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Castle in The Sky at 30 (or, how I fell in love with anime)

As it reaches its 30th anniversary Mark Brandon writes for AFA on how Miyazaki's Castle In The Sky introduced him to the wonders of the world of anime.

Anime is not – it must be said – to everyone’s taste. The often-clumsy dialogue, borderline-incoherent plotting, penchant for wild info-dumping and fixation with giant robots and pubescent schoolgirls make Japan’s native animation-style difficult for some Western viewers to digest. Introducing a friend more accustomed to the smooth, carefully-packaged Disney/ Pixar/ DreamWorks blockbusters to anime is a tricky affair; you’re quite likely to have them look at you sideways as if to say “what was he thinking??”

Hayao Miyazaki’s thirty-year-old masterpiece, Castle in the Sky, is the perfect introduction to feature-length (125 mins) Japanese animation, a bundle of thrills, spills and moments of real wonder, as we follow a young miner in his quest to help a princess discover her lost heritage on the floating island of Laputa. It was my first anime love, seen shortly after its release in 1986, and I've never looked back.

Miyazaki, and Studio Ghibli, which he co-founded, is better known for the award-winning 2001 feature Spirited Away, but the Studio’s first movie Castle in the Sky is both more accessible and deeper than its descendent, perhaps today even more relevant than it was 30 years ago in a world ever-more fixated on possession of resources and the quest for miracle technologies.

The English language version readily-available these days in the US and UK was produced in 1998 following a 1996 deal with Disney to distribute all Ghibli’s movies outside Japan, but not released on DVD until 2005 (and Blu-Ray not until 2012).  The Disney version is a subtler, more sophisticated work than the original English dub, and features an all-star cast including Anna Paquin (X-Men, True Blood), James Van Der Beek (Dawson’s Creek, CSI Cyber), Mark Hamill (Star Wars, of course) and Cloris Leachman (most famous for her role in Young Frankenstein, as well as the psychotic grandmother in TV’s Malcolm in the Middle).

The first act of Castle In The Sky takes place mostly on the ground, in a rift-valley full of Victorian brickwork, machinery and steam railways, inspired by Miyazaki’s 1984 visit to the coal-mining communities of South Wales, which at the time were consumed in a bitter and ultimately futile industrial struggle with the UK government. The setting provides a powerful political backdrop to the movie, with the workers of the valley trapped by industrial decline, essentially powerless against a cruel, aristocratic government which is not averse to driving armoured trains full of soldiers through the valley and blasting anything – or anyone – getting in the way.

Pazu (Van Der Beek) is a young miner whose lost aviator father has left him with dreams of bigger things somewhere up in the clouds and, as fate would have it, he gets the chance to follow his destiny when Sheeta (Paquin) and her amulet literally fall into his life.

The amulet, made of the magical crystal ‘aetherium’ (‘volucite’, in the original dub) which also keeps Laputa afloat, saves Sheeta by breaking her fall from the evil Colonel Muska (Hamill)’s airship.
Sheeta’s escape comes amid an attack by aerial pirates led by the wizened, redoubtable Dola (Leachman) whose catchphrase – “One for all and all for Mom” – belies the heart of gold under her gruff exterior.  Miyazaki’s bluff, bearded air pirates are part of a recurring aviation theme for the Studio (itself named for an Italian warplane), which features again most notably in Porco Rosso (the best movie about a pig flying a seaplane in a brittle 1930s Italy you’ll ever see…) and The Wind Rises, which tells the story of the designer of the famous WWII fighter the Mitsubishi A6M ‘Zero’, as well as a number of Miyazaki’s short movies.

The intricate delights of Castle in the Sky are evident in its first scenes, from the dragonfly-winged fighters that drop from the pirate ship, to the crumbling collieries atop the vertiginous drop into the mining valley, where houses and kilns cling to the cliff-face like brick barnacles or cluster in terraced towns full of tall chimneys and railway viaducts.

Every scene and sequence is hand-drawn and coloured – the trademark Ghibli style – and  while the requirements of the process occasionally confront us with irritatingly-large swathes of flat colour (most noticeable in the characters’ costumes, which rarely feature either wrinkles or much in the way of shadow), we are compensated by being able to discern every brick, strut and spoke of the steampunk world and every tuft of every cloud in Miyazaki’s beautiful sky.

The floating city of Laputa finds its origin in Jonathan Swift’s 18th century literary classic Gulliver’s Travels. In Miyazaki’s vision, it is the last remnant of a society which understood how to mine aetherium, and used its power to rule the Earth from above. Now Laputa drifts, alone and lost, among the clouds, a veritable treasure island, if only the government or the pirates could ever find it.

Sheeta is the last of the ancient royal line of Laputa, and now key to the government’s attempt to plunder its secrets in a quest for world domination. After escaping both Dola and Colonel Muska, she and Pazu learn more about the crystal from the old miner, Uncle Pom – a fairly ubiquitous character-type in Japanese animation generally.

Alas, Muska recaptures them, and they are taken to an imposing fort, whose shallow turrets echo those of France’s infamous Maginot Line. Muska shows Sheeta the remains of a defunct robot, one of Laputa’s functionaries, which has fallen to Earth, proving the existence of the floating city. Sheeta agrees to help find Laputa if Muska will release Pazu, which he does, leaving Pazu with a handful of gold coins for his trouble.

Pazu returns home only to find Dola and her sons, who capture and interrogate him. Then, tuning into government broadcasts, the pirates learn that Muska, aboard the air-destroyer Goliath – an immense metal blimp festooned with huge propeller blades and prickling with gun-turrets – has set off to find Laputa. They set off in pursuit, agreeing to take Pazu with them to rescue Sheeta.

The rest of the tale has to be experienced rather than relayed here, a true adventure yarn with plenty of peril, individual heroics and moments of beauty. As with much anime, it has a suitably apocalyptic ending which satisfies our notions of who should triumph in the age-old battle between good and evil yet leaves us with a profound sense of sadness that great power is often misused, to the detriment of all.

Ultimately, Castle in the Sky proved that anime didn't have to be about giant robots and schoolgirls in sailor dresses. Instead, with a narrative depth that would shame many live action movies, and a variegated pace that few Western animated productions dare to allow themselves, Ghibli’s first movie set a new standard for feature-length anime, which, happily, has continued to develop in the thirty years since its original theatrical release.

Mark Brandon is a writer and animation geek based in London. Mark has been a fan of all things animated since he can remember, and a writer since he could put pen to paper. He has worn many hats, including journalist, recruiter, managing director, illustrator, club DJ, brand director and management consultant, but prefers his writer hat. He has completed two novels - one at age 9 and the other at age 40 - but not published either, perhaps due to too much hat-juggling.