Ghibli Month: Castle in the Sky

Tsunderin: After being critically underwhelmed by Nausicaa both story-wise and character-wise, I can’t exactly say I had high hopes for the next movie: the first movie the studio put out under the Ghibli name, Laputa: Castle in the Sky. Maybe it was something about the timing, a thought of mine that their golden era would have to wait until the 90’s to come shining through. I’m more than pleased to report that I was incorrect in this assumption. I loved this movie (though I’m a little disappointed that it took me this long to get around to watching it).

Castle in the SkyAlthough this movie and Nausicaa share a similar starting scene—someone is in danger of losing their life, but doesn’t through miraculous circumstances—that’s about where the similarities end. Sheeta, our protagonist who has just fallen from an airship while escaping her captors, ends up in a small mining town and in the care of a young miner boy, Pazu. Understandably, Pazu is interested in the amulet Sheeta wears as he’s quite certain that it was the one thing standing between Sheeta and a rather messy end; however, she immediately becomes entranced by his father’s photograph of a distant place: the kingdom of Laputa. The mythical castle is the sky is just that to most people, a myth, but Pazu knows that his father wasn’t lying (the picture’s right there, come on) and works tirelessly on creating a plane that will take him to the one place that will bring honor back on the memory of his father.

Their little bonding moment is cut short when the Dola’s Pirates gang—run by, of course, Dola herself—comes into town in search of the life-saving amulet and is willing to go to just about any means to get it. Through several strange antics and entertaining chase scenes, it seems as though the two kids are going to get away when they’re cut off by the other group that’s after the same thing (and just so happen to be to ones who imprisoned Sheeta in the airship earlier in the film): the army, mobilized under Muska, a higher-up in the government. Again they escape, this time into the mines. By the time they pop out the other side though, Muska and the army were able to catch up and with the reason why they would want the amulet and Sheeta now obvious—Sheeta is the last princess of Laputa and the amulet is the key to finding the floating castle—it becomes a full-on race to see who can get to Laputa first.

Antagonistic at first, after Sheeta is taken away by Muska, Pazu finds friends in Dola and her pirates, though it’s more of a begrudging acceptance and respect than full-blown friendship. With their forces combined, they manage to rescue Sheeta from Muska’s grasp, but it turns out that the amulet has been left behind in the rubble of battle.

Up to the end, it’s never quite clear who’s hands Laputa will end up in, making this a story with very high stakes (especially given that Laputa can essentially wreck the shit out of any earthly force) and unlike in Nausicaa, the payoff is more than satisfying.

MadameAce: I feel as though Castle in the Sky learned a lot from the mistakes of Nausicaa. But it also seems to be aware of the strengths of the preceding film. Like Nausicaa, it has some very beautiful scenery and animation. The world its set in has a lot of history to it that we never get to see, but it’s obviously there, and it makes the movie much more interesting. We don’t ever really find out why Laputa failed as a kingdom, or why the Laputans could use magic when other people couldn’t, nor do we find out about the history of Pazu’s people or how it came to be that they obviously live in a military state. But the history is there, and the settings give the characters a lot of obstacles that they must overcome.

We mentioned last review that the only time Nausicaa seemed to carry emotion was when she was flying. In Castle in the Sky, there’s a lot of flying. Half the movie takes place up in the air with the characters constantly in danger of falling to their deaths. There’s also a lot of bug imagery. The mini plane-like things the pirates fly have wings that work very similar to insect wings, and they can all line up and form one long mechanical flying bug.

Bug shipsFurthering the imagery and setting from Nausicaa, squirrel foxes make a brief appearance in this film. It almost makes me suspect that both Nausicaa and Castle in the Sky take place in the same world, but thousands of years apart. After all, giant insects have yet to conquer the earth. But even the robots that guard Laputa look very similar to the warriors in Nausicaa, only here they’re much smaller, but they are both capable of untold amounts of destruction by shooting lasers from their faces.

While Castle in the Sky certainly suffers from its fair share of problems, it’s a vivid world that learned from the mistakes of its predecessor, and I can certainly respect that about it.

Tsunderin: Not only has the untold history of the setting been made more enticing this time around, the characters show much more depth than previously. Last time I complained about Nausicaa’s Lord Yupa being set up as an important character, but he ultimately proves to be useless and unimportant, even less important than the citizens of the Valley, in some cases. This movie’s equivalent, Dola, raises the importance of the secondary character as she not only fulfills a character arc, but also holds her own motivations outside of “help the main character”.

