War and Ritual, Breakfast as a Community Builder
by Andrew Thornburg
The wondrous, magical world of Howl’s Moving Castle, populated with wizards and witches, follows the character of Sophie as she navigates a curse bestowed on her amidst a war. Her mundane life running a hat shop suddenly becomes fantastical as she finds herself jinxed. In hopes of lifting the curse, Sophie seeks out Howl, a powerful wizard holding influence in several kingdoms, ultimately finding herself swept up in a senseless war with nation leaders expecting Howl to support each of their sides.
With war as a central theme of the film, fragmented families and the need to come together as a community becomes a necessity for the characters of the film particularly among the violence and horror that war brings. While the war is responsible for displacing, breaking apart, and destroying entire families on account of the whims of nation leaders, something as simple as a breakfast meal with those you love becomes rare and coveted. Throughout the film, breakfast serves as a ritual for the characters to reconstruct familial ties, bond as a new “family unit”, and also provides the characters with brief relief from the violence.
The first breakfast scene (Figure 1), featuring eggs, bacon, and bread, illustrates the lack of order in Howl’s household and establishes Sophie in the domestic role that she occupies throughout the rest of the film. It also presents the central family unit for the film that inevitably expands later as the movie progresses and the war rages on. Sophie takes charge and begins the ritual by forcing Calcifer into submission, but is not alone in her preparation of breakfast. Howl inevitably returns, and effortlessly takes over the cooking process. Everyone in the scene participates in the breakfast, as Markl, Howl’s current apprentice, and Sophie set the table, Calcifer and Howl cook, illustrating the processes that occur in a real family breakfast setting. As pictured above, Calcifer, a fire demon bound to Howl by a mysterious pact between the two, not only participates in the ritual necessary to begin the feast but simultaneously gets to feast himself—eating on the broken eggshells that Howl feeds him. Markl remarks how he “...can’t remember the last time we had a real breakfast,” revealing the lack of order now being restored to the household with the introduction of Sophie, and the construction of a new family unit through the ritual of breakfast. Moreover, this breakfast sits just at the periphery of the conflict. The viewer is aware of what the various powerful nations want from Howl, and is simultaneously faced with the uncertainty of the war ahead which serves to mirror the real-life process of being drafted. Sophie is introduced to the household at an essential time, bringing order to a broken home just before it is once again fragmented through war.
Breakfast returns later in the film, reinforcing it as a ritual for the newfound Howl family, but also serving as a community builder and presenting the characters with a moment of solace among the war-torn nations. In Figure Two, Sophie is helping feed the displaced Wicked Witch of the West while Markl sits beside Madame Suliman’s dog Heen as they all eat together. This represents a stark contrast from the conflict between the two characters that viewers experience earlier in the film, illustrating how war sometimes brings unlikely characters together, and the healing capabilities of breakfast in this film. Instead of restoring order to a broken household as previously explored by the first breakfast, this breakfast serves to reconstruct a broken and fragmented community. Despite the destruction around the characters, namely the flying machine that has crashed into the side of Howl’s Castle, they are still capable of enjoying a simple breakfast, emphasizing the importance of family and community as a method to cope and deal with difficult times.
Howl's Moving Castle. Dir. Hayao Miyazaki. Studio Ghibli, 2004.