This post comes as answer to this one Howl’s Moving Castle Anime by Kitsune from Kitsune’s Thoughts. My answer would be too long for a comment, so I thought it’d be much better to link an entry of my opinion.
For me, this movie is one of my all-time favourites. From the very start, I loved the soundtrack, it made me smile and it brought me moments of peace (Joe Hisaishi couldn’t produce anything less than a masterpiece after all), the colours of the city and the vast lush landscapes (don’t forget the movie was made in the traditional way, not through computer!) and the characters. Howl might be a little annoying in the beginning but, you know, real people aren’t flawless.
The same applies to Sophie and much more- she isn’t without flaws. The film through her touches the very important theme of old age, which one can hardly ever see on movies and series. The curse isn’t as simple as it seems. It’s not that Sophie was turned into an old hag, but Sophie got turned into the state of her mind, her appearance reflecting her emotions. Have you noticed that she turns young again when she defends Howl or when she worries about him? Generally, when emotions of love make strongly their appearance? Very characteristic is the scene where Howl gifts her with that cottage and for a little while she seems young but when she makes thoughts of him leaving, of her not being attractive and an old woman, she becomes old again.
I also think that she matured at not a raced pace. Even if the time she spent as old woman wasn’t very long, in quality terms I’m sure it was. Just imagine yourself handicapped for a few days. Elder people aren’t handicapped in the sense that a person who has lost his feet is, yet to carry this ‘grunged’ body isn’t an easy task. So I think Sophie’s changed due to love and this experience in the old body and I’d say pretty much. She gained some wisdom that relates to her appreciating herself, life, beauty, serenity, even strength. She might not be a girl that fights for her life or for a higher purpose, but there’s a combat going on inside her, until her body and soul coordinate. And it’s an inner battle of her wishes. In the beginning of the film she seems somehow passive, not deciding things for herself, taking care of the hat shop just because she’s the eldest and it was something her father loved. The curse forces her to change this attitude of hers and make decisions for herself. Her encounters help her open up, show love (Markl is like a child of hers, their bonding has become one of a family’s) and be more dynamic. Plus, her character stands out from the rest of Miyazaki girls because the story is slightly based on a novel.
Howl changes as well. Love makes him rethink his values, gives him courage to stand up for what is precious to him, to decide clearly what he is fighting for and his infatuation with beauty decreases a bit (a simple example is his feelings for Sophie who possesses inner beauty not so much looks). He practically comes out of age, as his heart was eaten by the demon and hence his mental and emotional growth had stopped to that time, to childhood. Yes, once again the coordination of heart, mind and body shows up as something very significant.
Vanity is also represented in the face of the witch who longed for Howl’s heart. Her disgusting appearance in the final part of the film nudges the spectator and warns him/her about the futility of the pursue of beauty and power. Vanity is after all a sin that comes with a quite heavy price.
The war indeed doesn’t make the strong impression someone would expect, but still is condemned as something silly, terrible and dangerous- the magicians-soldiers will lose their soul, if they continue to fight like this (in their transformed form)- something that is actually a fight between the strong, a fight about power, which unfortunately wounds only the people and not the higher classes and the politicians who invoked it (see the magic protective shield around the palace only).
“I think we ought to live happily ever after,” and she thought he meant it. Sophie knew that living happily ever after with Howl would be a good deal more hair-raising than any storybook made it sound, though she was determined to try. “It should be hair-raising,” added Howl.
“And you’ll exploit me,” Sophie said.
“And then you’ll cut up all my suits to teach me.”
Some more links- they are all well-written fanfictions by the same incredible author. The first is a retelling of the movie but from Howl’s perspective this time, explaining and stressing some points that to someone who views the film the first time will pass by and are quite important to understand the time flow of the story. The second and third take us from the end of the movie and leads us to sakura haru’s imaginative world (unfortunately it’s on hiatus some time now…)