How does humanity square its thirst for progress while at the same time protecting the environment? Can technology and nature exist side by side, or will our destructive tendencies always get in the way? Those are questions that underscore many of Hayao Miyazaki’s films, from the lighter-than-air eco fable Nausicaa Of The Valley Of The Wind to his final animated feature, The Wind Rises.
In Miyazaki’s work, there’s a constant tension at play between nature and machines, between the tranquility of rural Japan and the industrial revolution of its post war era. The son of an aeronautical engineer, Miyazaki grew up as Japan rebuilt itself in the middle of the 20th century; he was born into a generation with a keen understanding of his country’s past and present.
Maybe this is why his films are so tangibly in touch with the colour and rhythm of the Japanese countryside and its folklore, as expressed in such films as My Neighbor Totoro and Ponyo, while at the same time imparting a sense that something as hard-edged and functional as a fighter plane can possess its own personality and inner life.
For evidence, take a look at the aerial sequences in the thrilling Porco Rosso, or the car chase in his sublime pre-Ghibli feature, The Castle Of Cagliostro. One of the reasons they’re both so effective is because Miyazaki renders his vehicles with as much personality and detail as any of his other characters. Engines pulse and leak splutter oil; the pugnacious little Fiat 500 in The Castle Of Cagliostro scurries and leaps like an agile cat.
Miyazaki’s love of both nature and technology are equally served in the first film to appear under the Studio Ghibli banner after its founding in 1985: the sublime Castle In The Sky. Also called Laputa: Castle In The Sky, it has much in common with Miyazaki’s previous movie, Nausicaa – they both combine science fiction, fantasy, ecological themes and a pulpy sense of adventure. In terms of pacing and design, I’d argue that Castle In The Sky ranks among the very best of Miyazaki’s films.
Like a combination of Jules Verne and Edgar Rice Burroughs’ writing, Castle In The Sky’s broad characters and lost kingdoms could almost have emerged from an old 30s drama serial; there are even parts of Castle In The Sky that George Lucas might have liked to borrow for an Indiana Jones adventure. A young girl named Sheeta possesses an amulet which, for reasons that only later become clear, is sought by a group of sky pirates and a scary government agent named Muska.
Sheeta meets Pazu, a boy who lives on the outskirts of a mining town and hopes to find a flying island called Laputa. Pazu’s father managed to photograph Laputa years before, and Pazu’s building his own plane in the hope that he’ll be able to find the island for himself. Sheeta and Pazu soon learn, however, that the amulet also has a connection to Laputa, and that Muska wants to use both the trinket and the island’s ancient technology for his own militaristic ends.
Miyazaki has a particular way of depicting scale and movement – something Pixar’s John Lasseter once noted in his foreword to the book Starting Point – and the animator’s affinity for crafting astonishing action sequences is evident throughout Castle In The Sky. We can almost feel the rivets straining as a gargantuan airship carves its way through the clouds; a chase sequence unfolds on a suspended railroad as the tracks fold and collapse into an infinitely deep ravine. What we’re looking at may be so much watercolour and paint, but what Miyazaki brings to the screen is anything but flat; there’s a sculptural quality to his use of line and shading that gives every element volume and weight.
“Castle In The Sky is a masterpiece in this way,” Lasseter wrote. “Take another look at those flying ships. There is no question they’re huge. And you can just tell that they weigh an enormous amount, too […] It’s not just perspective. It’s movement, it’s size, it’s weight. It really is amazing.”
Characterization and technique are combined most effectively in the silent, melancholy robots that were built by Laputa’s long-gone civilisation. Like so many things Miyazaki draws to life, they’re several things at once: tall and spindly yet somehow heavy as a Sherman tank; gentle yet also terrifying. The robots are one of Miyazaki’s clearest expressions of mankind’s capacity for miraculous creativity and terrible destruction; a sequence where a reactivated robot razes an entire fortress in a curtain of fire is little short of awe inspiring. The sight of a small army of robots, overgrown with moss and quietly tending the lost gardens of Laputa, is unforgettable.
