Castle in the Sky is Miyazaki’s second feature film following Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. While I personally paralleled it to one of his masterpieces, Howl’s Moving Castle, before viewing it again for this review, I came to this conclusion that this film does not follow Howl’s as much as I originally perceived and stands alone well.
What works so well in Castle is Miyazaki continuing to perfect three of his four major themes from his films, the first being his love of aviation. He makes sure to always reference to this theme in his films even if he isn’t focusing the plot around it. The second theme is his opposition to war. While this is more of the focus in his later films such as Howl’s Moving Castle or Princess Mononoke, Castle still contains this theme but in a more subtle manner. The third theme is his affection to young romances. This theme is perfected in later films, but I feel like the two leads in Castle establish the first great romance in his films.
For those who haven’t see Castle in the Sky, it is the story of Sheeta, a girl with a mysterious past who at the beginning of the film is held captive by Muska who wants the stone that Sheeta wears as a necklace. His plans hit a nitch when Dola and her group of air pirates try and recover the same necklace, but both fail as Sheeta falls from the airship and lands in the life of Pazu, an orphan who works in a small mining town.
The two team up and try and escape the pirates and Muska as Pazu makes it his job to get Sheeta to safety because she may hold the key to finding the lost castle of Laputa, a story that his father told him that has always been seen to be untrue. Sheeta is later recaptured by Muska, and Pazu teams up with Dola and the air pirates in order to save Sheeta and get to Laputa. Once she is rescued, everyone is on a crash course for Laputa and end up on the lost castle after braving a storm.
Once on Laputa, Sheeta is once again taken by Muska and led into the center of Laputa where she discovers that he too is part of this lost tribe of people who once ruled this powerful kingdom. Sheeta and Pazu use a spell that works with the special stone necklace of Sheeta’s to dismantle the castle and end Muska’s attempts at taking over the kingdom.
If you can’t tell by the synopsis, aviation is clearly an important trait that Miyazaki likes to add to any of his films. While some of them like Porco Rosso focus completely on aviation, Miyazaki always likes to reference to it, including small instances like Haku as a flying dragon in Spirited Away. In Castle in the Sky, he expands on the airships that he introduced in his previous feature, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, as well as adds a few new additions to his air force. There are three different airships that appear in the film.
The first is the passenger airship that is carrying Sheeta at the beginning when she escapes from Muska and the pirates. This ship is pretty generic when put up against the others and we aren’t ever given enough time to really learn about all its features. The second airship is the Goliath, which is the airship used by Muska and his army to get to Laputa. This one reminds me of the airship that crashes in the Valley of the Wind in Nausicaa. It contains better weapons than that one and looks like it could cause more damage but what reminds me of the Nausicaa ship is its design. The ship is very top heavy like the previously mentioned ship and is taken down very similarly with the middle being broken and ripped apart. The third airship is Dola’s and is the smallest of them all. This one still can pack a punch and shows that while it is smaller than the other two, it can fight and even survives the flight into Laputa even if it lands beyond repair.
But the most important part of aviation has to be the addition of a floating castle. Laputa is unlike anything else seen in Miyazaki, and while I used to make the parallel to Howl’s, it does not have the same dynamics as that castle. Laputa can float, has a very ancient and scientific core, and housed an entire civilization. Howl’s castle was made just for the few people to live in, has magic powers but are mainly used for teleporting and moving the castle on land, and finally can’t float but actually is a walking castle. This castle ends up playing more into the opposition of war theme later on in the film but the fact that it flies makes it part of the aviation theme that Miyazaki so treasures.
An opposition of war is a central theme in Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, and Howl’s Moving Castle and really becomes crucial in Castle in the Sky at its climax. An example of a perfect form of this theme in a Miyazaki film has to be Princess Mononoke. Industry and fighting are the enemies of the film more as parallels to Miyazaki’s own hatred of war than actually physical enemies. In Castle, this idea of war and the hatred towards seeing it is in the final scenes between Muska and Sheeta.
