With The Boy and the Heron having released in 2023, anime enthusiasts have had Hayao Miyazaki on the brain again. As a masterclass creator in Japanese animated storytelling, Miyazaki has been at the helm of several beloved films over the course of his long-extended career at Studio Ghibli. Among them, there's Howl's Moving Castle, which was released in Japanese theaters back in 2004. The internationally acclaimed film returns to theaters between Sept. 23 and 27 as part of Ghibli Fest 2023.
Loosely based on the 1986 British novel by Diana Wynne Jones, the film follows a young hatmaker named Sophie who is cursed by an evil witch to become an old lady. In an effort to break the curse inflicted upon her, she encounters an eccentric wizard named Howl and gets caught up in an ongoing war between two kingdoms.
While Sophie's curse affects her in different ways, she soon finds herself reverting back to her normal age during the course of the film. Why does she get younger and older throughout the movie?
Why does Sophie get younger and older in 'Howl's Moving Castle'? The book and film tell different stories.
Through an egregious case of mistaken identity, Sophie is cursed early on in the film by the Witch of the Waste to become a 90-year-old woman. She attempts to seek out magical assistance in order to lift the spell and eventually runs into several magical beings including Howl, his apprentice Markl, and a fire demon named Calcifer. Sophie then strikes a deal with Calcifer in which he'll lift Sophie's curse if she can sever his link with Howl.
Sophie's curse has some unspoken rules, however. For instance, viewers can clearly see that Sophie occasionally reverts back to her normal age only to later become an old woman again and vice-versa.
Interestingly enough, the book and the movie have wildly different reasons for why this shift keeps occurring. In the original book, it is revealed that Sophie is actually a witch. Though Sophie herself wasn't aware of this, she was still subconsciously breaking the Witch of the Waste's spell with her own magic.
Meanwhile, in the film, Sophie's age changes are supposedly linked to her emotional state. Fans on Reddit have posited plausible theories in which Sophie basically becomes "as old as she feels at the time." When she displays more confidence in herself, she becomes young again. Whenever she feels uncertain, she grows old.
This shift is presented more as a double-edged sword, however. In a pointed depiction injected into the film by Miyazaki himself, Sophie feels more able to speak her own mind when she becomes old. Many of her heroic feats are even performed when she's an old woman. As such, the film is often praised to this day for its positive and heroic depiction of old women.
The film itself doesn't necessarily make this distinction with her shifting ages, but this fan theory for Sophie's age in the film actually lines up with similar depictions in other Studio Ghibli movies. In the 2002 Hiroyuki Morita film, The Cat Returns, the main protagonist Haru is cursed to become a cat while trapped in the Cat Kingdom. Her transformation progresses whenever self-doubt settles in her heart and slows as she becomes more confident.
Though Sophie's shifting age is meant to be a curse, it typically acts as a direct metaphor for Sophie's agency and capabilities at any age, even if its meaning does change considerably between the movie and the source material.