Case Study: Howl (Howls moving Castle)

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Yes please!

If you haven’t seen any of the Studio Ghibli films Hayao Miyazaki stop reading this and go watch them now. I don’t care if Anime isn’t your thing, these films are masterpieces of storytelling and visuals that will send your spirit soaring. Start with Howls Moving Castle (because not only is it the one we’re discussing today, it’s also my favourite) and make sure not to miss My Neighbour Totoro, Spirited Away, and Princess Mononoke.

There are spoilers ahead, so I’ll wait.

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Unlike many of the names on my list of possible candidates for BPD in popular culture, Howl is not a villain. In fact, he is the romantic lead. He is introduced as a mysterious wizard wandering the waste and occasionally feasting on the hearts of pretty girls. Something Sophie is unconcerned with, since she believes herself to be too plain to be a target for predatory men.

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They both look pretty comfortable with each other ❤

When we meet Howl he is flirty, charming, and considerate. His brief encounter with Sophie is enough to set his ex, the dangerous Witch of the Waste (W.O.T.W.) to take revenge on her by cursing her with the appearance of a 90 year old woman, and Sophie sets out to the waste to find a way to break the curse.

Then we meet the castle, a turnip-headed scarecrow, and the enslaved fire demon Calcifer.

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Have Castle, will travel

The Castle is a clear reflection of Howl and the state of his life. It is, in Sophie’s words, “a dump”. It’s littered with pages and books, dirty dishes, cobwebs, spell casting paraphenalia, etc., It is a dusty, dark, disorganized mess. We see the changes in Howls character correspond to the changes in his environment. As with most complex characters, things are not what they seem, and with support from his friends and family, he is able to grow and heal.

Now is a good time to review the criteria for a BPD diagnosis, and see how Howl measures up:

CriteriaHowl
1. Emotional instabilityConfirmed
2. Angry outburstsConfirmed
3. Feelings of emptinessConfirmed
4. Self-damaging behavioursConfirmed
5. Suicidal ideation/self-harmConfirmed
6. Unstable sense of self (splitting)Confirmed
7. Dissociation/paranoiaUnconfirmed
8. Fear of abandonmentUnconfirmed
9. Unstable relationships (splitting)Confirmed
Remember, we only need 5 confirmed criteria for a diagnosis
  1. Emotional Instability
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Breakfast with a side of hot magic

Right from the start it is clear the Howls emotions are all over the place. Even his reputation is vague and uncertain. He often jumps from a slow and darkened demeanor, to excitable and joyous, then to irritable and abrupt.

An example of this is when he meets ‘Grandma Sophie’ and we see his tired melancholy shift into friendliness and hospitality as he makes breakfast for everyone. Then, after reading the scorch marks from the W.O.T.W. he switches again to annoyance and suddenly leaves without finishing his meal.

2. Angry Outbursts

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What a pretty colour!

There are a few examples of this but one that I find unceasingly entertaining is Howls tantrum when his hair colour is ruined. He tumbles screaming downstairs in nothing but a towel and accuses Sophie of sabotaging him by organizing his potions in the bathroom. He goes on to demonstrate the most dramatic sulk I’ve ever seen, which he is supported through by the people who care about him.

3. Feelings of emptiness

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As mentioned above, the state of the castle is a direct reflection of Howl’s state of mind. The Castle is enormous when looking at it from the outside, but we don’t see much space being used inside. It’s a mish-mash of half-made up bits of architecture all piled up in layer after layer. When the soldiers break into Howls’ alias’ homes they find the building empty; the front door being only a mask Howl uses to hide himself from the world.

There is also the question of his empty heart, or complete lack of heart. The other girls describe him tearing out a girls heart, Lettie warns Sophie that Howl might have eaten her heart if given the chance. Madame Suliman warns Sophie that Howls power is too dangerous for someone without a heart.

Howl is constantly trying to fill the emptiness he feels where his heart should be, by adding new rooms to his castle, filling his room with toys and trinkets, and then running away when things get too complicated.

4. Self-damaging behaviour

For proof of this we return to the scene of Howls hair colour tantrum. He sinks low and begins calling the spirits of darkness. His skin oozes green while dark moaning shadows surround him. Markel tells Sophie he’s seen Howl do this once before “when a girl dumped him”, proving this is not unusual for Howl to willingly invite pain and suffering into his home (and his mind) when he feels defeated.

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Don’t look down!

