Welcome to Ghibli month! Where I take a look at one Ghibli movie every weekend in the month of December. This weekend’s movie is Castle in the Sky, the first animated movie produced and released by the studio in 1986.
For any of you who haven’t seen the movie yet, here’s a quick synopsis:
A government airship carrying a captured Sheeta is attacked by a gang of pirates looking to take the crystal necklace she is wearing. In the resulting struggle, she falls from the airship but is saved when her necklace begins to glow, slowing her descent right into the arms of a very amazed Pazu. Upon awakening, she finds herself in his home where he is building a plane to take him on a quest to find the mysterious floating city of Laputa that his father once saw long ago. But that dream is cut short as the pirates that attacked her on the airship return along with the government agents, all after her crystal necklace. Pazu and Sheeta must stick together and discover the mystery behind her glowing necklace and how it connects to the legend of the floating city of Laputa before its ancient power falls into the wrong hands.
One of the first things you can be sure of when watching a Ghibli movie, particularly a Miyazaki one, is that it will be held to an extremely high standard and meet it easily on that level. We see a lot of great direction in terms of cinematography, world building, characters, and music that really helps to bring this movie together. Being the first in a long series of Miyazaki movies, we can also pick out some of the aspects that are going to be repeated again and again in future movies. Besides these repeated features, this movie also includes the typical environmental message tied into a contrasting, post-industrial setting that we see in many of his following animations. It had been a long time since I last watched this movie, and I think my memory didn’t live up to the reality, though I wouldn’t say it’s the best out of the rest of the Ghibli movies.
You really can’t talk about one of Miyazaki’s movies without talking about his use of cinematography and directing. One of the great and absolutely essential things Miyazaki is great at is setting up the world and walking the viewer through it in such a way that they always know exactly where the action is taking place. He does this by utilizing wide angle shots, keeping movements through the scene linear and consistent, and pausing in one place for just long enough so that the viewer has time to familiarize themselves with the area. This is one of big things I noticed while watching Castle in the Sky. The wide, sweeping shots used in the beginning when Pazu releases his doves allows us to see a birds-eye view of the small mining town he lives in and get a sense of the area that they will be moving through soon. This technique is also used when they hop on the train that takes them through the town, giving us more of a close-up look of the area and a consistent sense of direction that keeps us grounded in the world. Not to mention that even when they are in the airships, we always know what direction they are heading as the characters repeatedly mention compass points. I would highly recommend keeping a look-out for this particular use of direction if you are planning another watch-through of this movie. For a more detailed explanation, you can check out Digibro’s video on this topic here.
By using cinematography this way, we get a very clear picture of what the world of Castle of Sky looks like, and it is full of detail. I’ve always thought that one of the best things about Ghibli movies and Miyazaki movies in particular is how much attention the writers and artists pay to the world. Their often fantasy-like settings are filled to the brim with interesting gadgets, vehicles, and creatures that help bring the world and culture to life. As with most movies heralding from the mind of Miyazaki, we see a world populated with intricately designed flying machines. I feel like this can probably be one of the most recognizable things about one of his movies. From Howl’s Moving Castle to Porco Rosso, there has always been a sense of fascination associated with flying and the machines that allow us to do that in these movies. Many have said that this in-part came from watching his father work on the creation of planes during WWII when he was a child, and it went on to become a founding aspect of a lot of his works. I think this fascination is imparted to us well as we are given a detailed look at the inner workings of Dola’s pirate ship and the immense detail that went into the flying city of Laputa.
While we’re on the subject of cinematography, I wanted to talk about one last thing. I don’t think I ever noticed this the last time I watched Castle in the Sky – though it’s been so long that I could have easily forgot about it – but the scene when Pazu and Sheeta are going through the hurricane to get to Laputa has to be one of the best in the whole movie. It’s here that Miyazaki breaks from the sweeping, detailed scenes, favoring instead close-ups of the characters in a more stylized manner. This change is absolutely appropriate for the scene as the characters are thrown into the heart of a hurricane with only a kite to ride in. The close-ups prevent the viewer from understanding too much of what is happening thus keeping a sense of confusion for both the characters and those watching. With the addition of the lightning snakes striking all around them, it makes for a very tense scene.
Along with his exceptional world building, Miyazaki is an expert at crafting interesting and memorable characters. While I watched this in the English dub this time around – which was predictably corny – it was easy enough to pick up the personality of each. One thing that seems constant throughout his future movies is the fact that he seems to really like powerful older women. You see it in Spirited Away with the two witch sisters and now here with Dolma and her band of pirate sons. Most of the time too, these are some of the most interesting characters, with a deeper personality than I would say even the main characters sometimes. Maybe this is in part because the movies are made for a younger audience so the main characters are supposed to be relatable to them while some of the older audience may find they relate better to the secondary characters. But, regardless of this, the main ones we see throughout the movies are easily recognizable and distinct from each other. I say main ones here because I did have trouble when it came to Dolma’s sons. They have pretty different character designs, but I think their personalities were too close to really make a distinction between them. Probably the only one I’ll remember is the one with the beard, and I don’t even remember his name.
Getting to the heart of the story in Castle in the Sky, we see another of Miyazaki’s key features, the intersection of post-industrialism and nature or rather the conflicts that arise from that intersection. I think we see this clearly when Mouska takes Sheeta into the center of Laputa. To him, the floating city is a marvel of scientific innovation, something he strives to control. But what he found at the center was that all of that innovation had been taken over by roots and plants who had begun to grow and prosper in that place. He calls them disgusting and says they have no place in Laputa, showing a clear divide between modern science and nature. In the end, when the city is destroyed, all that is left is the giant tree and garden that had flourished there, leaving behind a powerful message as it rose high into the sky: never forget what’s important. That was Mouska’s downfall, he forgot that the technology of Laputa isn’t the be-all end-all of everything and sought to control it and everyone else with his new-found power. If he had a grandmother like Sheeta’s maybe he would have been able to understand just what it means to have that kind of power. In a broader sense, this is also another example of the government searching for more power or turning to old-yet-powerful methods to gain more of an influence over both nature and other humans. This theme pops up again in future movies, but the divide between government and the old-world is pretty clear here.
In terms of romance, Castle in the Sky is pretty light on it being that it is targeted at a younger audience, but I don’t think that makes Pazu and Sheeta’s relationship any less integral to the plot. They are absolutely cute together and come to trust each other implicitly. You could call their relationship love considering Pazu says repeatedly that Sheeta means everything to him, or you could just as easily call it a very close friendship, but I lean more towards the former. Their relationship becomes such that Sheeta is willing to give up her own freedom in order to save Pazu and he is willing to risk his life in order to save her. In the same vein, we also have the more mature relationship between Dolma and her husband. Their relationship seems more reserved but still close as they both can be seen to have a deep understanding of each other. Both of their relationships make for an enjoyable story, and I really did enjoy watching Pazu and Sheeta’s relationship grow throughout the movie.
I hope you enjoyed the first installment of Ghibli month! If you’re looking for a good movie to watch one of these Holiday nights, consider Castle in the Sky and get a taste of the start of Miyazaki as a great director. From great cinematography to characters that will stick with you, this movie is enjoyable and unique in its own way, though I wouldn’t call it my favorite out of all the Ghibli films. There are many more that have even better stories and characters, and we’ll be looking at a few in the coming weeks. Be sure to follow me on Facebook for updates and check back here every weekend this month for more Ghibli movies!