Muska’s goal is to take over Laputa and to use its power to rule as they once did. But Sheeta stands in his way both with opposing views as well as having the amulet that will work the castle’s powers. A key quote in the film sums up the anti-war theme when Sheeta says to Muska, “A king without compassion does not deserve a kingdom.” This line summed up the theme for me because Muska embodied industry and the destruction of the environment and nature. Another one of Miyazaki’s themes, saving the environment, never made an impact in Castle as much as films like Princess Mononoke. But in the end, Sheeta’s speech to Muska seems to reference to that Miyazaki theme in response to Muska wanting to harness the power of Laputa for his own needs. Muska was industry and the destruction of the earth and Miyazaki injects his anti-war and environmental views into these final moments of the film through the character Sheeta and her opposition to the views of Muska.
The final theme that I want to touch on is the childhood love that usually can be found in Miyazaki’s films. While there is a small romance between Nausicaa and Asbel later in Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, I found that the romance between Pazu and Sheeta was the first truly great romance that Miyazaki does. While he perfects the childhood romance in his three masterpieces Howl’s Moving Castle, Spirited Away, and Princess Mononoke, he really made a great first step towards those films in Castle in the Sky.
What makes the romance between Pazu and Sheeta so completed is that he at least has a progression. After they meet they aren’t instantly in love. While both of them are interested in each other, there isn’t that instant love that sometimes can ruin filmmaker’s attempts at childhood romance. The only problem I have with the romance is that it never has a low point. They always like each other and never have a moment where the other is angry or disappointed with the other, and this is why it is still an early draft of what would later become fine romances in his later films. But besides that, the progression that Miyazaki gives to them is wonderful and isn’t as rushed or forced as Nausicaa and Asbel. He lets both the characters and the viewers take their time and develop the chemistry so that they can be a true romance.
While I have pointed out a lot of the good points in the film through the usual Miyazaki themes, the movie does contain many flaws. Like most of his earlier films, it tends to drag in its second act. Not to say that the second act is poor but the pacing that he establishes in the first act is a lot quicker and we are given a lot more to digest and enjoy so once we hit the second act it slows down very much and we are having to fight through the B story of Dola and the air pirates that just doesn’t hold my attention as much as the main plotline. My other issues with the film comes from the English dubbing which hurts some of the dialogue because it makes it repeat itself or use a phrase that just sounds weird and out of context. I know one instance when Pazu and Sheeta are escaping the pirates at the beginning and they find Sheeta’s dress and one pirate yells “She’s in disguise!” and the other pirate repeats that phrase verbatim making it awkward and unnecessary dialogue.
I didn’t want to conclude my review without mentioning a short scene that really sticks out to me in this film. It sticks out because it is very different from any other scene I have seen in a Miyazaki film and is so visually pleasing and creative. It takes place when Pazu and Sheeta are barreling into the storm that surrounds Laputa. It goes dark and the only shades of light are lightning bolts that dance around the plane in the shapes of dragons. They crackle and snap as Pazu tries and bring the plane to a landing on Laputa. Suddenly he looks up and sees his father in front of him. What really makes this scene for me is not only the fact that the animation is different from what Miyazaki usually sticks to but also the fact that the scene uses no music, it grabs you in emotionally and throws you away almost as if you were in the storm. Once Pazu realizes whom he sees, he is instantly thrown back and they end up on Laputa. The creativeness and uniqueness of this scene is why it has to be one of my favorites from all his films because it is so emotional even if for a little while and the editing style that Miyazaki uses is different than what he usually uses and it makes the scene faster and almost part of the storm that it is depicting.
Castle in the Sky is nowhere near Miyazaki’s best work, but at the same time it isn’t a failure in any sense. While it has its flaws, it is still a fantastic film with stunning visuals and a great use of the Miyazaki themes. The main characters, Pazu and Sheeta, are both good Miyazaki characters, while I feel like both their types of characters were done better in later films. It is a great stepping-stone for Miyazaki, who took what he did in Nausicaa and made it better, especially in the aviation field. While it isn’t one of my favorites in his earlier works, it still shows that Miyazaki is a master of animation who can stretch the medium to pull in as much emotion and intensity as any live action film.
or Three Totoros out of Five
Zach Dennis is a film writer whose website can be found at Film Thoughts by Zach. He has also written for The Artifice. Check out his posts on What Makes a Film a Masterpiece and his Top 10 Films of 2012.