaning the moving castle’s filthy interior and was able to climb a huge flight of stairs to the castle. Compared to his other films, like Spirited Away (2001) and Princess Mononoke (1997) which used the shojo[iii] as the protagonist; Howl’s Moving Castle used an old-lady transformed from a shojo.

We might ask whether he chose to adapt this particular novel involving an old-lady into an animated film because he wanted to pass on the message to an ageing Japan. Japan is known in the region to have a rapidly ageing population and workforce, and thus I would agree to the director’s message. “The dependency ratio (in Japan) becomes extremely high and its burden seems unbearable for society” and when “facing an ageing society, what is fundamentally important is not to lose the vitality of the economic society; for that end, opportunities have been given to those, regardless of sex and age, who have the ability and will to work. (Kuroda, 1982) Secondly, the message implied by the director, in my opinion, is ambiguous when he played on the age of the protagonist. He could be trying to represent that the psychological state make it transcends the physical constraints of age (It’s all in the mind and heart). He could also be doing so just to please the audience as being old throughout the whole plot would not be visually pleasing or satisfying plot-wise.

Sophie turns young when she has intense feelings, like when she is in Howl’s secret garden admiring its beauty, when she finds that a room in the castle that resembles her own where she left (nostalgia), and when she felt very worried for Howl. Sophie looked younger and younger progressively, and at the ending she apparently resumed her actual age. The director mentioned “What’s wonderful about the story is that the happy ending isn’t that the spell is broken and the girl is young again. It’s that she forgets her age. i ” I agree with the director that the state of mind is more important than just physical well-being or appearance. Ageing countries like Japan need elderly with mentally-fit attitudes that can continue to drive the economy, because they are vital to the economy. Sakai and Asaoka (2007)suggests the importance of elderly in the Japanese workforce: the elderly who have accumulated significant professional skills because of longer working experience…should not only compensate the shortage in labour force, but also increase in labour productivity, which agrees with my assertion.

Thirdly, Miyazaki is challenging the convention that women are less attractive once they grow old. There are scenes when Howl brushes against (old) Sophie’s hand, puts a ring on her finger, holding hands while walking together in the garden. Basically, he did not avoid physical contact with her even though Sophie looked old. This might be shocking to some audience who are used to watch romance movies with couples no older than middle-aged. I find the director’s intention meaningful. In today’s society, there is a social stigma associated with being old.

Brown (1998) argues that signs of old age deny women of employment and their sexuality is no longer defined, but not men and society’s emphasis on youth and beauty has negative implications for women’s changing physical appearance and sexuality. This also applies to Japan. A feature topic of Croissant (a popular Japanese women’s magazine) in 1995 is on how to win in the war against ageing and “… people in their 30s, even more so in their 40s, are less likely to have a sexual image. ” (Holthus, 1998). However, I find his intention paradoxical too.

There were hilarious scenes which indirectly reinforce the fact that old women flirting with younger men still have a social stigma, such as the powerless and very old Witch of the Waste flirting with Howl, and winked at the prince from the next kingdom or when Howl says “You are beautiful” to Sophie only when Sophie looks young. In a nutshell, though Miyazaki’s anime is targeted at Japanese audience, issues of ageing and messages brought across are universal, thus it is relevant to discuss and include other societies as well.