Pazu, a young boy tirelessly working in a mining town, is thrown into an adventure when Sheeta literally but quite unexpectedly falls out of the the sky into his life. This moment sets off a breakneck-paced romp through the skies as Pazu and Sheeta find themselves drawn into a conflict between corrupt governments and rascally pirates as all the parties involved try to make their way to Laputa, a legendary flying island, all with the fate of the world in balance. Castle in the Sky depicts a swashbuckling adventure that is exactly like the daydream adventures of childhood and yet simultaneously better. And as the first official film of Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata’s newly formed Studio Ghibli it proved to be the perfect harbinger of things to come.
In many ways Castle in the Sky represents director Miyazaki’s liberation from the studio system, and nowhere is this more evidenced than in the beginning of the movie in which Miyazaki plops us into his strange and wonderful world. Within moments of the credits, we are plunged headlong into an air pirate raid by the Dola Clan on a floating skyship in which it is not immediately clear who the good guys and bad guys are in their ensuing fight with Muska, a debonair aristocrat, and his forces. The only thing we know is that the young Sheeta, who possesses a mysterious crystal that allows her to defy gravity and is under Muska’s care, wants to desperately get away from both of them. Before we have a chance to catch our breath, she makes her escape by diving out of the skyship and landing in the aforementioned Pazu’s arms in his village below. It is an opening brimming with confidence both in the studio’s technical ability and in the audience’s ability to hang in there without silly things like exposition to explain this strange new world.
From there, borrowing heavily from the playbook of Star Wars among others, Miyazaki sends Sheeta and Pazu on a journey that is remarkably simple while also being mythologically rich. Sheeta and her crystal holds the key to finding the legendary floating city of Laputa which among other things has an enormous amount of treasure. Thus Pazu and Sheeta quickly find themselves trying to evade the pursuit of numerous interested parties, while trying to find the city themselves in a plot as propulsive as anything Indiana Jones has ever gone through.
Yet such is the care and detail that Miyazaki puts into every frame that even when the movie is at its most frantic, Miyazaki continues to subtly build a fully realized and breathed-in fantasy world. Pazu’s village is in many ways the prototypical steampunk village, filled with grime and dirt and technology whose purpose is not immediately clear to us in the digital age. Similarly the numerous aerial vehicles that we see throughout skirt the line between realism and mysticism as they soar in impossibly buoyant ways in the various dogfights they are engaged in. When
And then there is Laputa itself. The floating city in the sky carries with it such an enigma and mystery that the viewer can’t help but be drawn to it. And in Laputa we perhaps get the best distillation of a Studio Ghibli hallmark, namely providing us a rich textual mythology without ever attempting to explain it. Laputa is an abandoned civilization with mere remnants of that society present to us. There are the mysterious robots that patrol the floating gardens and corridors. We get the faintest understanding that Laputa used to at least have some militaristic machinations with the weapons that Muska plans to exploit for his own gain. There is treasure present and there are a labyrinth of hallways and pathways that never get explored in this movie. We only get to see what our heroes see and for as long as they briefly end up there, and so just like them we only every feel like we get to scratch the surface of Laputa’s mysteries. And it is precisely Miyazaki’s restraint in not detailing the ins and outs of this society that has kept me coming back to explore Laputa again.
But Castle in the Sky also illustrates another aspect of what makes a Ghibli movie special. While many movies and filmmakers have proven themselves adept at creating richly textured fantasy worlds, what Castle in the Sky excels at is in grounding the storytelling. Miyazaki accomplishes this by making his characters act as realistically as possible. He fills the movie with small moments of human authenticity such as when Pazu tries to help Sheeta put on her necklace after they take a tumble. He fumbles with the clasp as she stares out, and you can see her subtly wondering if he is doing it right. In another moment, Pazu and Sheeta follow-up their moment of giddy joy at finally landing on Laputa with a brief moment where they try and undo a rope knot. Miyazaki allows his characters to feel bored, tired, or contemplative, which is remarkable because every frame of this movie has to be drawn. By providing us glimpses into the mundane and quiet ordinariness of human activity he provides us a window into imagining what it will be like to live there, breaking down the barrier of mere escapist fantasy along the way.
Another key way Miyazaki subverts our usual expectations of a children’s fantasy story is by blurring the lines between who the “good guys” and the “bad guys” of the story are. While Muska and his militaristic crew are quite typically “bad”, the pirate crew led by Mama Dola fall into much more “grey” territory. They are understandably motivated by greed and are not above resorting to violence and kidnapping in order to achieve their goals. Yet the crew itself is rascally and warm, and Mama Dola herself reveals herself to have a much more tender heart beneath her gruff appearance. Mama Dola herself proves to be an endearing and empowering figure as an older woman who smashes gender stereotypes and proves herself the toughest person in the whole movie. The crew never fully evolves to become saints (they are greedy pirates after all), but nonetheless they become villains we actively root for. Meanwhile on Laputa itself, the giant robots that patrol the floating castle look and feel like robots that will ominously violently destroy their foes, they are instead much more peaceful and tender, resorting to violence only as a protective mechanism.
Over and over again Miyazaki refuses to bow to the conventional expectations of how his characters should behave in a fantasy story, which makes the storytelling feel vibrant and exciting. It also makes each return to Castle in the Sky such a delight. With Castle in the Sky Miyazaki was able to show that Studio Ghibli had the ability to achieve its lofty vision, creating a template that would push the studio to become the envy of the animation world for three decades as, like Sheeta and Pazu, they soared to new heights and uncharted territory.
Earlier installments in the series: