Derived from Jonathan Swift’s well-known work “Gulliver’s Travels” (yes, there was more than just the Lilliputian people in Gulliver’s travels!), this was Studio Ghibli’s first child, so to speak. Miyazaki created Nausicaä prior to this film, and its success called for the creation of Studio Ghibli. Castle in the Sky (1986) firmly established Miyazaki’s signature style: adventure, flying, a touch of science fiction, humor, and youth.
This is a story about a young girl, Sheeta, trying desperately to keep her pendant, given to her by her late mother, out of the hands of the government. She hides its secret and after escaping from their clutches, she meets Pazu, an orphan with the dream of flying in the skies and one day seeing the legendary castle in the sky, Laputa, that his father had espied many years ago. Pazu tries to save her but fails to keep Sheeta out of the government’s hands. In his dejection, he runs into a group of sky pirates who too has been pursuing Sheeta in search of Laputa’s legendary treasures. Pazu joins forces with the humorous and courageous bunch, saves Sheeta and they finally discover Laputa, the castle in the sky. Unfortunately, the government is pursuing them, and in an exciting display of how absolute power corrupts absolutely, Sheeta and Pazu defeat Muska, the mastermind who wished to use Laputa for his own greed. Laputa is saved and drifts off into the sky where it returns to its legendary status.
Resembling Nausicaä and the later Princess Mononoke, Miyazaki’s major themes here include the power of trust and friendship, and how technology corrupts and destroys nature. The first half of the story establishes friendship and forms the backstory, and the second half is political and symbolic. Similar to this story structure and its symbolism, the upper half of Laputa is purely a celebration of nature, and how man and nature once worked together to create beauty. However, it is now empty of humans, and nature roams free and happy. The lower half of Laputa is an intricate structure of highly advanced technology. In possessing this superior knowledge and skill, it consequently possesses a devastatingly powerful weapon. This is what the main villain, the greedy and manipulative Muska, seeks.
Laputa itself is completely devoid of human life, symbolizing that despite their advanced technology and knowledge, its civilization still failed. One can gather that they became heartless and destroyed themselves. Sheeta’s parents gave her a pendant that would keep her safe via the power of Laputa before sending her down to earth to escape its destruction. The crowning glory of Laputa depends on perspective: Sheeta and Pazu fell in love with the flora and fauna of the upper half, while the lower half of advanced technology appealed to the greedy and power-hungry military and government. Consequently, they were blind to the fact that this culmination of powerful technology became its downfall.
Miyazaki now comes very close to mastering his gift of creating lovable characters. While Nausicaä and its characters seemed cold and distant, the characters in Castle in the Sky were warm and relatable. They are unique, made you laugh, and cry, and essentially pulled you right in to the story. While Sheeta (a modification of Nausicaä, the early prototype for Satsuki and Kiki) is gentle yet fierce, it’s the characters she’s surrounded by that make this film such a wonderful adventure. The protagonists and antagonists are so contrary that it seems almost clichéd. But Miyazaki can take a simple plot and turn it into a heart-warming story full of color and depth.
Next to Princess Mononoke (which came out 11 years later) and Nausicaä, this was one of his most fast-paced stories. And yet he achieves so much in this film. Initially, I felt Sheeta was a weak character, secondary almost, but Miyazaki takes full advantage of the 2+ hours of this film to really show her growth in both strength and confidence. She remains the contemplative girl in the end, but there is finally a smile on her face that shows peace with her past.
I highly recommend this film. It’s an essential to Miyazaki’s repertoire. While it’s a bit longer than his usual stories, we can marvel at how the art styles and his storytelling has come together by this point. His proceeding film, Tonari no Totoro, which is much lighter in subject, solidified Miyazaki’s distinctive signature.