Miyazaki Marathon – Castle in the Sky


With the upcoming release of Miyazaki’s 12th (and possibly final) film, How Do You Live?, we at Flixist will be taking a look at Miyazaki’s career over the decades. By going through each of his films starting from the pre-Ghibli days, we’ll see how the man has evolved as an artist and helped shape the landscape of anime for generations to come. This is Miyazaki Marathon!

Castle in the Sky [Official US Trailer, 3 Days Only!]

As we continue to go through Miyazaki’s catalog of films, one thing is evidently clear from the beginning of each: he never stopped improving as an artist. Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind was already an improvement over Castle of Cagliostro, but Castle in the Sky looks positively modern in comparison. The brush strokes, fine details, and fluid animations almost come off like they were designed by machines versus human artists, though maybe that’s just why. The energetic and crisp animation speaks volumes right off the bat for how Studio Ghibli would distinguish itself from other animation studios.

For the past two films directed by Miyazaki, both Jesse Lab and I have commented that their morals are relatively simple. I’m not sure why I expected the first official Ghibli film to be more complex in that regard, but Castle in the Sky does not buck this trend. It’s basically a fairy tale with some steampunk aesthetics thrown in. That doesn’t make it bad by any means, but it does mean that without cultural context, you might question how this film became so influential.

Even more so than previous efforts from Miyazaki, producer Isao Takahata, and composer Joe Hisaishi, Castle in the Sky’s impact can be felt to this day in numerous different anime and video games. I’m not sure how I had never watched the film before, but one of my first observations was how much The Legend of Zelda series was inspired by this film. Towards the finale, the main characters Pazu and Sheeta are exploring the titular castle in the sky and its landscape is barren and filled with decaying robots from a lost civilization, much like players do in Breath of the Wild.

Castle in the Sky

© Studio Ghibli

The soundtrack, in particular, sounds exactly like the stuff Squaresoft was putting into its SNES games. Taking an electronic form, Hisaishi’s score swaps between pulse-pounding beats and more contemplative tracks that would be right at home in a Final Fantasy title. In fact, series creator Hironobu Sakaguchi cites Castle in the Sky as directly inspiring the airships he would incorporate into various different Final Fantasy installments.

In terms of its impact on anime, Castle in the Sky is responsible for classics such as Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water, Steamboy, Sakura Wars, and Fullmetal Alchemist. The designs of its vehicles and environments spurred an interest in steampunk aesthetics, which is something that still lingers to this day. It’s amazing how deep the film truly is without having much in the way of social commentary or even character depth.

At this point in his career, I’m not sure if Miyazaki was confident he could directly tackle real-world issues. A lot of the plot in Castle in the Sky is more a thrill ride than a meditation on the human condition. The first 30 minutes are practically non-stop action and it’s truly exceptional stuff, but it doesn’t quite feel like what Studio Ghibli is known for nowadays.

Castle in the Sky

© Studio Ghibli

Where the allegories to real-life come in are during the introduction. While Pazu is attempting to flee with Sheeta from her assailants, his village bands together to fight off pirates. Out of context, it mostly acts as a way to demonstrate that Pazu’s village is full of honorable people that have each other’s backs. In terms of inspiration, Miyazaki actually based this on the 1984 miner’s strike in Wales. While I can’t find the reason for Miyazaki’s trip to the country, he had witnessed parts of the strike firsthand and was inspired by their strength.

“I was in Wales just after the miners’ strike. I really admired the way the miners’ unions fought to the very end for their jobs and communities,” Miyazaki told The Guardian in a retrospective interview from 2008. “I admired the way they battled to save their way of life, just as the coal miners in Japan did.” In Miyazaki’s eyes, people like this were a dying breed. They represented the ideal for which our neighbors should strive to be.

Going a bit deeper, the coolest aspect of Castle in the Sky is some of the implications that the film’s villain brings up. While we never gain a full understanding of what the ancient civilization of Laputa is all about, the villain nukes a small portion of the ocean and explains to the military that this was the same power that destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah. He also proclaims that this power is Indra’s Arrow, which is a reference to the Hindu epic Ramayana.

© Studio Ghibli

That reframing of historical events starts to weave reality with fiction. In the beginning, Pazu explains to Sheeta that the floating island where the titular castle is located is named Laputa after a passage from Gulliver’s Travels. Miyazaki is, essentially, attempting to create a new modern mythology for people to latch onto. In paying homage to literary classics and mashing different cultures into one, Castle in the Sky is showing how our very different worlds are all connected.

I think these connections to biblical stories and real-life inspirations are what drew people to Castle in the Sky. Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind was a considerable hit for Miyazaki, but Castle in the Sky blew it away. The film won an Animage award in 1986 and would gross around $16 million at the Japanese box office. Over time, that number would climb to around $157 million. In a 2006 poll for the Japan Media Arts Festival, the film was voted as the second-best animated film. A few years later in 2008, an Oricon audience poll placed it at number one.

Not every film needs to have overly complex characters or clearly defined backstories. Sometimes, the mystery of what we can’t answer is enough to entice us to come back. You could watch Castle in the Sky a thousand times and still not completely understand what the ancient civilization of Laputa really was. Was it a land corrupted by human greed that turned inward on itself, or was it a misunderstood utopia that was destroyed out of fear? That unanswerable question is likely why we have the phrase “Laputa Effect.”

© Studio Ghibli

I might come off as nitpicky saying that Castle in the Sky isn’t as complex as later Studio Ghibli fare, but even I have to admit that the influence this film has had is beyond merely profound. Nausicaä may have been dubbed the unofficial first film in Ghibli’s catalog, but Castle in the Sky is the very reason the company skyrocketed to critical acclaim. While the company would continue to produce classics for decades to come, I’m not sure anything else has been as monumental as this movie.

Join us next time as Jesse Lab takes a look at Miyazaki’s most popular film, My Neighbor Totoro.

Peter Glagowski
Peter is an aspiring writer with a passion for gaming and fitness. If you can't find him in front of a game, you'll most likely find him pumping iron.