Studio Ghibli’s sophomore effort is pure adventure from start to finish.
“Boss! A girl fell from the sky.”
Magic crystals. Lost cities. Pirates. Ancient royal lineages. These are all ingredients for a great, rollicking quest and if you’ve ever consumed any Japanese media chances are you’ve encountered a number of these tropes at some point. It’s basically a summation of the entire JRPG genre. Still, as commonplace as they are, nowhere are they more prevalent than in Hayao Miyazaki’s Castle in the Sky.
Young orphan Pazu (Mayumi Tanaka) is working in a mining town when he notices, falling from the sky, a young girl. This is Sheeta (Keiko Yokozawa), who has fled from a kidnapping by a fellow named Muska (Minori Terada). Muska is on the hunt for the lost floating city of Laputa, and believes Sheeta to be the key to it. However, the army isn’t the only group after Sheeta: a ragtag crew of pirates, led by the endlessly energetic Dola (Kotoe Hatsui) is also on their tail. After discovering that Sheeta is descended from a line of ancient rulers of Laputa, Pazu and she race to find the lost city before everyone else.
There is a term used to describe the impact that this film has had on Japanese media, and one I only recently heard about myself: the Laputa Effect. Before knowing of this phrase, I had imagined that Castle in the Sky was simply following the same monomyth that dominates a lot of anime, video games and films. Turns out that many of the elements present in the film – while clearly not invented by Miyazaki – were popularised thanks to their part in Castle in the Sky. So what is about this film that makes it so influential? Well, credit is due for Miyazaki’s excellent sense of what makes a great adventure.
Castle in the Sky is absolutely rammed with interesting characters, from the wonderful villain (I don’t often advocate the dub, but Mark Hamill absolutely kills it in the role) to the sheer joy that is Dola the pirate captain. By creating these contrasting, highly entertaining parties the film barrels full steam ahead, promising tonnes of clashes and antagonism along the way. It’s a good job then that Miyazaki cut his teeth directing the Lupin III movie The Castle of Cagliostro, as Castle in the Sky uses the same frenetic sort of cartoon action that was so prevalent in that movie.
It’s a style that seems to have gone a bit out of favour with the studio in recent years. Perhaps it’s their choice of source material (after all, The Tale of Princess Kaguya hardly lends itself to this kind of animation), but it seems that Ghibli has largely abandoned the sillier, more cartoonish elements of their movies in favour of realism. That’s certainly not a bad thing, but if Castle in the Sky had been done in today’s style, it might not have worked so well. Part of its appeal is in its manic moments, which serve to make the quieter, character-driven scenes stand out more. Also Pazu gets shot in the face at some point, and the realism of that moment is only emphasised by the silly pirate shenanigans.
Also of note here is Joe Hisaishi’s score – a distinctly 80s piece of work but which also contains one of his most gorgeous leitmotifs: Laputa’s theme. Equal parts haunting, mysterious and magical it perfectly captures the mythic side of the lost city. The choral version played near the end is especially noteworthy, and has to be one of the most evocative pieces of music ever released by the studio. Combined with Castle in the Sky’s opening credits showing the history of the titular city and the result is a story told only through basic audio-visual that works elegantly in getting the audience up to speed with what’s going on.
It’s impressive that everything is so engaging when I’m not even sure what the name of the village Pazu is from is called. There’s no real context to any of this, which throws a bit of a wrench in the works when it comes to understanding the worldbuilding. I’m reminded of the world of Attack on Titan, where you sort of assume it’s Earth, Europe maybe, but that’s it. Nothing else is really needed to get invested in the story. The same thing happens here. It’s clearly not our reality, but there’s enough to keep an audience engaged and believing that – while it’s not Earth as we know it – it’s close enough.
In the end Castle in the Sky is reflective of the stuff that Studio Ghibli does best. It’s loaded with action, emotional beats, wonderful scenery, imaginative vehicles and plenty of fairy tale awe. It lacks the polish and sophistication of latter movies by the studio, but a part of me believes it wouldn’t have been quite the same with that. Castle in the Sky is messy and pulpy in all the right ways. It has its morals in the right place (and never gets too preachy with it), plenty of heart and is, like its titular city, often ignored and lost. If you’ve not seen it yet, get on your moth-shaped flying machine and pick up a copy.
Verdict: If you’re looking for a good, old-fashioned adventure Castle in the Sky offers everything you’re after.
Overall entertainment: 9/10
Violence: 4/10, all cartoony
Sex: Smothered by boobs/10
Killer robots: Plenty
Sympathy for killer robots: It’s crazy how bad I feel for them
Dubbing: Points for Mark Hamill and Cloris Leechman. Points off for James van der Beek.
Laputa, Castle in the Sky
Also known as: 天空の城ラピュタ (Tenkū no Shiro Rapyuta)
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Writer: Hayao Miyazaki
Mayumi Tanaka – Pazu
Keiko Yokozawa – Sheeta
Kotoe Hatsui – Captain Dola
Minori Terada – Colonel Muska
Ichirō Nagai – General Muoro
Fujio Tokita – Uncle Pom
Takuzō Kamiyama – Charles
Yoshito Yasuhara – Louis
Sukekiyo Kamiyama – Henri
Hiroshi Ito – Mr. Duffi
Ryūji Saikachi – Old Engineer
Machiko Washio – Okami
Tarako – Madge