GLORIO goes Ghibli — Castle in the Sky

I find it strange that the anime fandom in general seems to take Studio Ghibli for granted, seem to consider their works so undeniably excellent they’re not even worth discussing at all. That just rubs me the wrong way. Is it really true that hardcore anime fans would have nothing to say about these films? Are they so fundamentally different from the anime we identify with that they might as well be considered a wholly different beast? To answer these questions, and to fill in the gaping hole in my credibility as an anime lover that is never having seen the large majority of these movies, I have taken it onto myself to delve into Ghibli’s back catalogue and, now that the large majority of their films are streaming on Netflix*, deliver you my piping hot takes straight from the oven.

(*) … unless you live in the US, Canada or Japan, in which case you’ll have to pay for an HBO Max subscription once it launches, or pay a visit to your friendly neighbourhood home video retailer. Oops.

For this feature, I have compiled a somewhat arbitrary list of films either produced by or strongly associated with the legendary studio based on what I am personally interested in watching, as well as what is readily available to me. No one’s going to argue that the movie we’ll be talking about this time around is not essential to getting to know Studio Ghibli, though. While Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind allowed Miyazaki and co. to go independent, the story of anime’s most legendary studio wouldn’t start properly until 1986, when the team that brought Nausicaä to life went on to produce…

Japanese title: Tenkuu no Shiro Rapyuta
Release date: 2 August 1986
Directed by Hayao Miyazaki

Synopsis

After escaping both government agents and a rag-tag crew of space pirates, a girl named Sheeta comes plummeting from the skies into the arms of Pazu, a brave orphan boy making ends meet in a small mining town. With various factions on their tail and only Sheeta’s mysterious pendant to guide them, Sheeta and Pazu seek out the floating island of Laputa, dedicated to finding out more about Sheeta’s heritage and protect its arcane technology from falling into the wrong hands.

Aqua‘s thoughts

Up until I actually saw it, I had always considered Castle in the Sky to be one of the Miyazaki movies with the least legs; a movie that only seemed to exist in the capacity of being “Studio Ghibli’s first movie” but had very little presence in pop culture aside from that — especially when compared to the near-mythical status works like Princess Mononoke or Spirited Away have. Granted, “street rat teams up with mysterious girl who fell from the sky in chase of a MacGuffin” won’t exactly sound like an original premise to anyone who’s ever seen an anime in their life, but still these assumptions couldn’t have been further from the truth. Castle in the Sky, as it turns out, is one of those works unfortunate enough to be so influential it looks like a veritable cavalcade of clichés to modern audiences. Steam-powered airships, sky pirates and enigmatic, worn-out automatons may be a part of the textbook visual language for the fantasy genre nowadays, but someone somewhere has to have been the first to popularize their use, and I’ve come to realize that the answer to that question is more often than you’d expect it “Hayao Miyazaki”. The grimy, industrialized world Castle in the Sky is set in — or rather, above — would be replicated by many a wondrous tale produced afterwards, and it’s especially bizarre to imagine what your average JRPG would have looked like if this film had never been produced.

Perhaps the fact that so many stories told in its wake look exactly like it, is what caused far less about Castle in the Sky to have reached me before I started this project. In its home country, the movie seems to have always been regarded as an absolute classic at least — a TV airing in 2013 even caused the single most commented on moment in the history of Twitter when almost 150,000 users tweeted the destruction spell at the exact moment when Sheeta and Pazu invoked it in the movie — and even in the Western press, it’s hard to find an obligatory “All the Studio Ghibli movies ranked from worst to best” list that doesn’t have this movie in the top five. Yet in spite of all this, I had never heard anyone talk about this movie or knew someone who held it dear, not like pretty much any other movie Miyazaki has directed in his career. So what’s up? Is it nothing but misfortune that Castle in the Sky doesn’t get the credit it deserves in this day and age, or is it one of these movies that will never be able to be properly appreciated anymore because it’s been thoroughly beaten at its own game by the media that were influenced by it?

