Moving Heaven and Earth – A look back at Castle in the Sky

While Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind may be the first original film project cited in Miyazaki’s canon, the honor of being the first true Studio Ghibi film belongs to Castle in the Sky. Bolstered by the record success of Nausicaä and with the support of Animage publisher Tokuma Shoten, Ghibli first opened the doors of its Kichijoji office in 1985, with the original intent of producing a sequel to Nausicaä under this new heading. 

However, Miyazaki was having difficulty in stirring his creativity towards furthering the Nausicaä story, wanting instead to turn towards a more classical adventure akin to the ones found in the pages of Treasure Island or Journey to the Center of the Earth. The “boys’” tales of the 19th century European tradition, all crackerjack and pluck, form the backbone of the finished film more than Swift’s Laputa and its satirical glance at the Royal Society’s scientific preoccupations. 

While he may not have wished to go through with a Nausicaä sequel, that didn’t mean that Miyazaki didn’t return to the well of his previous works in forming the idea for Castle in the Sky. Ghibli’s first feature film takes much of its creative DNA from Miyazaki’s 1978 TV anime Future Boy Conan, including a similar boy hero, a mysterious girl companion, and the reckoning of global destruction (already enacted in Conan, thwarted in Castle in the Sky). Even the film’s working title Boy Pazu is a close ring to the television series.  

Other elements of Miyazaki’s then building artistic canon show themselves in Castle in the Sky: the lush European storybook landscapes of Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro, the intricate 19th century machinations of Sherlock Hound (of which two episodes were screened with Castle in the Sky on a double bill), and Nausicaä’s environmental ethos. Apart from his previous work, Castle in the Sky also draws from a wide swath of art and animation history, from Da Vinci’s ornithopter and Piranesi’s dolorous prison etchings to the titular Mechanical Monsters of the Fleischer Superman shorts. Castle in the Sky shows the breadth and depth of Miyazaki’s visual and literary influences.

However, the most important experience in shaping what would become Castle in the Sky was Miyazaki’s trip to South Wales in 1984. Leaving Isao Takahata and Toshi Suzuki behind in Musashino to finish setting up the new Ghibli office, Miyazaki arrived in South Wales in time for the miners’ strike in retaliation of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s coal mine closures. This demonstration moved Miyazaki deeply. From an interview in 2008:

“I admired those men, I admired the way they battled to save their way of life, just as the coal miners in Japan did. Many people of my generation see the miners as a symbol; a dying breed of fighting men. Now they are gone.”

The Japanese miners that Miyazaki refers to are likely those involved with the Miike coal mine, a former WWII POW camp that was the site of several labor strikes in the early 1960s before being brought to heel by government intervention and violent strike-breaking actions at the hands of other workers who had formed an opposing union. In 1997, a little over a decade after Castle in the Sky’s initial release, the mine was shuttered, devastating the local economy. 

When Castle in the Sky began production in earnest, Miyazaki returned to South Wales to sketch the first location designs for the film. Here, Miyazaki deftly co-mingles the heightened fantasy-scapes of his artistic inspirations with the real, visceral reality of Great Britain’s industrial history. It is not for nothing that Castle in the Sky is often cited as one of the defining aesthetic tentpoles of the steampunk movement.  

Beyond the socio-cultural influences, it is a stroke of brilliance that Miyazaki set a film about floating cities in a mining town. This choice lends the film its sense of freedom and weightlessness, as the characters move deep under the earth and up into the sky with ease, untethered by the limitations of gravity. Airships are as commonplace as motor vehicles and mining apparatus. Notice the mirroring between the scenes where Pazu and Sheeta meet with Old Pom deep within the caverns below Slag’s Ravine and Pom uses Sheeta’s crystal to illuminate a starry sky on the ceiling of the cave, and the moment that Pazu and Sheeta first arrive on the floating island of Laputa and gaze down into the seemingly endless lower gardens of the palace. These scenes serve to show that the world of Castle in the Sky is a world of boundless and exhilarating exploration. 

