Hayao Miyazaki’s Castle in the Sky was the first feature under the Studio Ghibli banner, and in the wake of latter era classics like Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, and The Wind Rises has tended to fade into the background when discussing the animation giant’s best works. Castle in the Sky has long been one of my favorite Japanese animation movies, and I was excited to catch a screening as part of Ghibli Fest 2017, rolling out different Studio Ghibli films over the course of the year.
Castle in the Sky centers around the search for the titular castle called Laputa, a long-lost kingdom that hovered over the sky with unrivaled technical knowledge and vast authority over different nations that occupied the Earth. Sheeta is our protagonist, a young girl and one of the last royal descendants of Laputa who possesses a crystal amulet (made of the fictional material volucite) with mysterious powers. After being abducted by operatives serving the government and their army reinforcements, the airship Sheeta is being held on is attacked by air pirates, leading to her falling from the sky. There we meet our second protagonist Pazu, a young boy working in a mining town who sees Sheeta and takes her in.
The last time I watched Castle in the Sky was probably in high school or college, and for some reason I remember a strong first half but a somewhat uneven final act with some pacing issues in-between. This time around I found none of the aforementioned; the film is essentially a non-stop adventure with great voice acting (I watched the English subtitled version as I’m fluent in Japanese), amazing visuals, strong characters, and an amazing score by Miyazaki film regular Joe Hisaishi.
Miyazaki’s direction is a spectacle to behold as he gives close-ups of the characters and their expressions while also panning out of wide shots to give the viewer full breadth of what they are seeing. The scenes that cover Laputa in particular give the full scope of the gargantuan castle in all its glory: it is a thing of beauty yet also home to unspeakable destruction and horror when in the wrong hands.
Fleshed out characters with heart and purpose are a given when it comes to Miyazaki, and Castle is no exception. Sheeta is one of many strong female heroes in the Studio Ghibli world, and her unassuming courage combined with the repressed knowledge of various Laputa spells passed on from generation to generation gives her a strong arc over the course of the film, particularly as her memory is jogged and her true sense of purpose is awakened. Pazu is the everyman who has dreams of his own when it comes to Laputa, and his love for adventure and genuine kindness are traits that make for credible chemistry with his counterpart.
On the supporting side is stand-out Dola, female captain to her band of merry pirates. She’s equal parts swashbuckler, shrewd navigator of the skies, and tough-love matron to her familial crew. Her sons are doting but more brawn versus brains and could have easily been one-note characters if not for Miyazaki’s penchant for “no small parts”. They provide the film with comic relief, balancing out some of the darker moments that come in between the proceedings.
The only weak link is Muska, a military colonel and government official (which government is never specified and is only communicated with via radio) with his own nefarious agenda and obsessed with finding Laputa. His job for two thirds of the film is to chase and look evil, and his third act reveal while important doesn’t quite give him the necessary oomph to go beyond your garden variety bad guy. Perhaps I’m being a bit too critical but the other characters are so good that you really want the villain to be as realized as everyone else.
Switching gears, can we please talk about the film’s score? I’m as much an Alan Menken, Randy Newman, and Michael Giacchino fan as the next person but Joe Hisaishi is essentially the John Williams to Miyazaki’s Steven Spielberg. Lush piano melodies, adrenaline-inducing synthesizer chase music, soaring strings, and cute interludes for some of the more comedic moments are what make up this nothing-short-of-extraordinary opus. I remember the score having a huge impact on me as a kid when I first saw the film and it was as if it was all coming back as I hummed each note in my head, note for note. The score is the driving force and essentially another character, and is definitely worth a listen.
Compared to some of Miyazaki’s later films Castle in the Sky doesn’t necessarily have a central message or theme, which is probably why it tends to get overlooked. The strength of the film relies on the fantasy of it all and leaves a fair bit to the imagination of the viewer, particularly on what it must have been like when Laputa was in its prime and why things really didn’t work out. Sure, there’s the briefest of moments at the end that pays homage to the idea that “man couldn’t thrive living above the earth”, but this is literally a throwaway line and by no means an implicit message. 31 years later, this hand-drawn film is a throwback to a not quite lost art form and a reminder of the first steps of an animation genius. I’d say it holds up pretty well.
What are your thoughts on Castle in the Sky? Sound off in the comments and let us know what are your favorite moments from the film are!
Edited by: Morgan Stradling