The truth is probably a bit more complicated that that. Castle in the Sky is a phenomenal movie, like the two movies that preceded it, but there is a sense of identity missing from it that I can’t exactly pinpoint. Part of the reason why this movie feels less special than Nausicaä or even the chivalrous adventure played almost bafflingly straight that is Castle of Cagliostro, must have something to do with that fact that its look and feel has been co-opted by some of the tritest piffle known to man. An exactly fair judgement that isn’t, however. As works that inspired thousands of pale imitations are wont to do, Castle in the Sky makes painfully obvious how much better it does the thing it does that virtually any other “steampunk” or “dieselpunk” media that came after, very quickly and very clearly. It can’t be that, not exactly. I think the gnawing sense of lacking I get when I think about this film — and that’s about as pejoratively as I can put it — has, in fact, more to do with the fact that this is obviously a Miyazaki film, than with the fact that it is obviously a steampunk film. Three films in, the fact that I can list more of the man’s signatures than my fingers can keep track of, is a testament to his skills, but it also has me a bit worried. Is every film I’m going to watch from here on out for this series just going to be the result of Miyazaki reaching into his grabble-box of tropes he put together in 1985 and animate whatever combination he ends up with this time?

From the get-go, it’s already quite clear that Miyazaki saw Castle in the Sky as an opportunity to play all the greatest hits from his previous work. There’s a princess to be saved, ancient secrets to be uncovered and cars to be goofily chased, like in Castle in Cagliostro. There’s lavishly detailed airships to be flown, cranky townsfolk to bicker with, and weapons of mass destruction to be kept out of the wrong hands, just like in Nausicäa of the Valley of the Wind. Heck, some of Miyazaki’ experience making anime for children in the seventies shines through in Castle in the Sky. All of it is executed bigger, bolder and better than before, but stripped of their context, these motifs and moments do occasionally lack the impact they had in Miyazaki’s earlier work. Castle in the Sky does not have well-established, beloved characters to use and (re)interpret like Castle of Cagliostro, nor does it have a radical message to hammer home like Nausicaä. It’s better animated, better shot and better paced than any these two movies, but in a sense, it is not as unique narratively. Somewhat uncommonly for a fantasy movie, its qualities, and ultimately its status as a classic lasts in its unique aesthetic, rather than in its narrative complexity or thematic richness.

To finally dig up an analogy that is almost impossible to get around using when talking about Ghibli, Castle in the Sky feels like a classic Disney movie. It’s a story everyone already knows, told with a level of imagination and dedication that breathes new life into it. Dunking on this movie for being shallow as a puddle is ultimately as sensible as calling Snow White and the Seven Dwarves or Sleeping Beauty bad films because damsels getting saved by dashing princes was trite even when these came out. Ultimately, Castle in the Sky‘s mark on history is undeniable. It could have told a better story along all of its imaginative set-pieces and genre-defining vistas, but it’s far from certain if this would actually have resulted in a better film. Perhaps the reason why this film has served so effectively as what is essentially a mood board for the modern Japanese fantasy aesthetic, is because it spends so much time exploring daily life in its setting in entirely superfluous ways. Perhaps Miyazaki and co. just looked for an excuse to bring viewers into their world and though the best (or) only way to do it was through telling a story they knew they’d be able to effortlessly tell.

It was a safe bet, but it is a bet that allowed Castle in the Sky to be the ideal first project that a new studio like Ghibli could have wished for. It is both a summary of Miyazaki’s career up to that point and a mission statement for the studio he co-founded. Yet while its place in anime history is undeniable, its story may already have been told. The question to be asked when discussing Castle in the Sky is not whether it is a good movie — the fact that it is, is almost undeniable — but whether or not it still has a role to play, whether it is still worth watching. In most cases, I would answer with a resounding “yes”. This is not the movie that will teach you why Ghibli has such a legendary status. Aside from its inclusion of his — highly controversial, I know — opinion that weapons of mass destruction are bad, this is not even the movie you’ll want to watch to get an idea of who Hayao Miyazaki is. Yet it is an imaginative fantasy movie that will not fail to sway even the staunchest realist. As a family film, it blows most of the tripe being marketed as such out of the water, and if you are at all interested in learning how JRPGs came to look the way they do, you owe it to yourself to watch this movie. In the end, Castle in the Sky may have been the victim of its own succes — ironically, the Ghibli movies that have more or a presence in the collective consciousness are the ones that didn’t influence dozens of pretenders — but that doesn’t mean it didn’t deserve that success in the first place.

Next time, Glorio goes Ghibli will skip one of Studio Ghibli’s most iconic movies, Isao Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies, as a film notorious for its heart-wrenching horrors is just about the last thing I need right now. Instead, we’ll dive into the movie to which the studio owes its adorable mascot, 1988’s My Neighbor Totoro!

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