Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind was a success. I can’t find statistics that tell me how big of a success it was financially, but critically speaking, it got pretty amazing reviews. Also, its home video release and subsequent status as a seminal and beloved film in Japanese animation history must’ve returned the investment. Fresh of the praises he received for adapting his own manga, director Hayao Miyazaki teamed up with producer Toshio Suzuki (who worked on Nausicaä) so they could found their own animation studio. Also invited to be part of the new studio, Miyazaki’s producer, Isao Takahata, of whom we’ll be talking about later in this series. Anyway, these three men met, and that’s how Studio Ghibli was born.
That, of course, isn’t the whole story. The significant thing about Ghibli, and one of the reasons it would become the best animation studio in the world, besides the talent of the people involved, is that Miyazaki and Suzuki had a very clear idea of the kind of studio they wanted to start, and the kind of movie they wanted to make. Ghibli’s ideology was “quality over quantity”. Not really that original, but significant, and very impressive when you consider how closely the studio has adhered to it. Ghibli would not make either cheap television productions, or hyper-violent movies aimed at teen and adult audiences. Miyazaki and Suzuki’s vision was to make smart movies that could be enjoyed by everyone. And it’s true; the studio’s biggest asset is its refusal to talk down to children, a quality that is sadly still absent from most children’s entertainment.
All of this brings me to the first feature released by Ghibli as a consolidated studio, and directed by Miyazaki himself, a movie by the name of… well, and here’s were problematic details start to emerge. The movie’s original title translated to Laputa: Castle in the Sky. However, you might know that “la puta” is Spanish for “the whore” (although the word “puta” is actually a curse word, which “whore” is not). This was noticed by the film’s American distribution, Walt Disney Studios, which removed the word and released the film as Castle in the Sky. In other instanced, such as the U.K. and Australian release, the title was changed to Laputs: Castle in the Sky. As a young Peruvian boy, I encountered the film as El castillo en el cielo, but if you ask me, this is all much ado about nothing, because no matter the censorship in the title, knowing that the movie was really called “laputa” made me very amused.
The term Laputa, of course, comes from Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. In the story, Laputa is a flying island inhabited by technologically superior beings, who are interested, above all, in science and astronomy. In Mayazaki’s film, Laputa is what people are chasing after, a legendary island holding unimaginable treasures. The first people we meet that are searching for it, are a band of air pirates led by a woman named Dola. They attack a big government ship, looking for a little girl who is in the possession of a mysteriously blue stone. The pirates corral the girl to the point where her only options are either to surrender, or jump off the flying ship. She jumps, but much to our surprise, her fall is interrupted mid-air by the glowing blue stone, which makes her light as a feather, turning her descent into a peaceful glide.
This girl is one of our protagonists, Sheeta. The other is a young orphan named Pazu, who lives in a small mining town and works as a mechanic. It is him that finds an unconscious Sheeta once she has fallen from the sky. He takes her to his home, and as soon as she wakes up, tells her about the legendary flying island of Laputa, which was once seen by his disappeared father (himself an explorer pilot), and has remained his obsession ever since. Another party looking for the island is the government, led by Muska, a man dressed in fancy clothing, who is nevertheless rather evil, and even though he doesn’t specify at first, is searching for the island with an undoubtedly nefarious end in mind. Sheeta knows that her stone has something to do with Laputa, so when the government comes chasing after her, she and Pazu set off to find the island before they do.
Compared to the science-fiction epic that is Nausicaä, Castle in the Sky looks like a much lighter adventure, starting by the fact that it isn’t set in a post-apocalyptically ravished earth. Instead, Castle in the Sky is set in what is best described as a alternative, fantasy version of our world, in which Gulliver’s Travels still exists (the book and its author are name-checked by Pazu), but where technology has evolved in ways very similar to what we commonly describe as “steampunk” aesthetics (inspired, of all things, by a trip Miyazaki made to Britain during the mining strike of 1984). Now, I’m kind of a sucker for anything steampunk (I just love the look of it), but that’s not the only reason why I think Castle in the Sky look fantastic. I would say, in fact, that it looks infinitely better than Nausicaä, which was on itself a very beautiful looking movie. Anyway, in these cases, words can only take you so far, so here are some pretty stills from the film:
The visuals of Castle in the Sky might not be as richly saturated as the pastel palette of Nausicaä, but there is a certain leap in quality nonetheless. The background paintings are equally as detailed and beautiful, and the opening credits sequence in particular -which looks like something between a storybook illustration and wood carvings- is stunning. I was also impressed by the improvement in the use of shadows. Nausicaä has a beautifully saturated pastel palette, but there is a flat quality to its shading. Castle in the Sky, on the other hand, shows depth and dimension in every frame. Here are two of the most extreme, but also most striking, examples:
The biggest visual leap between Nausicaä and Castle in the Sky, however, is in the character animation. Nausicaä might have looked better than any of its contemporaries, but it the way its characters move is primitive and stiff compared to the way Sheeta and Pazu run around in Castle in the Sky. And don’t even get me started on the action sequences. This is essentially a chase movie, and its chases include vehicles raging from automobiles to trains and flying ships. An early sequence in which the two kid protagonists go on a train to escape the pirates is especially exhilarating, as the persecuting car destroys the train tracks as it violently makes its way through the mining town.
Castle in the Sky also has a more comedic tone than Nausicaä, but not necessarily when compared to Miyazaki’s previous output. Tim Brayton, of the fantastic blog Antagony & Ecstasy, points out that this movie shares a large number of plot similarities with Miyazaki’s earlier anime series, Future Boy Conan. I personally have not seen that series, which is supposed to have a very comedic tone, but there is no denying that there is a lot of comedy to be found in the treatment of pirate leader Dola, and her minions, who call her “mama”, and are a bunch of immature man-children.
That being said, I can’t imagine Future Boy Conan being nearly as nuanced and earnest in its emotions as Castle in the Sky, whose main course is the development of the friendship between Sheeta and Pazu. There is a beautiful moment in which the kids are standing guard in the middle of the night, and share a single blanket while waiting for the sight of the enemy approaching their ship. The movie features a lot of Miyazaki’s common thematic interests, including an environmental message, but the real theme of the movie, as I said, is friendship, as well as selflessness for the ones you love.
Another common Miyazaki theme present in the movie is the “magic of flight”. Anybody who is familiar with the filmmaker will know that he loves flying objects. Castle in the Sky, being about the search for a floating island aboard huge flying ships, is full of them, and the manpower and detail that the newly founded Studio Ghibli provided him is reflected in how amazing the flying sequences look. Not only are they gorgeously designed and animated, but the level of artistry at the director’s disposal also provided him with the opportunity to use the possibility of falling down out of the sky and down to earth as a way to amp up the stakes of the action sequences. All the most thrilling moments of Castle in the Sky happen when characters are up in the air, which thanks to the “steampunk” approach in which flying vessels behave essentially as ships, the sky becomes as beautiful and dangerous a place as the ocean.
This was Miyazaki’s third feature, and Ghibli’s first. There might be better movies coming up in the Studio’s history, but with exhilarating thrills, the beautiful relationship at its center, and the fact that it features two protagonists who are as respectful a portrayal of children as you are going to find in cinema of the time (or any time, really), I couldn’t think of a better way for Studio Ghibli to present itself to the world than with this movie.
Up Next: Isao Takahata will make everybody weep uncontrollably with Grave of the Fireflies.