Premiering in 1986, Castle in the Sky represents a foundational benchmark for contemporary animation, a position attained not only by its status as the first Studio Ghibli release. Easing back on the post-apocalyptic grandeur of 1984’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, it professes similar ideas on environmental imbalance, adolescent longing and lifelong wanderlust within a far cozier rural setting, tied to a quaint reimagining of Earth’s past instead of a chilling vision of its potential future. This sort of bucolic backdrop, in which idyllic pre-modern nostalgia is paired with the marvels of soaring sci-fi tech, helped set a template for the world of console gaming, primarily in the genre of RPGs, with many prominent series borrowing direct elements from the film. There’s also the case of steampunk, an often-dubious creative subculture that nonetheless also finds a partial origin point here, in the imagining of Industrial Revolution signifiers evolving into futuristic forms.

In what may be its most significant cinematic contribution, Miyazaki’s film, along with those that preceded and followed it, has had a lasting influence on American animation, as part of the supplanting of the dominant Disney model by the now-regnant Pixar brand. These works owe a heavy debt to the Ghibli house style, drawing on the adventures of plucky, indefatigable heroes and heroines going up against far-more-powerful sinister forces, along with the propulsive concept of constructing eye-popping set-pieces around what amount to extended chase sequences. It’s in the embrace of this latter tendency, which has become as essential to the form as wisecracking sidekicks, gently delivered political bromides and soft-pedaled sentimentalism, that this methodology has since lost the plot. What separates Ghibli productions from those of other huge animation studios is not just their scale but the unparalleled sense of majestic quietude achieved via hand-drawn craftsmanship, a quality that functions hand in hand with a respect for nature’s power and distrust of those who attempt to exploit it for their own ends.

This equilibrium is generally disrupted in American copies, in which certain values get amplified to the detriment of others, most of the tranquil reflection drowned out in favor of more noise, energy and chatter. In cases like Castle in the Sky, this is literally demonstrated, with the American dub expanding the score from covering 39 of the film’s 126 minutes to around 90, further filling in moments of silence with added dialogue and sound effects. This inability to let the movie speak for itself stinks not only of distrust for the audience, but an essential antagonism to the ideas and sensations the original so succeeds in communicating.

This is especially true in the case of Castle in the Sky, a work whose very narrative essence hinges on the conflict between a contemplative appreciation of raw material and the heedless abuse of such. The story centers around Pazu (Mayumi Tanaka), an eager young mining drudge living in a small quarry town. His quiet life ends with the appearance of Sheeta (Keiko Yokozawa) an orphan who literally descends from the heavens, having plunged off an airship during a frenzied sky-pirate raid. Passing out from the fall, she’s allowed to sink slowly to the earth by the power of her necklace, made from a mysterious mineral which proves the film’s central focus.

The battle over that mineral’s source leads to the discovery of the castle of the title, a floating neverland that stands as an ideal synthesis of natural and mechanical spheres. Abandoned for centuries, it’s still tended by a single robot making its maintenance rounds, hundreds of other outmoded copies long since collapsed into rust, then grassed over like untended gravestones. As we learn, the inhabitants eventually left the airborne island behind, after coming to understand that human life on it could not be perpetually sustained. They returned to the earth, a place where natural serenity is doomed to be forever menaced by the encroachment of clashing gears and roaring engines.

Like so many great Japanese works of art, this one depicts a world poised on the brink of modernity, metaphorically reflective of the seismic rupture engendered by the late 19th century opening of the country’s borders. In terms of scope and complexity, the film’s handling of such subject matter is a bit of a step-down from the fantastical, nightmarish world of Nausicaä, smoothing out its rough edges, but this also allows it to serve as a compact fable. Like the lost simplicity of childhood, which the movie’s main characters have just edged beyond, certain realms of being are meant to exist only in memory, their impermanence cementing their power. This evanescent mirage gets matched by the splendor of the sky, which for Miyazaki represents both endless possibility and perfect balance, his characters suspended in gravity-defying feats that would never be possible in a live-action production. Elementary and straightforward, Castle in the Sky, functions as the introduction for the pastoral, low-key period the director would inhabit until returning to epic form with 1997’s Princess Mononoke, a run of material marked by an unmatched intermixing of ambiance and wonder.

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