Castle in the Sky

“Take root in the ground, live in harmony with the wind, plant your seeds in the winter, and rejoice with the birds in the coming of spring.” ~a song from the valley of Gondoa

Castle in the Sky (Tenkuu no Shiro Rapyuta) is a 1986 Japanese animated adventure movie written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki. Even though it was the first feature film created at Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli, the quality is just as fine as his later films, and it’s still one of his most popular. Miyazaki is a master of anime and imagination, with a childlike sense of wonder, and Castle in the Sky is no exception. The movie is filled with visually stunning artwork, fantastic music, and beautiful hand-drawn animation, with plenty of memorable details and amazing locations such as the aetherium mine, the steam-powered town, and the floating island.

In the movie’s opening, an airship carrying a young girl named Sheeta and her abductor, a government secret agent (though not to be trusted), is attacked by the air-pirate Dola and her sons. Sheeta falls from the airship, but her fall is slowed by the magic crystal necklace and she floats safely down to a small mining town where she is discovered by a boy named Pazu. Soon Pazu finds that he’s been thrust into the middle of a dangerous situation as this mysterious girl from the sky is being chased by pirates, secret agents, and the army!

Pazu’s uncle explains that the crystal in Sheeta’s necklace is one of the crystals used to keep the legendary floating city of Laputa aloft. In the film’s backstory, a past human civilization built a flying city (Laputa, resembling a floating Tower of Babel), which was later destroyed by an unspecified catastrophe, forcing the survivors to live on the ground. Laputa remains in the sky, concealed within a powerful storm cloud. The boy and the girl begin a high-flying adventure as they search for Sheeta’s true identity.

Gondoa, the earth-based land that Sheeta comes from – with its landscape of mountains, farms, and towers – was probably inspired by the historic province of Svaneti in the northwestern part of the country of Georgia. The mining town of Slag Ravine where Pazu lives was modeled after a Welsh mining town that Miyazaki visited. Laputa, the flying island, was originally a setting in Jonathan Swift’s novel Gulliver’s Travels. (Interestingly, Swift placed the land that Laputa usually flies above just east of Japan.) While the weapons in the movie are a mixture of British and German designs from WWII, the story seems to take place in a Victorian era. The numerous Jules Verne-esque flying contraptions in the movie have a steampunk look reminiscent of those in another anime, Last Exile.

Miyazaki’s works are known for several recurring character trademarks, which can be recognized even in this, his first Studio Ghibli film. For one thing, he likes to feature strong female protagonists, a virtue met in Sheeta. In addition, Miyazaki often includes a grotesque old woman akin to Lewis Carroll’s “Ugly Duchess” in his movies, and in this case it’s the air-pirate Dola. He is also known for his charming and iconic minor characters, and the semi-sentient Laputan robots fill that role perfectly.

Another common Miyazaki theme is his concern for the environment and the desire for humans to live in harmony with nature. The Japanese Shinto religion believes that spirits exist within mountains, trees, rivers, waterfalls, and natural phenomenon. So it may even be suggested that the sacredness of the natural world is shown as being superior to humans and their technology, with pollution or defilement an act of evil or a sin. Miyazaki also gives a nod to other religions when one of the bad guys in Castle in the Sky refers to: “The fire of Heaven that destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah in the Old Testament. The Ramayana referred to it as ‘Indra’s Arrow.'”

If you can forgive Miyazaki for combining a real biblical event with a fictional legend (the bad guy speaks of how it was not God, but Laputa that destroyed the city of Sodom and Gomorrah), there is nothing unacceptable in this film. However, there are several frightening situations that involve human lives, gunshots, and property damage so parental guidance is suggested for young children (especially the final scene with Muska). Teens who enjoy fantasy, fairy tales, steampunk, nature, adventure, or other films by Studio Ghibli will love this anime. I actually liked Castle in the Sky a lot better than some of Miyazaki’s more famous movies.

Finally, it should be noted that in the English dubbed version of Castle in the Sky, Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker) did a superb job supplying the voice of the villain Muska. (Muska’s remark about the Goliath airship – “What a piece of junk!” – was the same reaction Luke Skywalker had upon first seeing the Millennium Falcon.) Other notable voice actors who provided their talents include Anna Paquin, Cloris Leachman, Richard Dysart, and Jim Cummings. The only voice I didn’t particularly like was that of Pazu (James Van Der Beek), just because he didn’t quite seem to match the character in my opinion. But that slight annoyance wouldn’t keep me from watching this movie again and again, so I think it’s well worth buying the DVD. Castle in the Sky contains so much exquisite detail, you will discover something new every time you watch!

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