If you’ve seen this movie before you may be saying, “but Rin, wouldn’t Dola be better equivocated to Kushana or the Pejites?” And I would agree with you if we were only skimming the surface. Certainly Dola is the antagonist, or an antagonist, for part of the movie and she never does stop her pirating ways, but she is so much more than a negative force driving the heroine. Rather than her personality changing because of the amazing powers™ of the protagonist, it simply becomes more apparent. There has to be some reason why the gang members call her ‘mama’ and she calls them her ‘sons’, but the audience is not privy to the well-roundedness of Dola until she herself is ready to accept the protagonists—and thus the audience—into her life. Once this occurs, Dola becomes the mother and the mentor to our two heroes.

Miyazaki is Amazing at Writing Older Female Characters Too, So Why Can't We Have a Movie About Them? :(

Miyazaki is Amazing at Writing Older Female Characters, So Why Can’t We Have a Movie About Them, Too? 😦

Yupa mentors Nausicaa, but in such an ineffective way that the audience feels as though Nausicaa has already learned the lessons he has to teach; maybe even that he’s repeating a lesson that he had already taught given the nature of her being. But in the case of Dola, the differences in both Pazu and Sheeta after her influence are clear. Even better, everyone grows: Pazu learns how to better take responsibility for his actions and becomes more resolute in himself, Sheeta grows a backbone, Dola learns a little bit of charity, and her sons learn how to make friends. It’s beautiful; brings a tear to my eye.

As far as our protagonists go, though, I can’t say that Sheeta is a huge step up from Nausicaa, but it is a step. Maybe even a moderately large step. My biggest problem with the Laputan princess is that she doesn’t feel like a fully thought-out character. At the end, sure, she does and that says a lot about her character arc, but at the beginning she’s so hollow that I have trouble feeling anything for her. Indeed, I believe that all my emotion went to Pazu (and the other secondary characters) up until they were captured by Muska. I’m not sure if Miyazaki was trying to convey a sense of being lost in a foreign land or some sort of mystical characteristics that were supposed to seem strange and mysterious to the normal viewer, but it came off as very blah and very forgettable. Luckily, everyone else was there to pick up her starting slack.

MadameAce: I’m also not so sure I understand why Pazu is so willing to help Sheeta outside the whole “it’s the right thing to do” mindset that he has. He doesn’t know her very well. I understand helping her get away from the pirates, but the military? Yeah, I’ll agree that I would probably help someone escape from pirates if the need ever arises—unfortunately, our lives are not that interesting—but if the military were after that person, I might have some questions. While it’s not a bad thing that the movie doesn’t give us an overly detailed history of the world, I still have to wonder why Pazu is so willing to commit acts that would be taken as treason.

It should be noted that the Japanese in general are not fond of military, and so the whole issue here may just come from that, but this is a government willing to throw small children in prison cells, so I would think Pazu would at least have some reservations about getting on the military’s bad side so willingly.

Another point I need to bring up: the pirates. While this movie certainly does a very good job of expanding on characters and making them interesting, it still follows the tired cliché of stalking being endearing. When Pazu and Sheeta are on the pirate ship, the pirates have habits of leering at her and watching her through windows. This is played off as cute, because eventually all the pirates start trying to help her cook dinner, but the entire setup here left me extremely uncomfortable. It’s very clear that they like Sheeta, but the movie seems to forget that Sheeta is still a little girl compared to them. This is the kind of humor that sickens me. Though nothing really happens, other than the pirates helping her to peel some potatoes, I really wish the movie would have done a better job handling this situation.

Has anyone else noticed that female Ghibli protagonists often either start with short hair, or their long hair gets cut off somehow before the movie ends, just to show how strong they are as characters?

Has anyone else noticed that female Ghibli protagonists often either start with short hair, or their long hair gets cut off somehow before the movie ends, just to show how strong they are as characters? Hair length matters, damn it!

The other point I’m not too clear on is Sheeta’s royal status. At one point in the movie, she is called the queen of Laputa, yet at other times she’s the princess. I really hate the need to make royal female figures princesses. Sheeta cannot be a princess, because both her parents are dead. That automatically gives her the role as queen. I would say that the whole princess thing is something out of the Western world, but the Japanese seem to have latched onto it as well, so in this incident, I’m not sure I should give the movie credit and just say it was a translation problem. I still think that Sheeta is by far a better character than Nausicaa, and at least the movie has more of a reason to center on her, but she still came across as someone other people were more interested in than they should be. And that can only serve to make her characterization suffer.

