Miyazaki's Action Trinity: Castle in the Sky

Welcome to another entry in my “Miyazaki’s Action Trinity” series! For those who are new, feel free to read my previous entry on Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind here. Anyway, onward! (Also, spoilers inbound.)

If Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind proved that Hayao Miyazaki wasn’t a one-trick pony with The Castle of Cagliostro, then Castle in the Sky (or Laputa: The Castle in the Sky, for those in non-English speaking countries) was proof that he was here to stay. In truth, this film strays furthest from what we’d typically expect while still being a Miyazaki movie…at least until The Wind Rises came out. It feels like a traditional action serial akin to Star Wars or Indiana Jones, but I’ll cover why shortly.

Castle in the Sky is the story of Pazu, a miner’s apprentice, and Sheeta, a mysterious farmer girl with a magical necklace, and their attempt to find a long-forgotten kingdom in the clouds called Laputa. For Pazu, the stakes are personal, as he hopes to clear his deceased father’s name. Sheeta’s motivations are less-clear initially, but it’s revealed that she's from the Laputian royal family. All-the-while, the two are pursued by a gang of pirates, led by Dola, and the military, led by Colonel Muska, both of whom wish to uncover Laputa for themselves. Being an action serial-type film, the quest is filled with mystery, action and whimsy.

I have an interesting relationship with Castle in the Sky. It was the second Studio Ghibli movie I watched following Spirited Away, as well as the first film of Miyazaki’s that I rented from my then-local Blockbuster, and I didn't know what to expect. Even with the introduction from John Lasseter of Pixar fame, because the man’s a huge Miyazaki fanboy, I wasn’t sure if this'd be a heist movie, or an epic fantasy. With the opening scene, I was under the impression that I was watching The President’s daughter and her secret service ambushed by pirates. It took a while to get a grasp of what’d happened, but it was nice to watch a movie without any idea of what to expect.

Like Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, Castle in the Sky’s priorities aren’t in its narrative. The movie’s riddled with contrivances and plot-holes, most-notably how Pazu’s father died a liar if the evidence of Laputa’s existence was framed on his wall, yet none of it ends up mattering. Unlike Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, that has less to do with the movie being fuelled by emotion, although there’s lots to be had, and more with the movie being a typical 80's kid’s movie. It has all of the ingredients of one: high fantasy, the whimsy purposely kept vague, a villain with a deviously one-dimensional motive, goofy side-characters and corny one-liners that help cut the darker moments. In the vein of a traditional serial, the film’s also a clichéd Magoffin chase where you can guess every plot-beat the first time around, yet stay because it’s too much fun.

This is what baffled me most about Castle in the Sky initially. Up until that point, the only action serial Magoffin series I’d watched was Indiana Jones, and I remember being so bored by Raiders of the Lost Ark in high school that I fell asleep before the Ark of the Covenant was found. In my mind, every movie of this type was boring. So while Castle in the Sky wouldn’t have been made without those films, I was surprised by how much I ended up enjoying it. Looking back, part of that probably was that, in true Miyazaki fashion, the film’s stakes in its Magoffin were kept small and personal despite the grandiose plot.

This is best-exemplified in the leads. Pazu’s no Indy, he’s a kid who wants to clear his father’s name. To him, Laputa represents redemption, an incredibly personal goal. Sheeta’s a descendant of Laputian royalty, giving her a connection to Laputa on a personal level too. Branching to the side-characters, their motivations aren’t big triumphs, but small ones; after all, Laputa has riches, so why not attain them? Even Muska, the film’s villain, only wants Laputa to fuel his megalomania, which is understandable given how he frequently mentions Laputa’s scientific knowledge.

It's these personal connections that make it easier for me to sympathize and relate to the protagonists. With Indiana Jones, he’s an adventurer who grabs relics to study. He has no real connection to them otherwise, and the films know this. So while they might be fun, I never feel an intimacy in my personal viewing. Castle in the Sky, on the other hand, has that intimacy, hence the investment.

It helps that the movie’s funny. Ignoring the added dialogue in the Disney dub, which I don’t mind, the film has many laugh-out-loud moments that work in context. I think my favourite is the brawl in the village, although Castle in the Sky also sneaks in a fart joke without it feeling cheap. It’s these tidbits that help keep it from being draining, especially since the movie can feel a little slow. Not to mention, they transition well into the film’s serious moments.

Because rest-assured, Castle in the Sky isn’t only whimsy. It can get pretty dark and serious too, especially in the second-half. I think the darkest it gets is in the third of its five major action sequences, i.e. the one with the robot blowing up the fortress. The scene’s a little over 12-minutes long, which is unusual for Miyazaki, yet it has plenty of “this got real” moments. It also successfully transitions to the darker tone of the movie’s second-half, which could’ve been bungled with a lesser director.

Castle in the Sky’s also beautiful visually. The budget’s slightly higher than Miyazaki’s previous work, but even with its shortcomings the movie looks gorgeous 31 years later. I especially like how the colour palate is bright and timeless. Many 80’s movies have that sentimental vibe that dates them visually, but this movie l looks like it could’ve come out today with some tweaks. Even the remasters haven’t detracted from how beautiful it looks, which isn’t an easy given that hand-drawn films don’t translate well to HD or 4K.

The music is excellent. It’s Joe Hisaishi again, and depending on your preference, be it synth or orchestration, you have two distinct ways to listen. My favourite piece is easily during the fortress fight, but there are enough great tracks that all of them are winners. They’re that good.

What makes Castle in the Sky fit well in “Miyazaki’s Action Trinity” is that it’s easily accessible to the uninitiated. Perhaps even more than Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. And I think part of this is because of how Westernized it is, borrowing a genre aesthetic, as well as classic references, from Western media. There’s Indiana Jones, but there are also nods to Jules Verne and Jonathan Swift, both directly and indirectly. It’s this Western appeal that makes the film an easy recommendation for friends and family members. I know because I've watched it with a few of my own.

And really, this is far more important than whether or not a film is ground-breaking. Because Castle in the Sky, even by 1980’s standards, is nothing new, being a child-friendly Indiana Jones with a tacked-on environmental message. That, and it can feel a little slow. But it’s great fun, easily my favourite of the trinity, and it’s easy to see why Toonami picked it for their marathon. I can’t recommend it enough.

That concludes the second part of my “Miyazaki’s Action Trinity” series. Join me next time as I tackle nature and environmentalism again with Princess Mononoke. I’ll see you then!


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