(Every month, we at The Spool select a Filmmaker of the Month, honoring the life and works of influential auteurs with a singular voice, for good or ill. For the month of May, we’re taking a deep dive into the lively, humanist wonders of one of animation’s greatest voices, Hayao Miyazaki. Keep up with the rest of May’s Filmmaker of the Month coverage here.)
It’s ironic that Hayao Miyazaki’s Castle in the Sky (his first Studio Ghibli production; Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind was just distributed by the studio) is one of his lesser-discussed movies in America because it’s one of his more Americanized movies. It’s a thrilling steampunk adventure with a dreamy teenage boy and a lost princess at its center, filled with chases and escapes and pirates. It’s the kind of movie that you could see Steven Spielberg watching back in 1986 and immediately farming out to someone like Chris Columbus or Joe Dante to remake, with his name above the title as Executive Producer.
It also suffers from one of the primary flaws that plague so many Spielbergian thrill rides. As beautiful and exciting as it is, it’s also hollow because it doesn’t have any interesting human characters. All Miyazaki movies offer glimpses into fantastic worlds, but the best of them are great because of the well-realized people living in those worlds. When you have relatable human people wandering through fantastic environments it makes the people more human and the environments more fantastic. It’s a positive feedback loop that elevates very good to great. And that’s where Castle comes up short, so while it’s fun to watch, you don’t feel much beyond that. That said, sometimes a fun adventure in a unique thrilling environment is all you need.
The eponymous castle in the sky is Laputa, a mythical lost ancient civilization that floats miles above the Earth, surrounded by dense clouds like a reverse Atlantis. The movie is about the race between three parties to reach Laputa and their competing motivations for wanting to unlock its secrets. The dual protagonists are a couple of scrappy, spunky orphaned teenagers, Pazu and Sheeta, both of whom have a connection to Laputa. Pazu’s father was obsessed with the mythical city and was widely mocked and discredited as a result; Pazu wants to find Laputa to prove that his father wasn’t crazy. Sheeta wears a mysterious amulet with a connection to the city that was given to her by her grandmother and that seems to have mysterious, otherworldly powers. The pair are on the run from both a greedy pirate family who want to loot the floating city’s fabulous wealth and the military, headed by a shadowy government agent, who is after its advanced technology and power.
You root for the kids because they’re Good Kids and you hiss at the baddies because they’re the Bad Guys, but that’s about as deep or interesting as they get. Starting with his very next movie My Neighbor Totoro, Miyazaki would start crafting specific and unique characters whose personalities drove the action and who the audience could really understand and care about. But that’s still to come, Castle in the Sky is focused on enough character and plot display the fabulous design and world-building and make the action go.
If Raiders was inspired by Castle of Cagliostro, as rumored, Castle is where Miyazaki returns the compliment. There’s a train chase across a rickety trellis perched ludicrously high in the sky that seems to be an amalgam of the mine car-and-bridge sequences in Temple of Doom (Temple came out in ‘84 and Castle in ’86, a short turnaround for animation but still possible), dogfights between dragonfly-like steampunk aeroplanes and massive floating battleships, and daring leaps over vertiginous chasms. Through it all, Miyazaki never loses his footing as a genius of staging and geography – his set pieces are brilliantly laid out and never confusing, no matter the environment in which they’re set.
Miyazaki never loses his footing as a genius of staging and geography.
The story is set in three distinct environments — on the ground, in the sky, and on Laputa — and they’re decked to the gills with intricate, evocative production designs. The ground portion is set in a mining town on the edge of a mountain in an industrial steam punk age roughly analogous to the late nineteenth century. It’s the kind of place where cars are rarely seen and people get by on foot on cobblestone streets. Everything on the ground is hard and earthy and industrial, made of brick and stone. Smokestacks belch smog into the sky, deep dark mines run under foot and train tracks stretch out everywhere to move whatever gets pulled out of the mines.
But there’s also the world of the sky, a world of massive dirigibles and even bigger warships suspended on massive propellers. Life in the sky is thrilling and romantic, but it’s also hard work. At one point, the two kids are taken in by the pirates and Sheeta is put to work in the filthy kitchen while Pazu is suspended from a rope and tasked with repairing damage to the hull of the ship while it’s airborne. At night there’s a shot of the empty deck of the ship, where laundry attached to a clothesline flutter peacefully in the breeze. It’s the kind of detail that elevates so much of Miyazaki’s work; his places always feel lived in and logical. Even a pirate ship blimp floating miles above the ground in an alternate steampunk past needs somewhere to dry laundry.
The long-dormant city is a gorgeous mixture of ancient and medieval architecture, with columns and arches and castles all abandoned and crumbling, overrun with moss and weeds and grass and tended by only giant hulking robots. At the center of the city is a massive tree, one whose branches and roots have consumed many of the structures around it, and below that is the smooth cold subterranean world of technology that keeps the city airborne.
Laputa itself is more than the film’s climactic location, but the lynchpin on which Miyazaki’s fantastical designs take hold. The long-dormant city is a gorgeous mixture of ancient and medieval architecture, with columns and arches and castles all abandoned and crumbling, overrun with moss and weeds and tended by giant hulking robots. At the center of the city is a massive tree whose branches and roots have consumed the structures around it, below that is the smooth cold subterranean world of technology that keeps the city airborne.
It’s in Laputa that Miyazaki’s regular themes of nature vs. technology vs. war vs. family finally emerge, and the charming adventure becomes a story about the price of progress and a choice between preserving a dangerous past and moving into a more humane future. It’s a nice message, but it doesn’t really resonate because none of what came before feels particularly weighty or serious because the characters are thin.
Maybe Miyazaki saw that too: his next three movies were much smaller and character focused. He wouldn’t return to epics until 1997’s Princess Mononoke, and by then he had figured out how to wed intimate characterization to sweeping action. But you have to crawl before you walk, and a not-entirely-satisfying Hayao Miyazaki movie would be a career-defining masterpiece for just about anyone else. It’s only because we understand what he would go on to do that Castle feels a little thin. Even with all that, it remains a first-rate adventure and a crucial step in Miyazaki’s growth as an artist and filmmaker.