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Stream of the Week: Castle in the Sky (1986)

Updated: Mar 19, 2023

Hayao Miyazaki’s work has always been deeply engaged with themes of the environment, war and human connection. The director would later take an acutely political turn after the war in Yugoslavia, saying he’d never again be able to make a movie like Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989), instead evoking brutality and mournfulness in works like Princess Mononoke (1997); but I find it interesting that this interest in war and modern society permeated even his earliest works, including Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984) and one of his most beautiful films: Castle in the Sky. It’s tricky to fit this work into Miyazaki’s oeuvre. It’s not as angry as Princess Mononoke, yet it doesn’t shy away from the costliness of power-hungry men. After Pazu rescues a young girl, Sheeta, who drifts down from the sky, the two set off to discover a legendary floating city, unknowingly entering a struggle for power between governments, rogue agents and pirates. Tender, thrilling and magnificently crafted, this movie would help establish the foundation for Miyazaki’s more mature work.

Heavily inspired by Johnathan Swift’s novel, Gulliver’s Travels, which also features a floating island propelled by magical crystals, Miyazaki’s work focuses much more on the political implications of such technology. In his third film, the Japanese animator was already proving himself to be deeply engaged with questions of power. The crystals that make Laputa float can also be very destructive if harnessed by the wrong people. Miyazaki doesn’t explore the responsibilities that come with such technology, but instead asks if such power should even exist. Because of this, filtering the film through the eyes of two children was a perfect way of defamiliarizing normalized violence, adding gravity to certain scenes that would otherwise just be another battle sequence. It’s a systemic critique of technology and war, no doubt influenced by the director growing up in post-WW2 Japan, describing ‘bombed-out cities’ forming some of his earliest memories. The deep humanity at the film’s core is also emphasized by its aesthetics.

Following Miyazaki’s unwavering principle to have every frame drawn by hand, this film is not only amazing to look at, but every second of it carries a human quality that’s come to be associated with Studio Ghibli films. There are moments of the film where the color tones shift from warm to cold or vice versa, creating a very dynamic psychological landscape that helps pull viewers even closer to the edge of their seats. These shifts in color also connect to how the film hits every emotional register. There are moments where we’re heartbroken, others where we laugh alongside the characters, and there are some action-packed scenes that feel like a shot of adrenaline. By connecting the film’s visual language to its varied use of sentiment, Miyazaki ultimately provides a wildly engaging viewing experience that’s further bolstered by the phenomenal sound design.

While in the gardens of Laputa, Sheeta and Pazu discover old robots still caring for the grounds of Sheeta’s former castle. It’s in these moments of stillness that the genius behind the film’s use of sound can really be appreciated. We hear the wind, a few birds trilling songs, even the blades of grass beneath their feet. That being said, explosions, speeding tires and the sounds of a ship hit during an ambush are also extremely well executed. Creating such a tactile experience goes a long way to immerse the viewer, endearing us even more to these characters and their struggles.

As I said, this film can be seen as one of the precursors for Miyazaki’s later work. Its interest in imperialism, technology and nature are obvious; but we also see where Miyazaki’s shift to more personal themes would become possible for films like Totoro, Kiki’s and even Spirited Away (2001). Throughout its runtime, Sheeta and Pazu wrestle deeply with questions of the self, identity and where they belong in the world. Because of this, Castle in the Sky can almost be seen as a kind of roadmap which may help viewers navigate the arc of Miyazaki’s career. It’s one that’s deeply and earnestly engaged with the political, but approaches such heady themes through the intimate, through the personal, and to me that’s what makes all his films so magical. Even its trailer is rewatchable! Castle in the Sky is now streaming on HBO Max, and your day would be a lot better if you watched it. If you enjoyed this review, consider subscribing to the blog’s Patreon by clicking here! It helps pay the various fees that come with running a website, and keeps this blog ad-free and independent. There are also some cool benefits for those who choose to support the blog in this way!

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