Reviews of “Original Proposal for Castle in the Sky” (1984) and related work

“Original Proposal for Castle in the Sky” (1984Text)

Miyazaki Hayao (writer).

Read in Starting Point.

A formal project proposal. In this version, it is a piece of the castle’s main levitation crystal that has somehow fallen to the ground, not one of the robots, and Pazu actually finishes and uses his ornithopter, which he never comes close to doing in the finished film.

References here: Starting Point: 1979–1996 (1996/2009).

text non-fiction Japanese production

Castle in the Sky (1986Moving picture, 125 minutes)

Miyazaki Hayao (writer-director).

Black lightning cleared the skies centuries ago, but flying machines are once again common. Maybe that’s because of the terrain. In one deep ravine, there’s a boy helping to run a steam engine for some prospectors, but the mines are already well developed. There aren’t many new veins to find and the community is sliding further into poverty.

Years earlier, at high altitude, the boy’s father saw Laputa. Few people believed the man when he escaped the “dragons’ den” of two nested tornadoes blowing in opposite directions, concealing and protecting the legendary flying castle. Now an orphan, the boy is building a flying machine of his own, to go look.

Far to the north, another orphan—a yak herder—is kidnapped by government agents. They also seek Laputa, whose miraculous technologies still threaten the peace of the world. A family of pirates looking for the castle’s gold lay plans to interfere.

You can draw a simple picture of Miyazaki’s career as the confluence of three forces: The pure adventure that is kinetic and primarily fun to watch; the drama or heavy epic where he meditates on real problems; and the symbolic fairytale, which is a world of psychological archetype and allegory.

Before he started directing, Miyazaki worked mostly on pure adventures for children, but also on Takahata’s realistic literary adaptations like Heidi: A Girl of the Alps (1974). In the same era, the Proppian and psychodynamic logic of the fairytale was front and centre in his own failed movie-making proposals, like “Princess Mononoke: The First Story” (1980) and The Journey of Shuna (1983). By 1986, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1982, then still in serialization) had become a more complex entity than the 1984 film adaptation of the same. Miyazaki was apparently dissatisfied with the primarily visual starting point of the comic, realizing the advantages of more up-front worldbuilding, and so he fused the adventure part of Castle in the Sky with more realistic thinking. I think he had developed a taste for contextualizing the fantastic elements of his writing more deeply. That happens here, where the three forces are in balance. After Castle in the Sky, the forces would be out of balance again: Pure adventure would dominate in e.g. Totoro and Ponyo, realistic drama in Kiki and Mononoke. The fairytale would recede, dominating in Spirited Away and Heron but mostly staying in the background.

Miyazaki stated in “Personally, I Think There Is a Continuity from Nausicaä (1986) that he intended for the film to be “truly classical in structure”, even old-fashioned. The bare bones are half Jules Verne, half H. C. Andersen. The original script alludes to Gulliver’s Travels (1726) by naming Swift and Laputa. Some translations, including the Swedish dub, exclude the open reference to Swift, perhaps because—like a separate reference to Ramayana—it doesn’t make much sense, implying very different contents. Indeed, Pazu says Gulliver’s Laputa is different. It’s primarily a satire of science and Catholicism, with a circular bottom plate, a limited range and a name that means “the whore”. Miyazaki’s Laputa is also allegorical. Its base is a sphere, its range is unlimited, and it symbolizes atomic weapons among other horrors illustrated in Nausicaä. The story is vastly richer than Gulliver’s Travels Beyond the Moon (1965), but despite its symbolism, Laputan technology is classically Vernian, with no conventional computers and none of the invasive, ontological, postmodern implications of Nausicaä. As Miyazaki put it in his original proposal, “The story is set in an era when machines are still exciting and enjoyable, and science does not necessarily make people unhappy.” Given the violence of the industrial revolution even as it is shown in this film, that mindset requires a great deal of nostalgia.

Though it does symbolize advanced technology for the purposes of drama, the film’s Laputa also functions in the Andersenian dimension of fairytale logic. The character of Muska, a bespectacled man in a brown suit, is not merely a fascist or an intellectual or a government agent, but a true villain, an evil person not found in reality or in much fine literature. Pazu, on the other hand, is just as bright and uncomplicated a treatment of boyhood and masculinity as Conan, the Boy in Future (1978). He is a fairytale hero, though not a prince. Both types are absent from the director’s later feature films. In the original proposal, Miyazaki emphasized that this is a “truly honest” work for children, but of course such simple characters as Muska and Pazu are not a product of honesty: “It is a world where bad people coexist with good people, but bad people are easily identifiable from the way they look.”

Sheeta, the heroine, is a richer character caught between Muska and Pazu. The fact that Laputa’s controls infallibly recognize her authority is never openly tied to any genetic or supernatural mechanism, but it could have been. Like the rest of the film it does not require a fairytale premise, but it would have dovetailed nicely with a fairytale premise or with its negation. Continually horrified by the suffering engendered by the conflict over her heritage, Sheeta nonetheless marks a line in the fairytale dimension, from the dark, sterile, interior “underworld” of Laputa—the site of folktale death—to the bright, airy, dirty land of Gondoa—a site of life—where she herded her yaks. When she wakes up in Pazu’s house and he releases the pigeons from his kiln-turned-dovecot, she reacts with spontaneous joy to the birds eating out of her hands; a shot flawlessly key-animated by the bird-loving Futaki Makiko. This aligns Sheeta with the robot caretaker of the upper castle of Laputa, who saves a bird’s nest and has fox-squirrels like Nausicaä’s Teto playing on its shoulders. The robot is more sanitary and salutary than the green “god men” of Shuna, who are also caretakers of a forbidden place, with similar proportions. The strongest scene in the film is Sheeta’s mute meeting with the first, partly broken robot, where the horror of undeath and mass destruction is married to gentleness and self-sacrifice. It is as surprising, and effective, as the finest wood joinery of Japan.

