Thirty Years of Castle in the Sky

by Sean Bell,

For years, I couldn't remember its name. Films absorbed in the haze of early childhood often have that downside. Nevertheless, images endured, bouncing around my brain for a decade afterwards. Slapstick pirates. Cannon-bedecked blimps. Children ascending into the clouds. And finally, the island at its heart; a floating city wrapped around a mythic tree of life.

I'd wager any otaku remembers their first anime. Mine was Hayao Miyazaki's Castle in the Sky, Studio Ghibli's first production, released in the year of my birth, now approaching its 30th anniversary.

Castle in the Sky occupies a curious position in the history of anime - it can hardly be accused of being an obscure cult favorite, though that was how it made its first impact on the West. No Ghibli film has ever suffered from being under-reported, and yet one could make the argument that it has often been overshadowed by Miyazaki's bigger successes. Castle in the Sky's anniversary should reaffirm our appreciation for an extraordinary film, the importance of which may still be underestimated. The 1980s was a rich and revolutionary period in anime, but its Western fandom was nowhere near as widespread or well-defined as it is today. Insofar as critics and filmgoers were aware of it, anime was generally regarded as a uniquely Japanese artform, inextricably associated with, and stereotyped by its national and cultural origins. 

Yet Castle in the Sky proved that anime could take its influences from the world over -borrowing from 18th century English fantasy, 19th century French science fiction, Hinduism, Christianity and Shinto, with a dash of environmentalism and political discord thrown in - and in doing so, transcend them by becoming something new.

Even more impressive is the subtle hand Miyazaki displays in guiding all of these disparate influences into a cohesive whole. Studio Ghibli had been formed in 1985, only a year before the film's release, following the success of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. From a tiny office in suburban Tokyo, Ghibli's small team set out with the intention of outperforming both the burgeoning TV anime industry and its Western competitors. Castle in the Sky was the first result of their efforts. In an ahistorical otherworld, familiar yet fantastical, a would-be aeronaut and a runaway princess take turns in saving each other from a succession of soldiers, spies, pirates and robots, as they race to discover the secret of Laputa, the floating castle.

Castle in the Sky is a film completely unconcerned with the boundaries of genre. In 2016, we may have become accustomed to congratulating ourselves for breaking down such boundaries every time a cowboy meets an alien or zombies rock up in Pride & Prejudice. Yet Miyazaki amalgamated his story elements in a manner far more subtle and organic than the self-conscious mashups that have become a contemporary cultural touchstone. The concept of Laputa itself was borrowed from Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels, though Miyazaki repurposes it with such flair audiences are liable to forget its origin. In Laputa, Swift satirized the pompous egotism of the Enlightenment, mocking those who believed they could achieve the impossible by virtue of intellect alone, often for no practical purposes (memorably, one inhabitant of Laputa has spent eight years trying to extract sunbeams from cucumbers). 

While Swift used the concept of Laputa to highlight his critical view of humanity, and Miyazaki employs it to articulate his own. While Swift mocked a selection of human institutions, Miyazaki considers whether human race itself is without worth, a destructive force concerned only with technology, avarice and power. In spite of all his criticisms however, Miyazaki allows himself some cautious optimism. The Laputa in his vision, abandoned and beautiful in and of itself, is corrupted and then redeemed by human endeavor - in the latter case, by children, whose potential Miyazaki has championed throughout his entire career.

While the aesthetic of the film was immediately, stunningly unique at the time of its release, it has become more recognizable in recent years as its influence becomes evident in the industry it helped to build. Castle in the Sky preceded the great Steampunk boom by several decades; in doing so, unlike many others, it avoided being beholden to fashion. Compare it to Steamboy, a film whose retro-futurism was very much of its time, embodying a readymade aesthetic rather than creating one. Miyazaki is respectful to his influences, but even at this early stage in the Ghibli story, asserts his dominance over them: Castle in the Sky is always an original fantasy first and a homage second. While later Steampunk works timidly ventured to play in the imaginations of predecessors like Jules Verne, Miyazaki used what came before as tools to build a playland in his own imagination.

That said, Miyazaki never delves so deep into escapism that he forgets the concerns which made escape necessary or desirable. Perhaps surprisingly, Castle in the Sky is as political a fairy tale as one is likely to find.

In 1984, Miyazaki had visited Wales, where working-class mining communities were fighting for survival amidst the two-year Miner's Strike. "I admired the way they battled to save their way of life," Miyazaki later told the Guardian newspaper, "just as the coal miners in Japan did. Many people of my generation see the miners as a symbol; a dying breed of fighting men. Now they are gone." Miyazaki commemorated their tragic struggle in Castle in the Sky, using the places he visited as inspiration for the ferociously protective mining town that is home to one of the film's heroes. Amidst the magic and explosions of an epic fairy tale, Miyazaki took the time to acknowledge the simple decency of ordinary people, in reality as well as fiction; an act of solidarity with those who needed it.

Yet Miyazaki also had his eye on bigger struggles. In the 1980s, environmentalism was maturing into a widespread political and social concern. The ecological message of Castle in the Sky is not quite as dominant as that of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, but still raised the possibility that sometimes, life can only bloom when it is untouched by human interference. In the age of climate change, it is a message that has only gained relevance in the intervening years. Richard Harrington, writing in the Washington Post upon the film's belated 1989 US release, summed up many of the common preconceptions Western critics had regarding Japanese animation, while simultaneously demonstrating Miyazaki's ability to overcome them: "Many of today's Saturday morning and weekday afternoon cartoons are cheaply produced in Japan, but the sophisticated "Laputa" is far superior to them in all its production values and is one of the first big-budget animated films to receive major exposure here. Ironically, it's not visibly "Japanese".

While it's easy to criticize critics with hindsight's benefit, Harrington was employing a false binary: exhibiting Western influences does not negate Castle in the Sky's status as a piece of Japanese art. If Hollywood could cobble together something called Star Wars from old Westerns, samurai movies and Flash Gordon serials, why couldn't Tokyo do the same?

Castle in the Sky is a shining – and formative – example of the incredible artistic heights achievable in the medium of anime. For that, amidst its countless other virtues, it deserves recognition.

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