The first film to be released under the Studio Ghibli name, Castle in the Sky may be among Hayao Miyazaki’s more straightforward films but that never takes away from how thoroughly exciting it is from beginning to end. Much like Spirited Away and Kiki’s Delivery Service, Castle in the Sky was a film that had been a favourite of mine when I was very young but it was also one that I never came back to until just recently. As I watch the film again as an adult, Castle in the Sky doesn’t only hit me again with that same magic like it did as a kid but I’m still in awe at how perfectly constructed it is – which is just about everything I could ever want from any of Miyazaki’s films.
Opting for a much less dense plot compared to Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, Castle in the Sky starts with a very fitting note: a young girl named Sheeta has been abducted by the agent Muska as his airship is being attacked by Dola’s air pirate gang. Setting the tone for the adventure is the image of Sheeta as she falls from the airship, with a descent slowed down by her magical pendant landing into the company of Pazu, a young boy living in a small mining town. Together, Pazu and Sheeta embark on a search for Laputa (referencing Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels), a legendary floating island in the sky. Despite opting for more straightforward storytelling, Miyazaki never lets down on the excitement to come by, making Castle in the Sky more than just one of the best animated films of all time.
Where Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind succeeds in creating a perfect parable for our times through a beautiful post-apocalyptic vision, Castle in the Sky takes upon an approach more influenced by classic literature whilst retaining many of the themes that had built Studio Ghibli’s long legacy. Even then, there’s a whole lot to love about the way in which Studio Ghibli crafts the many worlds that they bring to the screen, for Miyazaki allows his imagination to shine at great lengths and provide the most immersive experiences possible with the seemingly impossible. As per usual for the course, Castle in the Sky boasts incredibly beautiful animation – but also his most dedicated and wonderfully constructed world-building, adding more to the wonder found within even the tiniest detail.
The more the world of Castle in the Sky starts to take upon the more fantastical it also brings out two of Miyazaki’s most relatable lead characters in Pazu and Sheeta. Sheeta is never a “damsel in distress” but a strong-willed young girl, the very archetype within which Miyazaki had been working with through his whole career, and Pazu, being so fearless and adventurous captures a childlike spirit that only brings us much closer to embracing the wonder that Miyazaki brings out in here. A whole array of well-constructed characters make up Castle in the Sky, from every member of Dola’s air pirate gang led by a conniving yet caring mother and Colonel Muska, the rare truly evil Studio Ghibli villain without any redeeming qualities whatsoever.
Being the classic “good vs. bad” adventure tale, Miyazaki never lets down on the excitement as Castle in the Sky lends itself well to being his fastest moving film. Together with the perfectly constructed world building as well as Miyazaki’s environmentalist subtext, what Castle in the Sky brings out in Studio Ghibli’s long body of work is also the perfect picture of child’s desire for adventure, yet also a perfect commentary on the means in which technology can coexist together with nature. The world of Laputa represents a perfect utopia for Hayao Miyazaki, being a distorted portrait of the industrial revolution – being a source of unmistakable power and wealth. Of course, the thought runs that all this could end up in the wrong hands, which sets the stakes so perfectly high up yet racks up all the sense of excitement you could ever feel from exploring the vast and beautiful world of Laputa and its history.
To call Castle in the Sky one of the best animated films wouldn’t be enough to capture everything that makes this film as wonderful as it is. For every minute that Castle in the Sky can get very goofy, it nonetheless boasts some of Miyazaki’s most beautifully detailed work to date, but also some of his most thrilling. Putting it lightly, it’s Miyazaki at some of his most imaginative – which makes it the perfect adventure tale for kids, but also a perfect ride if you’re to look at the film as an adult. For all I know, this was a film that I’ve long stuck with since I was very young and to look at it again now just feels like I’m being brought back to the happiest of my own childhood memories. Castle in the Sky truly is an enchanting adventure, one that only became a catalyst for what was to come in the future for Studio Ghibli.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via the Toei Company.
Directed by Hayao Miyazaki
Screenplay by Hayao Miyazaki
Produced by Isao Takahata
Starring Mayumi Tanaka, Keiko Yokozawa, Kotoe Hatsui, Minori Terada (Japanese version)
Starring James Van Der Beek, Anna Paquin, Mark Hamill, Cloris Leachman, Mandy Patinkin (Disney dub)
Release Date: August 2, 1986
Running Time: 124 minutes