Studio Ghibli #1 Castle in the Sky

In this column, Amos Lamb will take you through the wonderful world of animation. Exploring what makes it such an appealing genre/medium for all ages, with the focus spanning from the mainstream animation studios like Disney & Studio Ghibli, to more obscure animation such as Japanese OVA’s, British claymation, Czechoslovakian stop-motion and everything in-between. 

Following on from the critical and commercial success of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, Miyazaki, alongside Nausicaä producer Isao Takahata, as well as Toshio Suzuki & Yasuyoshi Tokuma, founded Studio Ghibli. The first film to be produced under the new company banner was Miyazaki’s third film as director: Castle in the Sky. The film takes a lot of influence from Nausicaä, touching on a lot of similar themes of human corruption, the power of nature and a sense of hope through the younger generation, but the film is noticeably more ambitious in its scope.

The plot follows two young orphans, Pazu and Sheeta, who encounter each other after the latter falls from the sky while she was escaping from a government ship invaded by pirates. The two form a close and innocent bond after Pazu saves/takes in Sheeta after catching her during her fall. As the two get to know each other, their lives are quickly up-ended after Sheeta is located by both the pirates and the government officials and thus the two must escape, during which Sheeta reveals that her real name and connection to the mysterious land of Laputa. The rest of the film follows all three parties searching for the floating island, each with their own motivation and goals for when they reach the land. While it doesn’t seem like much, what makes the plot so ambitious, compared to its predecessor, is the variety of motivations, characters and locations that the plot spans across. Giving nuance and history to all three parties searching for the land, and cleverly subverting the audience’s expectations as the film unfolds. 

One of the cleverest ways in which this is done from the very start is within the opening scene; we see a wistful Sheeta in the window of the impressive airship waited on/guarded by a group of men in suits. There’s undeniably a hint that something is not right, but nothing concrete at this stage. So when the frantic pirates start to invade the ship, we automatically assume they’re the bad guys, and these men surrounding Sheeta are the good guys. But during the attack this idea is subverted in two key ways, firstly the pirates use non-lethal force, attacking with tear-gas, while the suited men and military personnel use standard pistols from the off. Already this invokes the idea that our preconceptions of these two groups aren’t what we initially suspect, and this idea is confirmed when Sheeta takes a moment of confusion & distraction in her cabin to attack one of her guards with a stray bottle, before escaping. At this moment it becomes crystal clear that there is more to play than we might have presumed at the start. 

Throughout the film the artwork and animation is, as expected, stunning. The film utilises a wide range of locations, allowing for the animators to craft these intricate and distinct settings that all look gorgeous. In the early scenes in Pazu’s hometown, it’s clear to see the influence that Miyazaki’s trip to Wales during the mining strikes had on the design. The terraced houses of Pazu’s town not only emulate the traditional architecture of the real life mining towns, but also reflects the tight-knit community of the people living within them. The juxtaposition between the closeness of the town, with the isolated feeling stemming from the mountain edge & surrounding fields, creates a sense of disconnect between the military and officials we see in the film, who act out of selfish gain, and the real people of the world who are left to their own devices. We can even see this happening within the film during the chase sequence on the railroad where the military forces themselves onto the track with a row of tanks and vehicles; there is no respect given to the rickety track put together by the people, but they take complete control of it, regardless of the implications for the townsfolk. The animation in this chase sequence is amazing too, with the frenetic energy of the collapsing bridge and the different vehicles playing out so amazingly. But alongside this town, we’re also treated to some beautiful scenery in locations like the military castle, onboard the airships, and, of course, in Laputa itself. All of these locations feel unique and fleshed out, even when they’re only featured sparingly. A great example of a location like this is the mine where we our two heroes meet Uncle Pomme, it’s a beautifully designed and animated sequence, and perfectly plays into the theme of the power and everlasting quality of nature. But while talking about scenery in this film, I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about the titular castle in the sky; Laputa. From the very first glimpse we see of the castle it looks beautiful, we’re told from the plot about the power this nation had, and the image of the giant tree in the centre of it, evokes the image of Miyazaki’s themes of nation. Then we’re treated to the beautiful sequence of Pazu & Sheeta exploring the surface, seeing the legacy and decay of the human elements of the castle as they’re taken over by nature; either through overgrown trees and fields, or flooded auditoriums. The image of the Laputan robot slowly leading the two heroes through the derelict city is a wonderful sequence, heightened tremendously from Joe Hisaishi’s beautiful soundtrack. This idea is further enhanced when we see the underground chambers of Laputa; in this scene most clearly we see the relationship between humanity and nature. We see the powerhouse of the floating island completely taken over by nature with roots and wild grass growing throughout this lower level. This dichotomy between the two, comes to a head during the climax of the film, which I won’t go into detail about due to spoilers, but at the very end of the film it’s clear where Miyazaki stands on the issue of nature vs humanity.  While I don’t think this film works as well as Nausicaä, as it definitely drags in the middle act slightly, and the themes aren’t always as present or developed as I feel they should be. But it’s still a great film overall, a fantastic debut for the company and further cements Miyazaki’s skill as a director & storyteller. The childhood innocence and conviction of the two heroes is so charming, and their relationship is so satisfying to watch develop over the film, the climax of which, for me, is while they’re on watch on Mama’s airship. While not the best offering from the company, an important and deserving entry into the Studio Ghibli canon.

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