Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Director Report Card: Hayao Miyazaki (1986)

3. Castle in the Sky
Tenkû no shiro Rapyuta / Laputa: Castle in the Sky

After the success of “Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind,” Hayao Miyazaki and his partners banded together to officially form Studio Ghibli, which would, in time, become the most beloved Japanese animation studio in the world. After the serious fantasy of “Nausicaa,” it’s clear that Miyazaki and his team wanted to try something a little lighter. “Castle in the Sky,” known as “Laputa” in its native country, takes the lesson learned from the epic scope of “Nausicaa” and applies it to a more exciting and care-free tone. The result is the studio’s answer to “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”

“Castle in the Sky” starts with a mythic, iconic moment. In a mining society revolving around aircrafts, the orphan Pazu pursues the legend of Laputa, the floating island society. One night, a beautiful young girl with a magical, glowing necklace floats down out of the sky. The two bond, while pirates and government agents chase after them. Both desire Sheeta’s necklace, the key to finding Laputa, a highly-advanced society full of treasure and devastating weapons.

“Castle of Cagliostro” and “Nausicaa” were not lacking in action. However, “Castle in the Sky” has a forward momentum that puts the impressive spectacle in those films to shame. Take, for example, the extended chase scene that happens in the first act. For its first half hour, two different groups are chasing after Sheeta. She flees with Pazu from his home, disguised as a boy, the pirates behind her. They run through the town, the pirates hot on their trail, before Sheeta looses her hat, revealing her true gender. After an impromptu flexing contest in the streets, a third party joins the chase. Government agents pursue the young couple as well. They leap on a train, the feds following on their own railed vehicles. The pirates aren’t far behind, flying around in insect-winged hover crafts. The sequence climaxes with the rails crumbling under the train, heroes and villains alike just barely escaping falling into the water below. It’s innovative, funny, exciting, beautifully animated, and the film never quite tops it.

But it comes close during another fantastic action sequence. After being apprehended by the government, Sheeta is taken to this country’s version of Area 51. Inside is a dilapidated giant robot, a discarded piece of Lupatian technology and the main proof that the floating city exists. Upon whispering a half-remembered spell to her necklace, Sheeta inadvertently revives the robot. The machine proceeds to rampage through the building, nothing holding it back. At one point, it even melts through a steel door, walking through the molten metal, which is an incredibly dynamic visual. Despite its’ brutal treatment of the government agent, the robot is still kind to Sheeta. It lifts her up so that Pazu can save her, right before taking a high-speed cannon shell to its chest, a devastating scene that is beautifully animated. The robot is a great visual with its long, fan-like arms, robust chest, and tiny pointed head, from which it shoots a highly focused laser beam. The iconic status of the robot is proven by the surplus of merchandise featuring it.

Despite featuring so much rip-roaring pulpy adventure, “Castle in the Sky” has plenty of quieter moments. After escaping their would-be captor, Pazu and Sheeta float down together into the tunnels underneath the city. Down there, they meet an eccentric old man, a thematic cousin to the other bushy mustachioed old men in Miyazaki’s flicks. The old traveler shows them the glowing rocks in the cavern which comes from the same material Sheeta’s magical necklace is made from. Another fantastic moment happens right before the end of the second act. Sheeta and Pazu huddle together in the crow’s nest of the pirate’s aero-ship. Hiding from the wind under a blanket, the two youths have a heart-to-heart. The conversation is mostly about the plot but it is, in a roundabout way, about their relationship. Unbeknownst to both kids, the pirates of the ship are eavesdropping. Notably, the elderly lady Dola lays in her bed, listening with a smile on her face. It’s a funny yet touching sequence.

In “Nausicaa,” the female lead was thrown together with her love interest through a shared traumatic event. “Castle in the Sky” is more about the relationship between the two leads than that film. Pazu rescues Sheeta too, nursing her through the night and making her breakfast in the morning. The two immediately bond over their shared status as orphans. Pazu’s father was a believer in Laputa, another thing that connects them. An utterly charming scene has the two standing on the roof of Pazu’s apartment, feeding his hungry pet pigeons. (Another example of Miyazaki’s attention to tiny details is Pazu freeing his pigeons before setting off on his adventure.) While in the caverns, the two kids eat fried eggs off of toast. Amusingly, they don’t eat in neat, orderly ways. Instead, they shove the whole eggs into their mouth, which is what would doubtlessly happen in real life. Despite only knowing each other for a few hours, the audience totally buys Pazu and Sheeta as objects of mutual crushes. Both are a bit too young for serious romances. Yet both risks their lives for the others. What else would you call that but love? After buzzing around it for his first two films, Miyazaki finally made an out-and-out romance, even if it happens with-in an epic action/adventure plot.

