Miyazaki May: “Castle in the Sky”


 It’s May, and I’ve realized how long it has been since I’ve watched the films of master Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki. I remember loving them when I was younger (I wrote a research paper on the life of Miyazaki in 7th grade), but I’ve been curious to see how they hold up to these more trained eyes. Or, maybe I just love alliteration. Either way, Miyazaki May is on! 

In terms of sheer entertainment, “Castle in the Sky” is about as good a Miyazaki film as you’re likely to find. The film plays out more like an “Indiana Jones” or “Goonies” style adventure movie than anything else the animator has done. It’s Miyazaki at his most playful, yet still manages to convey some of the director’s trademark themes.

The story finds an orphaned boy named Patzu, living and working in a small mining town, who comes across a girl names Sheeta who seemingly drops from the sky. She is wearing a glowing crystal necklace with strange powers. It isn’t long before they are tracked down by both a government agent named Muska and a gang of pirates, who both believe the crystal may be the key to unlocking the secrets of Laputa, a fable floating city in the sky.

The prominent theme in this film is flight. Miyazaki’s father was a pilot, and an obsession with flying took up a good deal of his early years. Patzu’s father was also a pilot, and it is his goal to build a flying machine and find the floating fortress that his father was so obsessed with. In the film’s steam-punk universe, flying ships exist, but they are only available to the very wealthy and the military. The flight sequences are just spectacular; hand-drawn animation creates a sense of motion that is difficult to replicate in any other medium; everything from aerial battles to the floating city itself almost look real.

I absolutely love the humor in this movie. It’s Miyazaki’s funniest film by far. Most of the humor comes from the Dola gang, a family band of pirates led by an old woman named Dola and her awkward, bumbling sons. It’s a gentle humor that comes across as refreshing to an American raised on more aggressive and cruel one-upmanship. It makes me wish he had attempted this level of humor in more of his movies (although he did make other comical adventures, such as “Porco Rosso” and “The Castle of Cagliostro”).

As a more conventional adventure story, “Castle in the Sky” is one of the few Miyazaki films to contain a traditional villain. In this case, it works, particularly because Muska is such a cool villain (even with the purple suit and ascot). It helps that he’s played in the American dub by Mark Hamill, who can do no wrong in the realm of voice acting. But the real villains here are actually more esoteric. The floating city of Laputa seems to be a paradise, but there’s a reason the city has been abandoned. It represents all the potential good as well as the potential evil of a futuristic city with advanced technology.

The primary villain, however, is the villain in almost every Miyazaki film: humanity’s fractured relationship with the world in which it lives. Within a fun, fast-paced adventure, Miyazaki still makes a grand statement about our destruction of the earth. This message may seem didactic to American eyes, but it’s difficult to understate the Japanese cultural tradition that emphasizes our connectedness with nature. “The earth speaks to all of us,” says one character early in the film. “We come from the earth, and to the earth we shall return.” Compare this gentle, unobtrusive message to the didacticism of American films such as “Avatar.” It’s clear that Japanese culture has an apolitical appreciation for the natural world around it that American culture seems to lack. It’s a theme that Miyazaki will perfect in the next film featured in Miyazaki May.