After seeing a few examples, you can make certain assumptions about the films of Japan’s great master of animation, Hayao Miyazaki. The film will look magnificent, of course. There will be a sense of childlike wonder about the whole thing, and children are likely to be our protagonists as well. The military are surely not going to be the good guys, and have a decent chance to be the villains. Nature and the natural world are likely to play a role at some point; woe betide the interns who needed to supply Miyazaki productions with green paint.
And yet, even if you think you know what you’re about to get from Miyazaki, he has that gift to charm you in an entirely new way each time. That was the feeling that I had when watching the second film that Miyazaki both wrote and directed, 1986’s Castle in the Sky.
The movie was known in Japan as Laputa, for the mystical floating castle that the young boy Pazu is in search of, and the young girl Sheeta holds a mysterious secret to finding. Their story is a straightforward adventure, as they become entangled with a group of pirates and a greedy army general who are also in search of Laputa. There’s not much that’s surprising in the actual plot of the film – it’s not like Pazu and Sheeta decide to call off this whole Laputa thing in search of some good sushi – but that’s not why you go to a Miyazaki film.
Instead, you go to see some of the finest animation ever produced, in a country and a decade which was making quantum leaps ahead in that area. The train-tracks chase looks is jaw-dropping in its incredible detail, and in the smoothness and speed of its animation – and that’s the first big action set-piece of the film. Even the quality American animation of the 1980s (such as The Secret of NIMH) looks cheap by comparison.
The secret to how good this film looks is that Miyazaki always treats his camera as though he were filming live action. He uses backgrounds that are much, much bigger than the first composition of a scene will need, and this allows him to pan around with the camera. As I mentioned in my review of My Neighbor Totoro, this leads to huge sweeping shots of elaborate backgrounds, of the sort that we might see in an Indiana Jones adventure. The world that Miyazaki builds is huge and expansive, and it’s easy to convince us that its inhabitants could search for centuries and never find Laputa.
Watching Castle in the Sky after My Neighbor Totoro was interesting, because Castle in the Sky is a much darker film. The bad guys in this film carry guns – real guns, not G.I. Joe-style-guns-that-aren’t-really-guns – and they’re not shy about using them. Pazu gets shot in the head twice in this movie, although each time he’s only grazed. A sequence with a Laputan robot in the middle of the film is intentionally chilling, as the robot turns the pleasant countryside into a burning hellscape with its laser. Since the latter half of this film takes place high in the sky, it’s especially disturbing when a number of characters fall to their deaths. This movie is still for children – it’s occasionally scary, but scary in a way that kids can tolerate – but not children as young as those that loved Totoro.
I always support these films being watched in the original Japanese with subtitles; it’s what the director intended, and that’s how we watched it at Movie Klub. But, after the immense success of Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke, this film was released in the U.S. with quite the collection of voice talent: Anna Paquin as Sheeta and James van der Beek as Pazu, with such actors as Cloris Leachman, Mark Hamill and Mandy Patinkin in supporting roles. Still, as good as a cast like that is, it struck me that Castle in the Sky could just as easily have been a silent film, with just visuals and music. There are only a few scenes in the movie where the dialogue matters enough that the subtitles must be read, and most of that is to explain the plot.
That’s not meant as an insult. Outside of the action scenes, Castle in the Sky has an impressionistic sort of look to it, where themes such as “the dangers of technology” and “the importance of nature to human society” are delivered as much with visual images as with dialogue. That’s how Miyazaki works. One of the cardinal rules of movies is “show, don’t tell,” and even in the extremely showy field of Japanese animation there are few who can match his level of skill.
Reviewed by Mark Young