It’s amazing how consistent Hayao Miyazaki’s first three films are, in a lot of ways. One could almost look at all three of them as a kind of sky-bound adventure trilogy. With The Castle of Cagliostro, the filmmaker established his sense of action infused with bits of comedy and his eye for sweeping vistas; with Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, he added to the fantastical elements, the sense of futuristic pasts, a reverence for nature, and a central heroine upon whom everything rests. For his third feature, Castle in the Sky (retitled in the UK and Australia as Laputa: Castle in the Sky), Miyazaki completes the trifecta, delivering his most hopeful and family friendly feature, a tone which would remain mostly constant for the rest of his films.
It’s a steampunk wonderland.
In only his third film, Miyazaki already had two with the word “Castle” in the title; clearly, he is just as obsessed with them as he is with flight. It’s almost amazing it took him three films to put them both together. Castle in the Sky is the least dark film he’s made to date, but the action is still kinetic and the visuals are still stunning. In this film he focuses on a futuristic industrial revolution wherein people live on the sides of cliffs in mining towns and fly around in massive airships to get from community to community. He also discusses bio-mechanics — an infusion of science and the natural world — and presents it here in the form of a long-forgotten yet highly advanced civilization who lives in the titular castle, a realm called Laputa.
The film begins in media res, with a crew of armed air pirates hijacking a luxury airship in their search for something. A small girl named Sheeta is in the airship, and a man who looks to be her guardian tells her to stay put and she won’t get hurt. However, while the raid is commencing, Sheeta clocks the man over the head with a champagne bottle, takes a blue pendant necklace from him, and climbs out the window, clinging to the side. The pirates enter the room and see the open window. Looking outside, one of the pirates spots Sheeta and reaches for her. She falls in the process, careening towards the ground below. The pirate captain Dola, mother of the rest of the pirates, is most displeased at losing her treasure.
What a fantastic opening to a movie. It’s a big action scene that tells us who the characters are through action and reaction. Sheeta is obviously our main character because she’s so large in the opening frames. We’re not sure what to make of her guardian, Colonel Muska, until Sheeta knocks him out. That tells us all we need to know: if she doesn’t like him, neither should we. And the pirates are all quite large and brutish people, which will eventually lead to comedy and then the audience finding them endearing. Here, though, with their mask-goggles and large weapons, they’re definitely antagonists, and remain so for the first half of the movie.
As Sheeta falls, her pendant begins to glow and she starts falling much slower than gravity would allow. A young bow named Pazu who works in a nearby mine sees the light in the sky and follows it, catching the unconscious Sheeta before she goes into the deep mine. After she wakes up, Pazu tells her what he’d seen but she doesn’t quite remember. She is fixated, however, by a picture in Pazu’s quarters: a castle in the sky called Laputa. He says his father took the picture and spent the rest of his life trying to find the magical city again.
It’s not too long, though, before they’re found by the pirates and they make a daring escape through the streets of town. Eventually a chase occurs on the cliffside city’s vast railroad bridges, leaving most of them in ruin. Just when they think they’ve gotten away, Pazu and Sheeta see that the army has arrived, and that Muska is with them. They make another run for it and fall into an abandoned mine whereupon they meet an old prospector who tells them that the whole mine is full of a mineral that had formerly been used to keep Laputa afloat, the same material in Sheeta’s pendant. They’re finally found by Muska and the army and taken prisoner in Muska’s castle.
Muska is obsessed with finding Laputa and knows he needs both Sheeta and the necklace to do it. He pays Pazu three gold sovereigns and sends him on his way. Pazu is devastated and ashamed that he wasn’t able to save his new friend but gets a chance to redeem himself, strangely, from the pirates who still want the treasure of Laputa to themselves. Muska meanwhile is showing Sheeta all the Laputan remnants he’s discovered, including a bio-mechanical robot that has been dormant for years. The robot soon comes to life when the pendant awakens and points a beam of light toward Laputa. The robot all but destroys Muska’s castle and itself while the pirates arrive and save Sheeta but not before Muska escapes with the pendant.
Sheeta and Pazu become members of the pirate crew, doing all the menial tasks, and everything seems fine until the army’s giant airship arrives again. All paths converge on a massive windstorm that they believe is the shield of Laputa, which it is. The floating island is now overgrown and devoid of humans.Only a couple of robots remain, looking after the greenery, birds, and animals that live in Laputa’s vast menagerie (there’s even the cute little furry whatever from Nausicaä). But, it isn’t peaceful for long when the army and Muska arrive and the insane bespectacled man reveals that he, like Sheeta, is a descendant of Laputa’s royalty and wants to use its vast and terrible technology to rule the world.
This movie is just so lovely. It’s another great adventure from Miyazaki but this one feels the most like a happy dream. He invents amazing looking ships (especially the pirates’ personal flyers which have wings like insects), robots that are at once endearing and intimidating, and a whole kingdom floating in the clouds that is both a technological marvel and a thing of natural beauty. He places all the ugly technological bits on the bottom part of Laputa so that the top can be simply a rounded-edged castle with trees and goodness. It’s a deliberate visual representation, with the characters having to literally go down into the bowels of the island to reach the computer’s center.
As far as characters go, Sheeta is much less of the action heroine that Nausicaä was, but she’s nonetheless incredibly strong and willful and caring, the way Miyazaki’s princesses have to be. This is also the first of his movies to introduce the concept of a villain or adversary becoming a trusted friend. The pirates seem really awful at the beginning, but after the main characters spend time with them, they learn they’re actually just big goofballs who happen to be great at pirating. Muska is perhaps Miyazaki’s greatest true villain; he wants to rule the world and he has no other motivation than that.
Miyazaki’s animation continues to impress and in fact takes a step forward here. All the flying, from birds to airships, looks like it should actually be happening. His attention to detail and adoration of the freeing concept of flight is unmatched. As gorgeous as his previous two films looked, you can’t beat the colorful beauty of Castle in the Sky.
This film was the first to bear the name Studio Ghibli, but his next film would give it its mascot. A huge departure from the fantasy action-adventures he’d made, Hayao Miyazaki’s fourth film is a love letter to the innocence of childhood, to the power of imagination, and to the beauty of the Japanese landscape. It is still often considered the definitive Miyazaki film. Next week, we meet My Neighbor Totoro.