Living With Miyazaki, Part 3— CASTLE IN THE SKY

Continuing lessons on living from the animation maestro’s oeuvre

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Welcome back to our continuing series on “Living With Miyazaki,” as we examine the lessons one can take from his various films through their recurring motifs and varied approaches. In part three, we’ve reached the very first film of the fabled Studio Ghibli, the animation studio owned and operated by Miyazaki and fellow-genius Isao Takahata.

THE FILM: Castle in the Sky

It’s easy to mistake Castle in the Sky (or Laputa: Castle in the Sky, for those nations that don’t know what ‘puta’ means) for nothing more than an exceptionally well-executed two-fisted pulp adventure.

In point of fact, Castle in the Sky IS an exceptionally well-executed pulp adventure, with its plethora of daring escapes, massive quotient of explosions, sky pirates, brawls, aerial vehicles, aerial vehicles in combat, steampunk tech and weaponry, and a rather binary depiction of the world, with a bad guy who is simply A Very Bad Guy, and child protagonists who are Good and Resourceful and Really Very Good.

So if you sit down with Castle in the Sky hoping for a rip-roaring adventure movie, that is indeed what you will get. Castle in the Sky is so successful as a straightforward action/adventure movie, it suggests that Miyazaki could’ve spent his entire career churning out nothing but first rate popcorn entertainment if other muses hadn’t demanded satisfaction instead.

The movie begins like a bullet (that’s been fired from a gun, not like a bullet that’s just…like…sitting there). A Nice, Plucky Orphan Girl named Sheeta is being held prisoner by Muska, a Bad Man Who Is Bad, aboard an airship that is suddenly waylaid by sky pirate queen Dola and her sons. The pirates and Muska both have their sights set on the mysterious amulet Sheeta carries with her as a family heirloom.

Sheeta escapes the airship (by falling off it) and literally crashes into the life of Pazu, a Nice, Plucky Orphan Boy. Pazu and Sheeta quickly deduce that Sheeta’s amulet is linked to the mythical city of Laputa, a sort of airborne Atlantis that looks like some sort of…castle…in, in the sky.

Holy crap, I only just now understand the title.

Anyway, the kids soon set out to find the lost city for themselves; Sheeta because she wants to unlock her family’s connection to this legend, and Pazu because his late father claimed to have once glimpsed Laputa and Pazu is determined to prove those claims true.

Neither character actually wants anything from the city itself. There is nothing physical driving our two heroes, no doomsday scenario or ticking clock (that they know of) spurring them on. Their desires are totally pure, their quest motivated by a need to better understand themselves and their families, and by the simple intrinsic joy in discovery and wonder. Laputa itself, noble, ruined, magical, dead, is all the prize either child desires, not any sort of material reward.

This places the children in direct, stark contrast to virtually every adult character in the film.

With its vast wealth, highly advanced technology, and devastating weapons, Laputa is a treasure beyond measure. The pirates want the gold and the jewels, the military want the weaponry and the tech, while ultimate villain Muska seeks to become king of the lost city and use its power to subjugate the world.

Even those grownups unconcerned with Laputa itself prove to be blinded by material concerns. Pazu is introduced operating the elevator to bring miners in and out of the tunnels, a blatant metaphor that Miyazaki sells by not laboring over it, but still: the kid has his eyes on the sky, while all the adults around him are not only bound to earth, but literally encased beneath it, too worried about paying the bills to notice the actual magic happening all around them.

This being a Miyazaki, the thematic underpinnings are of course more complicated than that.

There’s a thread running throughout Castle in the Sky as to whether or not it is even a good idea to seek the castle located in the sky. Paired with the stories of the city’s miraculous advancements are the stories of disaster and destruction. We glimpse the dark side of Laputa’s capabilities early on, when a severely damaged robot goes on a seemingly unstoppable rampage. If this is what one banged up robot can do, Miyazaki invites us to wonder, what horrors could be unleashed by the city at full strength?

Later Miyazaki films will dig more thoroughly into the complexities of desire and how the most noble of intentions can be warped and deformed to horrible ends. Phrases like “cursed dreams” and “humanity is cursed” will be peppered throughout the dialogue of some upcoming light-hearted installments. Castle in the Sky never fully gives way to the darkest leanings that Miyazaki is capable of, but that melancholy is there, just barely underneath the candy surface of blockbuster action. There cannot be awe and wonder without terror, no advancement without suffering. These are truths that cannot be changed or challenged. All that can be altered is how the characters respond when confronted with those truths.

For as awe-inspiring as Laputa is once it is revealed in full, it isn’t long before it becomes clear that the whole thing needs to go, that the human race will be better off once the city is gone and its powers can be truly, safely, lost.

But that’s not to say that Castle in the Sky disparages adventure and exploration and discovery. Not for nothing does the film end with our heroes sailing off in a state of total liberation even as the now-harmless remains of Laputa rise into the heavens.

The darker implications of such achievements must be considered, yes, but that doesn’t need to curtail admiration. The adventure may have come to naught, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t worth having. Humankind should keep its feet on the ground, probably, but that doesn’t mean it’s a sin to search the skies as well.

The heroes of Castle in the Sky are children who are only seeking experience and understanding. As such, they leave the film having gained nothing but unquestionably triumphant. Miyazaki may caution us that there is a curse on the underside of every dream, but that doesn’t mean the dream isn’t worth pursuing.

Next Up: Brendan Agnew makes friends with My Neighbor Totoro.

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