The first official Studio Ghibli release, Castle in the Sky is written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki. The 1986 Japanese animated feature initially seems to have less layers than the classic Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, but it builds to a remarkable climax all the same and features some stunning animation.
Miyazaki takes the audience to a alternate version of planet Earth. While the topography and people look the same, the place names are unique and so are the vehicles. Of particular note are the flying contraptions, like the pirate flaptops or the elaborate military planes. There are also aerial cities, at least in antiquity, and the ground-based settlements have a British mining town feel.
The picture opens as a girl named Sheeta (Keiko Yokozawa) is thrown from an airship. She was abducted by the government agent Muska (Minori Terada) and is also pursued by Dola (Kotoe Hatsui) and her pirate gang because of a necklace she wears. Sheeta lands in a small mining town, protected by the power of the necklace, and meets a boy named Pazu (Mayumi Tanaka).
Sheeta and Pazu work to elude both the government and the pirates. Eventually, they discover that Sheeta’s necklace is made of a “volucite” crystal, the same material that has kept floating cities like Laputa in the air. Sheeta reveals her true identity to Pazu and the government agents close in, abducting her and taking her to Laputa. Pazu teams up with the pirates to get the girl back.
The floating city of Laputa is central to the plot of Castle in the Sky. It is a magical place and the animators go all-out in constructing it. It’s a natural and organic world, but there are also robots and wonders of architecture. The film really hits another level when Laputa is revealed, especially when Pazu and Sheeta start following the lone gardener robot.
The name “Laputa” comes from Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, of course. In that novel, Laputa is also a flying city used for its technological superiority. Miyazaki wisely zeroes in on the political aspects of Swift’s location, focusing on the government and army’s goals to use Laputa as some sort of militaristic prize.
One of the most compelling aspects of Castle in the Sky is how the characters are treated. There are no attempts at softening the darkness of the material to appeal to children or younger audiences, which shows the regard Miyazaki has for his viewers. Pazu has a bullet graze his face; Sheeta has her hair pulled a number of times and is even decked by the villainous Muska.
And Pazu’s affection for Sheeta, whether it can be called love or not, is without question. He does everything he can to get to her, putting himself in constant danger. He literally blasts through the collapsing Laputa, wrenching himself through walls and tiny holes to make the save. This is all done with minimal musical interference, too – at least in the Japanese version.
At its core, this is a special film. It doesn’t reach the moments of pure bliss that other Studio Ghibli releases do, but it weaves its story well and features plenty of drama and excitement. The landscapes are exquisite in their rendering, with Miyazaki’s love affair with Wales really providing some nice architectural models.
And the characters are fun, especially Dola and her pirates. She has a maternalistic connection with the lads, who scramble about at her beck and call and are excited to have Sheeta in their number because she can cook and clean. Pazu and Sheeta’s relationship is also intriguing and warm, especially in the smaller moments.
While some might find Castle in the Sky’s 126-minute runtime hard to bear given the genre, there aren’t any wasted movements in Miyazaki’s world. He weaves his tale with precision and clear affection, letting silent moments speak for themselves and unfurling the mystery of Sheeta’s amulet with all the care and quality it deserves. The tale is grand and so is the film.
(Note: There are some significant differences between the initial Disney English dub and the Japanese version. As with most of Disney’s releases of Studio Ghibli pictures, many will find the English version of Castle in the Sky much louder with more banter and background noise. There’s a longer score from Joe Hisaishi, which overtakes the minimalistic score from the original. The voice actors for Pazu and Sheeta are also older.)