Castles in the Sky: Castle in the Sky, by Aaron Pinkston
Yes, you read that title right — Castle in the Sky, the first official film produced by Studio Ghibli (Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind was released two years earlier, technically before Ghibli’s existence) is the namesake of the retrospective series. I think the release trivia and general idea of “Castles in the Sky” contribute to the naming of the series more than this particular film. Castle in the Sky is certainly exciting filmmaking, but it’s not indicative of the series as a whole.
I’ve never been much of a gamer, but I do have fond memories of being a child with a Super Nintendo. Many of my absolute favorite games were role playing games coming out of Japan — EarthBound, Chrono Trigger, Illusion of Gaia, Final Fantasy (of course), etc. The world of Castle in the Sky is made from the same cloth, a mystical world filled with magical stones, dangerous pirates, outmoded industry, tales of adventure and fate. Apparently, Ghibli worked directly on two video games, but even if they hadn’t the connections between these role-playing games and the studio’s work is very clear.
The film opens on an airship, amidst a pirate raid. Though it isn’t initially clear what the pirates are looking for, they seem to be interested in a young girl, Sheeta, who “escapes” by falling out of the ship. But instead of falling to her certain death, a stone around her neck activates and gently floats her down. She then comes across a young boy named Pazu who helps her evade both the band of pirates as well as military forces and others in her pursuit. As we learn more of her story, we find out that she is a royal descendant of a mythical island called Laputa, which floats amongst the clouds. Pazu claims that his father has seen the island during a flight and so the young couple sets out to find it. Castle in the Sky is easily the most intricate plot of the series thus far, steeped in mythology — it’s closest companion without a doubt is Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, which shares the heavy narrative and overall visual style.
At its best, Castle in the Sky is a pure action film. There are a number of really amazing action setpieces throughout the film, and these scenes are the ones that really had my attention. From the opening raid, to a wonderful train chase and the finale on Laputa, the action scenes are incredibly big and bold, seemingly impossible to film in live-action and beautifully animated. We get collapsing bridges, harrowing falls, explosions and more explosions. Seriously, there is no better way to watch an explosion on film then in Japanese animation. You can take your 1980’s macho action, but Ghibli really balances the destruction with an artistic touch. Countering the heavy action is slapstick-style comedy, often the two are mixed within scenes.
Full disclosure: I’ve never been incredibly keen on the traditional anime genre, and that probably has a big influence on my overall thoughts of the film. When Castle in the Sky isn’t in full-gear action mode, I was actually pretty bored. The 100 degree Chicago heat may have played a part, but I give the film’s length (126 minutes) and narrative density more credit. Overall, there were too many characters with ever-changing motivations and backstory for me to totally jump on board. It also has the super-serious, nearly morose, tone you find with many similar anime films and television series. If you’re the type of person that watched cartoon network in the late evenings in your college dorm room or have ever been in some sort of anime club, I think you’ll probably dig it.