Tsunderin: While we’re on the topic of Laputan royalty, can I just say that I didn’t understand Muska’s motivation in the slightest?

So, spoilers, he and the army make it to Laputa with Sheeta’s amulet, which means that he has control over just about every facet of the castle. Furthermore, it’s revealed that he, in the same vein as Sheeta, is one of the last living lineage of Laputian royalty. I can get behind this, I really can, but it just doesn’t work in this case. It’s about the only place where the lack of background information really hurts the plot, but god does it hurt it for me. It would be nice to have something that explained why the Laputan royal family broke off into two sectors. Why they’re apparently at odds with each other (this is just an assumption on my part by the way Sheeta reacts when Muska reveals his birthright)? And if he is really one of Laputan royalty, why doesn’t he have his own amulet?

Clearly his intent is to start ruling the rest of the world by terrorizing the lands below with Laputa’s advanced technology, but why? Did he just wake up one day and decide to do it for shits and giggles? While the withheld history of this land draws the audience in, it just makes Muska a little confusing because there’s obviously something else driving him. Yet since it remains hidden, Muska’s character ends up being about as complex as the miners’ in Pazu’s town. Why do they mine? Because they do. Why is Muska interested in Laputa? Because he is.

He Even Looks Like a Humongous Douchebag

He Even Looks Like a Humongous Douchebag

My own unquenchable thirst for history aside, he’s a wonderful villain for a children’s movie, because he’s evil and mean in that condescending manner that infuriates just about everyone in the world. He still ranks under Kushana for me, though.

MadameAce: On the whole, this movie is by far a step in the right direction. While it suffers from problems, it doesn’t suffer as much as Nausicaa does, and even though it still leaves a lot to be desired, there is still a sense of fulfillment to it. I didn’t walk away from this movie wondering what the point was like I did the last movie. Castle in the Sky is a good solid story; it just needed to be fleshed out in some areas.

Anyway, the next Ghibli movie on our list to review is Grave of the Fireflies, and well… we’ll get back to you on that one.

This entry was posted in Anime, Hayao Miyazaki, movies, opinion, Reviews and tagged , , , , , , , , , by Tsunderin. Bookmark the permalink.

About Tsunderin

Greetings and salutations! Feel free to just call me Rin—we’re all friends here, or nemeses who just haven’t gotten to know each other well enough. I’m a video game lover from the womb to the tomb, and Bioware enthusiast until the day they stop making games with amazing characters that I cry over. And while I don’t partake as often as I used to, don’t be surprised to find me poking around an anime or manga every once in a while either. A personal interest for me is characterization in media and how women in particular have been portrayed, are being portrayed, and will be portrayed in the future. I’m not going to mince words about my opinion either.

1 thought on “Ghibli Month: Castle in the Sky

  1. Glad you discovered this excellent film. I beg to differ on a couple points, though. Re: Sheeta, I agree she’s basically a walking MacGuffin for half the movie, and that Dola’s influence on her is one of many awesome things about the film. But also keep in mind she’d been abducted and carted around by people she doesn’t know and is never safe for very long; what I see at first is a shell-shocked young girl. It makes her less interesting, but it’s hardly a movie flaw — how much individuality is she supposed to show given what she’s been through? Imagine being dragged from your home by a bunch of foreign soldiers at her age. If the quibble here is female character representation, Dola more than carries her hefty weight. As for Muska, he’s obviously a stereotypical douchebag megalomaniac but we’ve seen plenty of those in real life to not have to justify his existence. But even then, it’s not hard to extrapolate his character; at some point he discovered his lineage (this much is explained in the film) and latched onto it. I’d imagine going through your family history and realizing you SHOULD be King of the World is rather intoxicating to a mind that’s inclined to embrace such ideas in the first place. He doesn’t need much more characterization because honestly he’s a minor character and there’s only so many minutes in a movie. As it is, these are minor complaints that would compromise the film’s excellent pacing if they were addressed, and I really don’t find any particular characterization implausible. The movie is worthy of a full-length series where even the minor characters get a chance to flesh themselves out, but it’s such a gem that I’ll take what we were given.

    P.S. “Nausicaa” is my favorite movie, but that’s another debate.

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