But appearances can be deceiving, whether in Slag’s Ravine or on Laputa; The Dola Gang aren’t as bad as they seem at first blush, the military are not out to save Sheeta but exploit her for treasure, the giant Laputian robots, who tinkle like wind-chimes as they walk and “speak” in soft, melodic beeps, can be gentle guardians of nature or dangerous weapons of mass destruction, below the Edenic gardens of Laputa’s upper chambers is a fiery death-beam forged to torment and punish those who live on the earth’s surface. Even Sheeta’s ominous sounding “spell of destruction” is put to use to save the world from Muska’s assault.

This is Castle in the Sky’s real message: technology and people are not in and of themselves bad, but rather it is how technology is used and what choices and actions people take that matter. While these qualities are present in Sheeta, Pazu, Muska, and the robots, none stands out more than Ma Dola, one of Miyazaki’s most masterful character creations. Something of a cross between W. W. Denslow’s Wicked Witch of the West, Anne Bonny, and Mollie Sugden (and very likely, a bit of Miyazaki’s own mother as well), Ma Dola is a feisty, funny, and deeply maternal figure. At first glance, she seems like she will fill the standard role of any older woman in an animated feature — the wicked witch, the harridan — but she becomes a source of wisdom, love, and encouragement mid-way through the film, so that when Pazu and Sheeta find themselves in her loving embrace by the finale, we cannot help but cheer for this newly minted found-family.

Though Castle in the Sky made less at the box office than Nausicaä, and much had been made of the difficulty in selling a film in various markets where the original title can have less than flattering translations (the degree to which the original Laputa was meant by Swift to include such a pun is a debate for literary scholars), it was still instrumental in defining the newly-minted Studio Ghibli’s sensibilities. It is also a film that has seen a profound reverberation in the popular consciousness, at least in its native Japan. In 2013, the record for most tweeted moment was broken by Japanese viewers tweeting “balse” as it is said in a television broadcast of the film (a similar event occurred in 2011 that shattered the record before that). The Sky Sanctuary Zone in Sonic the Hedgehog 3 seems to be a loving tribute to the bucolic skyscapes of Laputa, and how much character designer Naoto Oshima owes to Castle in the Sky’s Engineer character for the appearance of Sonic’s nemesis Dr. Eggman is a subject worthy of some discussion. Game designer Hironobu Sakaguchi has cited the airship Goliath as a seminal influence on the airships in Final Fantasy. Even Breath of the Wild‘s puzzling shrines and guardian automata bear more than a superficial resemblance to Laputa’s crawling sentry robots and hidden crystal chamber.

These reverberations can also be found in the proceeding films of Miyazaki’s Ghibli canon. As much as Pazu owes to Conan and Sheeta owes to Clarisse, Howl’s Moving Castle’s Sophie and Spirited Away’s Yubaba seem to share similar DNA with Sheeta and Ma Dola. It was Castle in the Sky that laid the groundwork and inspired what would come later for the studio.

After 34 years, Castle in the Sky is just as fresh and invigorating a film as ever, if not more so. In the year 2020, as we grapple with environmental collapse, distrust of government and men who reckon themselves as gods, and the mass disillusionment of our society, Castle in the Sky is both an escape and polemic. While Miyazaki urges all viewers to watch his films in the theater, another frightening sign of our times is that the coronavirus pandemic has kept us from the cinema. So I humbly ask that if viewers today have access to a decent home theater setup*; a large screen and a very dark room; that they try to enjoy the film in as close of a condition as Miyazaki had intended. Allow its sweeping vistas and breathtaking views of the heavens let you fall fast and free into the wild blue yonder. 

*As I myself do not, having to view the film on a 24-inch TV in a studio apartment. 

Note: This review is brought to you by the fine folks at Shout Factory and GKIDS, the US home for Studio Ghibli’s iconic catalog.

Castle in the Sky is available along with The Wind RisesThe Secret World of ArriettyThe Cat Returns, and others. Get it as part of a new 6-film bundle on Apple TV and save $20!

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