Still dazzled by Spirited Away and Kiki's Delivery Service, I turned to Castle in the Sky, Hayao Miyazaki's third theatrical film after Lupin III: Castle of Cagliostro and Nausicaä of the Valley of the Winds, and to my delight I was dazzled all over again. Castle imagines a world a half-step away from ours, where zeppelins and wasp-like skycraft buzz through the clouds looking for the elusive floating city of Laputa. But the movie is far more than just spectacle and wide-gauge images: if Miyazaki can be said to be consistent in any one thing, it's in the amount of care and heart he put into his characters as well as the attention to detail he paid to his designs.
This is the fifth of Miyazaki's films that I have seen, and each time I see a new movie by him, or even an old one, I have to ask myself how someone of his genius has been condemned to what is essentially a cult following in the States. His work is broadly accessible to both adults and children and doesn't condescend to either; in terms of pure look-and-feel, his output is on a par with if not superior to Disney's work; and, unlike Disney, his movies are not canned, politically correct little moral treatises. Princess Mononoke was as troubling and contemplative a movie as any made with real actors, Spirited Away as enchanting, and My Neighbor Totoro as endearing.
Of these films, Castle is the closest to pure adventure from beginning to end, but also with its fair share of thought. Many have called it his best work, although Spirited Away is even more dazzling and far-reaching, and Mononoke more philosophically ambitious. Castle is far from inferior to those two, however (and it doesn't suffer from the jarringly abrupt ending of Kiki, either!), and its open debt to Jonathan Swift is openly credited in the film when its hero and heroine look over Gulliver's Travels.
Unlike many other Miyazaki movies, Castle opens on a jarring note of violence. A gang of air pirates raid a massive zeppelin and attempt to make off with a young girl. Rather than let herself be captured, she crawls along the outside of the ship, only to lose her footing and fall — but as a feather might, thanks to the mysterious crystal around her neck. She drifts downwards into the arms of Pazu, a young machinist who works as an elevator operator in a small village's mineshaft. "I thought you might have been an angel," he confesses, and as a sly underscoring of his words, Miyazaki gives us a shot of the girl surrounded by birds, as if having sprouted wings.
Mama and her gang of thieves want the Laputan treasure for themselves,
but the most valuable one of them all is Sheeta's crystal.
The girl's name is Sheeta, and not only are the pirates still after her, but so is a gang of paramilitary thugs led by the arrogant Colonel Muska. Pazu rises to her defense, and like them is also curious about the stone she wears. Sheeta doesn't remember much of her past, and would rather try to find something with her new friend than dig around in the dark of her memories. Unfortunately, the pirates turn the town upside down looking for her, and they are forced to flee — at first on foot, then by train, then airship, and then literally by dangling from their fingertips over crumbling chasms.
The leader of the pirates, the carrot-haired Mama, is like an earlier vision of what Miyazaki might have had in mind for Spirited Away's grotesque Yubaba — she's old, tough as leather, and missing most of her teeth, but essentially humane. Far more so, anyway, than the pathological Muska, who is more than willing to destroy half the town to get Sheeta. With his glasses and his perpetual smirk, he's one of the few genuinely irredeemable characters in Miyazaki's canon — he callously kills dozens of soldiers at one point by simply dumping them out into the sky.
Muska's motives are simple. Sheeta, as we learn, is the last surviving heir to the fabled sky kingdom of Laputa. Pazu's father, now dead, was alleged to have stumbled across it himself, and Pazu has kept his father's faded photo of the island all these years. Finding Sheeta is a vindication for him, although he goes beyond seeing her simply as that. Muska has no such sentimentality, and simply wants Sheeta to unlock the secrets of the kingdom for himself; he looks the other way as his soldiers peel the gold leaf off of the walls.
Among those secrets are the massive robots that the Laputans built, one of which — like Sheeta herself! — fell from the sky in disrepair years ago. In one of the film's best scenes, Sheeta is shown the remnants of the robot, activates it almost without realizing it, and creates a malestrom of destruction that almost kills all of them. But the robot is not inherently destructive; it is simply programmed to protect the royal family. (I was reminded of the No Face in Spirited Away, wh ich was benign until it was allowed to overindulge its appetites.)
Even more interesting is the handling of the pirates. Pazu runs afoul of them early on, but negotiates with them: Let me help you find her and you can have all the Laputan treasures you want! Mama is only too happy to let this foolish boy stick his neck out for them, but then overhears Pazu and Sheeta talking at one point, and realizes she has seen little and understood even less about them. The movie wisely does not make her into a total hero — at the end she and her friends are just as greedy as ever — but it at least gives her the chance to put her skills in the service of a greater good.
Magnificent moments abound. I mentioned the awakening of the robot, but there are almost too many others to list. A chase on train tracks that goes through, around, and above Pazu's village has to be seen to be believed. The aerial fight over the army garrison. The mad dash over the landscape to rescue Sheeta before dawn. The robots with their long, segmented arms, like spiders crossed with matchstick men. And the sight of Laputa itself, ancient and crumbling, crowned with trees. I loved the little details as well as the big ones: look fast in Mama's cabin and you'll see a portrait of her hanging on the wall — albeit much younger.
I could not help but be struck by the remarkable similarities between Castle and Hideaki Anno's Nadia:The Secret of Blue Water (which was released years later). Both have roughly the same plot: A young girl with the key to a lost kingdom of great power teams with a young tinkerer to evade a group of outlaws who want her power, then join forces with them to ward off an even stronger enemy. Both deal with the responsibility of power (and, conversely, the power of responsibility); both take place in a retro-steam past that's not our history, but based loosely on it. Nadia was brilliant in some ways and horribly flawed in others — at a little more than the halfway mark, it felt like a different writer and director took over, and a fine show was turned into an appallingly bad one. Castle fares better mostly because it takes its story seriously all the way through, and doesn't degenerate into campy nonsense.