More proof can be found in Howl’s extra-curricular activities, namely, flying out into warzones in his bird form to check out the action. He is attacked, he attacks, he jumps into action without much consideration of consequences. Perhaps he purposefully puts himself in dangerous situations that don’t involve emotions, because that kind of thrill is easier to face than the work of maintaining healthy relationships.

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Wheeeee!

5. Suicidal Ideation

“I give up. I see no point in living if I can’t be beautiful.” This is what Howl says out loud when his hair changes colour. I know this can be passed off as a throw-away bit of passive suicidal ideation, but I count it.

Passive Suicidal Ideation is kind of like an irritant in the mind; it sits there, poking you with existential angst, willing you to indulge it, even a little bit, until you can’t ignore it. Then, it’s a slippery slope from passive ideation, to planning, to taking action. I take this very seriously. When someone passes a suicidal statement as “a cry for attention”, my response will always be, yes! It is a cry for attention because attention must be paid! If someone is in enough pain that they feel like the only way to find relief is by ending their life then that pain must be addressed, no matter how flippant it might seem to anyone else.

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There is another moment that sets off red flags that Howl is suicidal: Howl adds more space to the castle, giving them a shop and a courtyard, a new bathroom, new clothes for Sophie, and a secret garden on the portal. Sophie is dazzled by the gorgeous landscape, but soon recognizes the signs of a person giving gifts as a way of saying goodbye. She calls him out on this, but they’re interrupted before it can be addressed.

Sophie’s recognition of Howls willingness to sacrifice himself motivates her to do what has to be done to save them both. Howl’s shift to courage and self-sacrifice are heroic, but unnecessary. Its her love for Howl, and her uncompromising courage that saves them all.

6. Unstable sense of self (splitting)

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Tah-Dah!

As we start to get to know Howl we learn that he has at least two other alias’, which he uses to keep himself hidden from the world. In Porthaven he goes by ‘The Great Wizard Jenkins’ making money by selling little spells to the townspeople. In Kingbury he goes by the name “Pendragon’, while his actual home, the castle in the Wastes, he is known by his real name, but there is so much mystery and fear about him he is inaccessible there. He splits himself again when he abandons the Pendragon and Jenkins portals and opens a new one in Sophie’s hometown.

7. Dissociation/Paranoia

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This one is unconfirmed. There is some sense of paranoia when Howl feels threatened by the W.O.T.W., but those concerns are probably justified, since she exhibits signs of stalking him. He allows her to live with them in the end anyway so its not a big deal.

8. Fear of Abandonment

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Now, march away!

This one is difficult as well since I find it’s not so much the fear of abandonment, as it is a fear of commitment for Howl. He runs away, he acts cowardly, he hides, changes his name, avoids conflict, etc. Perhaps he is trying to avoid abandonment by being the first to leave in a relationship.

9. Unstable relationships

At the beginning of the film Howls relationships are all complicated and distant. The only mention of related family is a wizard uncle who gives him a place where he can study alone. Calcifer is treated more like a slave than a friend (we learn later why) and besides Markel, whose presence is not explained in the film (my guess is he’s an apprentice to Howl) the only other relationships he’s had are several unhappy ex-girlfriends, a stalker, and his former master Madame Suliman.

He is often alone, often solitary, and keeps his distance from everyone until Sophie comes into his life with her friendship, courage, and love to save him from his curse and free herself from her own.

Conclusion

There are so many themes and layers to this film that I would love to dive into, the world-building and visuals are stunningly epic, the characters are complex and charming. There are messages of love and friendship, family, sacrifice, and finding small joys in everyday things.

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Howl’s alternate form; the dark bird/monster that he transforms into when he becomes aggressive, and the difficulty he finds trying to return to human form. The way the people in his home respond to his bird/monster form – not with fear and repulsion, but with the instinct to help and support him.

Seriously it’s an incredible film, but what I’d like to highlight here is the way Howl is treated and cared for by the other characters.

Howl exhibits 7 of the 9 criteria for BPD, but unlike Anakin Skywalker, Howl is loved and accepted for who he is and in the end he is able to build a solid and happy life.

He is celebrated as a talented student, and a powerful wizard. He is witty, kind, generous, affectionate, creative… all gifts he possesses not in spite of his BPD, but arguably, because of it. This analogy gives me hope that BPD is not a death sentence, that a good and fulfilling life can still be lived with BPD.

We don’t always have to be the villains in our own stories, sometimes, we are the romantic leads. Sometimes, we are the heroes.

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