John Lasseter even says that the scene where Sheeta’s rescued from the collapsing fortress is so inspiring to him that, not only has he “studied it frame by frame,” but he also used it as a reference for a rescue scene in Pixar’s A Bug’s Life. “We didn’t copy it,” Lasseter writes, “but we tried to pick the scene apart to identify why it works so well. I know what’s going to happen. Of course, she gets rescued. I know that. But every time I see it, I get the chills. It inspired us.”
Fittingly, Miyazaki was himself inspired by the animators who came before him. As this superb blog post points out, Miyazaki was quite taken by the work of Max and David Fleischer, and often added little nods and tributes to the animators in his own work. Back in 1979, while Miyazaki was animating the TV series Lupin, he paid tribute to the classic Fleischer Bros’ Superman episode, “The Mechanical Monsters,” in which a giant robot is used to rob banks. In the Lupin season two episode “Farewell Beloved Lupin,” we again see a giant robot pressed into service as a bank robber – and the design of the robot is almost identical to the ones Miyazaki put in Laputa seven years later.
Here he is:
The French animator Paul Grimault was also an important touchstone for both Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli co-founder Isao Takahata. They were so impressed by Grimault’s 1980 feature The King And The Mockingbird that they had the film translated and released in Japan under the Ghibli banner. Tellingly, The King And The Mockingbird also contains a sequence in which a castle is destroyed by a giant robot.
Miyazaki’s inspiration for Castle In The Sky came from lots of other sources, too. A research trip to Wales in the early 1980s provided the inspiration for the mining community where Pazu lives. Miyazaki was clearly inspired by classic western literature, most obviously Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, which also contained a flying island called Laputa – unfortunately, Miyazaki wasn’t aware at the time that ‘Laputa’ means ‘The Whore in Spanish, which is why the movie’s simply called Castle In The Sky in some countries.
A proposal dating back to the 7th December 1984 contains some early, alternate titles Miyazaki considered for Castle In The Sky, and these provide a further insight into the influences that went into his animated adventure. These included Young Pazu And The Mystery Of The Levitation Crystal, Prisoner Of The Castle In The Sky, Flying Treasure Island and The Flying Empire. It’s easy to detect more than a hint of Robert Louis Stevenson, Jules Verne, 30s matinee serials, and Tintin creator Herge in those discarded titles.
Like all great filmmakers, Miyazaki takes this rich stew of influences and makes it into something personal and new. He takes Swift’s concept of a flying island and uses it to make a point about our tendency to use technology as a tool of oppression; as he wrote in his 1984 proposal, Laputa was once a flying fortress, used to dominate the land below and steal its treasures by force of arms. The empire has long since passed, but the island remains, its castles overgrown, its robots ageing but still functioning. Without the old empire there to use Laputa as a weapon, it’s become an almost Eden-like place where nature and technology now live in balance. Thanks to the arrival of the cackling Muska – one of the few out-and-out villains in Miyazaki’s body of work – it’s an equilibrium that can’t exist for long.
The places in Castle In The Sky feel so real and rich with history that it feels almost agonising that we can’t buy a plane ticket and visit them. Then again, that’s part of the brilliance of Miyazaki’s movies; their people and landscapes hum with inner life. They represent a world that is more gentle than our own, where, as the great animator puts it, “farmers take joy in their harvests, craftsmen take pride in their work, and merchants take good care of the goods they sell.”
Castle In The Sky where humanity can progress while taking care of the environment; where technology and nature can exist side by side; where our destructive tendencies remain, but we’re able to negotiate around them through bravery and self-sacrifice. It’s a utopian, maybe even impossible vision – as impossible, perhaps, as a flying island – but for those few precious minutes, Miyazaki makes us believe that such a world might be possible.
This article originally appeared on Den of Geek UK.