Miyazaki's Castle in the Sky: A Review

A girl with a magic necklace descends from the sky into the arms of an engineering apprentice, radiating with light as the aura of the jewel dangling from her neck suspends her in air until an opportune moment. Thus starts Hayao Miyazaki's Castle in the Sky, a poetic voyage through hovering castles, pirates, a country's governmental search for war knowledge and the loyalty between friends, created by one of animated storytelling's masters. Harking to The Castle of Cagliostro and his first true piece of artwork, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, Miyazaki brings together his delicate yet bold eye for fantasy and charm of characters into something that's unforgettably powerful.

Its power resonates in the striking imagery of Laputa, a mythical castle hidden in the sky that's rumored to hold majesty in its architecture and military secrets in its depths. The legend, tossed around by villagers and government officials alike, is mostly a stream of vague fables that hold about as much concrete information as talk about a theological utopia. Miyazaki knows that it's the central feature to the story, the remnants of an ancient civilization that we're aching to see in the clouds, and he makes us wait in anticipation while he deliberately constructs the rapport between Sheeta, the girl who clearly has a link to the enchanted location, and Pazu, the boy who's going to get her there.

Resemblances to Miyazaki's first works can be seen in character construction early in Castle in the Sky, using the lively facial mannerisms of The Castle of Cagliostro for its sillier characters, namely the air pirates, and the more stoic demeanor of Nausicaa to get across seriousness in the prevalent antagonists. The two strike a poise between stone-faced and playful tones that involves us, which buzzes in circles around the budding relationship between the two focal children. This marks Miyazaki's first concentrated effort in looking through the eyes of youth, a theme prevalent throughout his career; Pazu and Sheeta's relationship leans on a chivalric tenderness, unashamed but charmingly duplicated from the fairytale knight / princess formula. Pazu's impassioned cries for "SHEE-TA" during intense sequences rarely fall short in capturing his determination -- and our concentration.

In time for our emotion bond to cudgel with Pazu and Sheeta, Castle in the Sky jolts forward into a breathtaking journey through the skies of Miyazaki's beautiful illustrated world. He eschews helicopters and planes for flying ships and dragonfly-like flying devices, which add dashes of fanciful eye-candy that transport us into this world much different from ours. Yet they retain a craftsmanship that's mechanically similar to ships and hovercrafts of our own aesthetic, as well as glancing towards space operas of the '70s and early '80s for sparks of influence. Somehow, between a story about a magical castle floating in the sky, massive aeronautical vehicles, and radiant magic, Miyazaki keeps it grounded in a sense of belief that complements the fantasy impeccably. It's in a different world, a different time with different technology, but there's something about it that's both surprising yet intuitively earthen.

He gives us time, a leg-stretching 124 minutes, for us to grow doubly comfortable with the airborne atmosphere and the moving parts around his world, all through a shrewdly paced cat-and-mouse chase between the government, helmed by mixed-motive mastermind Muska, and the duo of Sheeta and Pazu. Something Miyazaki realizes is the concept of giving breaks from the action to emphasize the actual narrative at-play underneath its momentum, allowing a tender bond between the lead characters to build and for respectful, intriguingly parental notions to construct between Sheeta and the pirate's leader, Dola. Castle in the Sky isn't rocket science with its emotional fabric and its ideas, but it does carry quite a few themes about understanding both the beneficiary and destructive sides of power, the futility of war, and the true power of belief in people -- and that's what fills the gaps in between awe-striking flight sequences through lightning storms and amid explosive attacks.

Eventually, once we've grown accustomed to the outlying storytelling and radiating yet winded hope within the two youngsters, we do arrive at this Gulliver's Travels-inspired destination that's been anticipated for the entirety of Castle in the Sky -- and it's amazing, but not just for its beauty. First glance on the Grecian / Macedonian architecture with age-defining foliage spurting at all ends does leave you a bit speechless, but the thematic ideas present in its existence are what really power the majesty of our characters' arrival forward. Vindicated hope in their eyes leads to a scramble to discover its secrets before evil minds do the same, almost playing with our grasp on fantastical ruins like we're exploring forts as children. With minimal sound, aside from Joe Hisaishi's grand score and graceful nature effects (as well as the electronic pitter-patter of robot feet), their exploration of the environment is chillingly beautiful.

Castle in the Sky's steadily mounting themes explode into a satisfying collage of technological corruption, poeticism, royal deceit, ancient principle and sumptuous artistry, erupting into a billowing climax. It's also an onslaught of expressive scope done in the director's grand fashion, with a level of blunted allegory around the castle's discovery that's perhaps a bit tamer than the concepts of his subsequent works. That's because his real aim here is to beguile, and Miyazaki certainly does; he provokes a Shakespearean twist ending and gives us a thrilling, romantic quest in Pazu's eyes -- though his affection might make him a little more invincible and unblemished in his crusade than we're allowed to believe -- that achieves a breathless state with its action. That's the balance stricken, between wonderment for our eyes and subtly transfixing thought underneath, which Miyazaki shapes with the delight only his hand could mold.


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