A couple of years later, in “What the Scenario Means to Me” (1989), Miyazaki would use a Christmas tree as a metaphor for writing an “organic whole”: “One must have the clear core of what one wants to convey. This is the trunk of the story that penetrates throughout in a strong and simple way. What catches the audience’s eye is the treetop, the shimmer of the leaves. What is most required of a scenario are roots that spread deep into the earth and a strong trunk hidden by the mass of shimmering leaves. As long as there is a trunk strong enough to support branches and leaves, the rest—hanging decorations, letting flowers bloom, and adding accessories—can be accomplished by everyone sharing their ideas.” It is implied but never stated that the world tree which grows in the middle of the castle, very much symbolizing an organic whole, was planted there by Sheeta’s family, the Toel Ur Laputa clan. If so, they also built the grand epitaph where the caretaker robot leaves its flowers. Like the Ohmu in Nausicaä’s interpretation, the world tree and the robots seem to have surpassed the expectations of their makers, positioning nature alongside compassion, and both together as a power ultimately stronger than technology or the human mind: symbolism as the trunk of the Christmas tree. The roots of the tree—and the script—thus penetrate the black sphere that is the true Laputa, purporting to show that a complete escape from nature is impossible, and therefore that Muska’s fantasy of rule from afar is foolish. In other words, power corrupts. The concentration of all control—benevolent or otherwise—is the pipe dream, the castle in the sky.

Compare this to trash like “Patterns of Force” (1968) where the same message is stated more openly but never taken seriously. The tragic sincerity of realistic drama is the reason why Queen Sheeta throws away half the things that would traditionally make her live “happily ever after”: The castle, the military power, and thereby the wealth and political power associated with her heritage. She doesn’t just give them to someone else or leave them to be rediscovered later: She destroys them at the cost of their beauty and their scientific value, and with great danger to herself. As far as she knows, they cannot be salvaged. Disney has never done anything so bold or so sympathetic, but this film is arguably closer to Disney than anything else Miyazaki has done. Beyond the moral dichotomy, the simple characters, and the slapstick action implying a fear of on-screen death, there is a child romance that seems almost predestined, all of which is formula.

In an important contrast to contemporary Disney, the moral message is anti-authoritarian, not cynical, and does not overpower the adventure or the drama. In fact, it is more subtle in the Japanese script than it became in some dubs for non-Japanese children. The Swedish dub expands slightly on Old Man Pom’s philosophy, which adds a dubious psychodynamism to Swift’s notion of levitating stones. Disney’s own adaptation added more music, indicating that the greatly varied pacing of the original scared the US distributor. The original music is great. The lyrics to the ending theme knock me out.

The rare balance of adventure, drama and fairytale is admittedly messy, not perfect, but enormously rich in imagination and execution. The action sequences make brilliant use of the medium and of the wonderful environments, while being relatively powerful for a family film where death is not shown. The worldbuilding is original and enchanting, starting on a pit wheel arm in an exaggerated Welsh mining community and proceeding to a sort of super-Maginot Line emplacement, then beyond for the second half. Better than anything Verne actually wrote, it has all the power of nostalgia, childhood fantasy and vital science fiction, realized with Miyazaki’s visual imgination working at full strength for the first time.

I’d marry that robot if I could. It is itself a marriage of two disparate influences. The first is technological: Symbolically technocratic/dehumanized storm troopers like Fleischer’s “The Mechanical Monsters” (1941) and the stiff, tree-annihilating body guard from Devil Girl from Mars (1954). The second is religious. The floating castle is part of a floating world: The 憂き世 of Buddhism. It is Buddhism which suggests that—given time—the sadness of life would permeate even the mechanical caretakers of Laputa. This is why they have assumed “Buddha nature” and become bound to the liberating moss.

The Swedish dub is mediocre. As noted above, it seems to be based on Disney’s English dub rather than the original script, it is inconsistent in the pronunciation of “Muska” and “Pazu”, and some actors use the Stockholm dialect for non-urban characters.

References here: Introduktion till Kerberos Club 2011–2014, The title of Princess Mononoke, Ghibli movie titles, Schrödinger’s 君, 2023-07-01, “Aloha, Lupin” (1980), “Chronopolis” (1982), “Explorer Woman Ray” (1989), Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989), Nadia of the Mysterious Seas (1990), DuckTales the Movie: Treasure of the Lost Lamp (1990), “The Power of the Single Shot” (1993), “Earth’s Environment as Metaphor” (1994), Magic User’s Club! (1996), Starting Point: 1979–1996 (1996/2009), “You Cannot Depict the Wild Without Showing Its Brutality and Cruelty: A Dialogue with Tadao Satō” (1997), Blue Gender (1999), Now and Then, Here and There (1999), “Room to Be Free: Speaking About Spirited Away at the Press Conference Held Upon Completion of the Film” (2001), Princess Arete (2001), Last Exile (2003), Planetes (2003), Xam’d: Lost Memories (2008), Mary and the Witch’s Flower (2017), The Boy and the Heron (2023).

moving picture implementation Ghibli animation Japanese production mecha fiction

‣‣ “Personally, I Think There Is a Continuity from Nausicaä” (1986Text)

Miyazaki Hayao (interviewee).

Read in Starting Point.

An interview, made for the Roman Album, ranging across various aspects of the film’s production.

References here: Castle in the Sky (1986), Starting Point: 1979–1996 (1996/2009).

text document non-fiction Japanese production