One of the most refreshingly entertaining elements of “Castle in the Sky” is the band of wacky air-pirates that float into the plot. Recalling the Ma Barker gang, the pirates are led by a mean, incredibly tough old woman named Dola. Her sons are completely obedient to her and slightly afraid of her, reminding me a lot of “Futurama’s” Mom. Upon teaming up with Sheeta and Pazu, the sons each develop crushes on Sheeta, which the film pulls off without it being creepy. The group buzz around in strange hover craft devices. Instead of flying with wings or rotors, the crafts are motivated by quickly flapping gliders, which are blatantly patterned after fly wings. The gang’s base is a massive floating airship, full of steaming pipes and rotating gears. The boys father is the mechanic of the ship. His huge mustache and round glasses makes me wonder if Dr. Robotnik wasn’t inspired by this characters. The pirates are motivated strictly by greed and are seeking Laputa only for its treasure. But they’re not bad. They help out the heroes, showing themselves to be pure-hearted despite their greedy desires. They’re a lovable band of characters and, in some ways, make the movie. Bands of lovable rogues, not to mention tough older women, would show up in a few future Miyazaki films.

In the beginning, the film is ambiguous over which threat is more dangerous to the young kids. At first, the pirates seem more dangerous while the suit-clad government agents seem the safer option. After we discover the pirates are mostly harmless, the secret agents’ motivations come into harsher sight. Colonel Muska, clad in a red suit with a fluffy collar and John Lennon glasses, makes it clear that he wants Laputa’s technology strictly for its weapons potential. Upon making it onto the island, Muska reveals to Sheeta that he too is descended from Laputian royalty. Now gifted with the island’s advanced technology, Muska immediately turns on his military cohorts. He is a villain who is willing to kill a young kid simply to advance his own power. He’s a would-be tyrant and a chilling presence. His convincing villainy provides the film with a lot of dramatic drive.

As always, Miyazaki creates a fully realized, beautifully detailed world. We only get a brief glimpse at the family of miners that Pazu befriends. Yet so much attention was clearly paid to the elevators, gears, and pulleys that make of their profession. The city the characters live in has vaguely European architecture, that is incredibly detailed. The planes that everyone flies around in are rendered beautifully, full of notches, soldered plates, and tiny details. The focus on air travel is never commented on and merely assumed to be a part of everyday life. Without drawling much attention to it, “Castle in the Sky” features a lovely, fully-formed world.

Which brings me to the title location. After spending the entire film chasing after it, Laputa has to make an impression. The island strikes the audience as a tangle of trees atop a stone structure kept aloft by giant, swooshing propellers. Pazu leaps from the dangling pillars, the blocks falling under his feet as he climbs atop it. The island is full of beauty too. Upon landing on Laputa, Pazu and Sheeta meet another robot. Unlike the one seen earlier, this one is peaceful, friendly to the animals on the island. It’s so relaxed that moss has actually started to grown on its armor. The inner sanctum of Laputa is as distinct as the rest of the island. The “brain” of Laputa is represented as huge blocks, detail patterns carved on it, that move around each other, a giant Rubik’s Cube that is constantly being reassembled. When Muska activates the island’s weapons, more robots orderly slide out of secret alcoves. Laputa makes as much of an impression on the viewer as it does the characters.

The plot of “Castle in the Sky” purposely recalls older myths. Laputa itself comes from Jonathan Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels,” a connection the film acknowledges. The island is treated similarly to the way countless films, books, and TV series (including the Miyazaki-inspired “Nadia: Secret of Blue Water”) have treated Atlantis. It’s an ancient, forgotten society with technology far beyond that of the modern world. The characters being descended from an ancient bloodline is another frequently occurring plot device too. The robots remind of the Golem, Frankenstein, and Fleischer’s Superman shorts. “Laputa” is aware of these conventions. It doesn’t quite repurpose them but does, at least, put a fun spin on each.

There is also a strong, anti-war message running through the film. As in “Nausicaa,” war is presented as something perpetrated by greedy, power-hungry, petty men, in order to further their own goals. During war, the common folk are always destined to suffer on the whims of more powerful - and less directly involved -  people. This is almost literalized in the scene where Musko, appearing as a hologram, drops a fleet of soldiers out of Laputa using his new found power. While less explicit than it would be in future films, the movie also has an ecological message. The film presents the opinion that living along side nature, instead of dominating it with technology, is the best way to go. War isn’t just harmful to people but to the world they live in.

Before wrapping up, let me indulge in some nerdy theorizing. While on Laputa, Pazu and Sheeta witness a robot bonding with some animals. Closer examination will reveal that these creatures are the squirrel-foxes last seen in “Nausicaa.” What was probably intended as a cute little in-joke raises some interesting questions. Is the world seen in “Castle in the Sky” meant to be the industrial days spoke off in “Nausicaa,” the one wiped out by some horrible catastrophe? Could the same technology that built the Laputian robots be responsible for the bio-mechanical God Warriors? It’s unlikely this was intended. The connection appeals to me though. In “Nausicaa,” characters are pursuing the secrets of an ancient world, using machines made in the past to conquer their future. In “Laputa,” the bad guys are doing the exact same thing. While this is more likely explained by a director reusing similar literary device, the connection implies that history is destined to repeat itself throughout the eons. Which is a pretty neat idea.

Though the time has already proven it, “Castle in the Sky” showed that Miyazaki’s first two success were not flukes. It put Ghibli on the map right out of the gate. The film is not as effortlessly entertaining as “Castle of Cagliostro” nor as sweepingly epic as “Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind.” Yet in some ways, “Castle in the Sky” is superior to both, more focused than “Cagliostro” and more fun than “Nausicaa.” While not hugely innovative, the film is endlessly rewatchable, gorgeous to look at, and loads of fun. [Grade: A-]

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