My Festive Favourite: Howl's Moving Castle

The Japanese animation reminds Deepa Mann-Kler of a childhood spent travelling from India to England

My age is two score and then a bit more. Having been brought up between India and Leicester for the early part of my childhood and being Indian, Christmas was nothing tangible in our house. For that reason I cannot associate anything culturally specific to the festive period from childhood.

However, speed forward many years and, after having gotten married, given birth to two children and moved into a beautiful home in Killyleagh, Christmas starts to happen on an exponential level. So now, alongside Santa, the tree, presents, Christmas dinner, the madness and the excitement, I experience the festive period as seen through the eyes of two of Northern Ireland’s finest children, who have unwittingly given me a bridge back to my own childhood.

My festive favourite, then, is the feature-length Japanese animation Howl's Moving Castle, written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki and based on Diana Wynne Jones's novel of the same name. It was a rare occasion when we sat down together to watch this film for the first time, and initially I had no idea where the story was coming from nor where it was going - in that sense of discovery lay the thrill.

The central character of the film is Sophie, a shy 18-year old hat maker who meets Howl, a wizard who roams the countryside in his moving castle: a creation that Terry Gilliam would have been proud of. Sophie and Howl's friendship makes the Witch of the Waste jealous, and she in turn curses Sophie, transforming her into a 90-year old woman. The spell prevents Sophie from telling anyone of her predicament.

Setting out to break the spell, Sophie journeys to the fog-covered countryside and befriends a Scarecrow, who helps her gain access to Howl’s castle. Once inside she meets the fire demon Calcifer, who powers the castle and recognises Sophie's curse. With a fierce determination, unlike her younger self, she insists on becoming Howl's housekeeper.

The tale takes place against the backdrop of 19th century Europe, where nations are preparing for war. The King has drafted all wizards, but Howl, who sees the war as futile, refuses to report. Instead he changes into a bird-like creature to interfere with the war effort, and risks madness with each transformation.

The themes that run throughout Howl's Moving Castle celebrate destiny, age, courage and love. Because she is the eldest of three sisters, Sophie believes that her destiny is surely one of obscurity. But, having adjusted to castle life, the older Sophie has more energy and fulfilment than ever before and is able to speak her mind.

This is in contrast to Howl, who sees himself as the master of his own fate, unafraid of what society thinks of him or what conventions demand. Howl, as the charming wizard, is able to see Sophie for who she really is, a loving, caring spirit.

There is also a distinct anti-war message here: Director Miyazaki has spoken of using the film as a statement against the war in Iraq. The characters in the film, be they humans, demons, wizards or witches all display traits of goodness and selfishness, but their struggle is not the usual one of good versus evil. We are challenged to question and accept the characters, despite their faults.

For me Howl's Moving Castle draws parallels between my many childhood homes and constant movement, as my family sought to create a better future. I love this film for its sense of innocence, its magic and message of hope and acceptance. It is the movie that we all snuggle onto the sofa to watch at Christmas time, to journey through together, time and time again. And when I watch it I know I am finally home for keeps.