Studio Ghibli has become a household name across the world for its visual masterpieces and profound narratives. Spirited Away is probably its most famous film and is hailed as one of the greatest pieces of animated cinema of all time.
Other films like Kiki’s Delivery Service, Howl’s Moving Castle, My Neighbor Totoro, and Ponyo have all become wildly popular both in its home country of Japan and all across the Western world.
Studio Ghibli never had to grow into their excellence. In fact, it has been making stellar animated films ever since its very first release, Castle in the Sky, which came out in 1986. Yes, since its very first try, Studio Ghibli has been producing visually stunning, heartwarming films that have cemented themselves as some of the best-ever works of animation.
If you’re just starting to dip your toes into the world of anime, Castle in the Sky should be at the top of your watch list. This film kickstarted Studio Ghibli (arguably the greatest animation studio of all time) and has inspired so many pieces of media that came after it.
If you’re a fan of the steampunk genre, Castle in the Sky is considered by many to be the film that inspired that entire aesthetic. If you just like watching movies for some nice visuals and a captivating story, Castle in the Sky certainly doesn’t disappoint in those areas either.
This film comes straight from the mind of Hayao Miyazaki, who is widely considered to be one of the most important names in animation. However, Miyazaki drew from quite a few sources of inspiration to create this film, making Castle in the Sky a melting pot of global culture as well as a purely entertaining film. Let’s look at what made this film so amazing and why it’s had such a powerful impact on pop culture.
Castle in the Sky Premise
The film opens with Sheeta, the female lead character, on an airship that gets attacked by pirates. After climbing out of a window of the airship in an attempt to escape, she falls out of the sky but is saved by the mysterious blue pendant around her neck, which allows her to gently float down to Earth.
On Earth, she’s discovered by an orphan boy named Pazu who takes her into his local mining town. In the town, Sheeta is tracked down by a group of pirates (a family led by a woman named Dola) and a group of government agents led by a man named Muska, both of which want to steal her amulet.
Sheeta and Pazu narrowly escape their grasps by falling into a mine but are later captured by Muska. While holding her captive, Muska explains to Sheeta that she is the princess of a floating island called Laputa and shows her a robot that came from the island, proving that Laputa is home to an extremely technologically advanced society.
After Muska and Sheeta convince Pazu to go home to protect himself, Sheeta recites a prayer that her grandmother taught her that brings the robot to life. The robot then destroys the fortress that Sheeta is being kept in and frees her.
Back in Pazu’s hometown, Dola and her gang of pirates capture Pazu inside his own home. Dola intercepts a message from the army saying that they are going to load Sheeta onto an army ship called the Goliath, and so Pazu and the pirates go to rescue her.
How and why the pirates and Pazu join forces is still semi-unclear to me. Perhaps the pirates were hoping to use Pazu as a bartering token or, as we see later in the film, perhaps Dola has a soft spot for Pazu and Sheeta’s love affair.
Anyway, Pazuh and Dola’s pirates successfully rescue Sheeta, but not before Muska is able to steal Sheeta’s necklace, which shows him the way to Laputa. Sheeta, however, also remembers the way to Laputa and leads the pirates and Pazu to the floating island. There they find that there are no humans left, only robots and overgrown plants.
Not long after, Muska and his army arrive on Laputa and Muska captures Sheeta, dragging her into the inner chamber of Laputa where there is a powerful gemstone that can control the entire island. Muska uses this gemstone in conjunction with and wields Laputa as a sort of superweapon, destroying his own army’s ship.
Eventually, Pazu comes to rescue Sheeta, who manages to steal her amulet back. Muska foolishly gives Pazu and Sheeta a moment to speak to one another and the two of them recite the spell of destruction that Sheeta’s grandmother taught her, which causes the island of Laputa to self-destruct, killing Muska.
Pazu and Sheeta land safely on some roots and are then picked up by their pirate friends. Finally, the island of Laputa floats off into the atmosphere, and Sheeta, Pazu, and the pirates ride away happily into the sunset.
Inspirations for Castle in the Sky
Many aspects of Castle in the Sky were adapted from other pieces of media and from other artistic styles from around the world. The characters of Sheeta and Pazu, for instance, were very similar to the main characters from another one of Miyazaki’s works titled Future Boy Conan in which there is a rescue scene very similar to the one in Castle in the Sky.
The name of “Laputa” very clearly came from the flying island of Laputa in Jonathan Swift’s novel Gulliver’s Travels. The two islands are extremely similar, as both are flying islands controlled by giant central crystals that contain advanced technology, which gets misused for political means.
The film also shows a pretty clear influence from ancient Mesopotamian, Assyrian, and Egyptian art. The city of Laputa pretty closely resembles what historians believe the ancient Mesopotamian city of Babylon would have looked like and the tablet that Muska uses to control the island is covered in Babylonian cuneiform script. Many of the murals seen throughout Laputa also closely resemble ancient Egyptian and Assyrian artistic styles.
The architecture in Pazu’s hometown is pretty clearly inspired by a Welsh mining town. Miyazaki actually visited Wales in 1984 and witnessed the miners’ strike led by Arthur Scargill with his own eyes.
In an interview with The Guardian, Miyazaki actually said about Castle in the Sky, “I was in Wales just after the miners’ strike. I really admired the way the miners’ unions fought to the very end for their jobs and communities, and I wanted to reflect the strength of those communities in my film.
Castle in the Sky Review
Being that this movie came from Studio Ghibli and Hayao Miyazaki, it’s no surprise that Castle in the Sky is an absolute visual feast. The clouds alone throughout the movie are works of awe-inspiring animation, and the landscapes are nothing short of magnificent.
The character designs are whimsical and stylistically similar to other Studio Ghibli films (indeed, Dola’s face is very similar to Yubaba from Spirited Away and Sheeta looks very similar to the title character of Kiki’s Delivery Service). Honestly, you could watch this movie with the sound off and still be engaged. It’s a 125-minute work of moving art.
The storyline of Castle in the Sky is one of the most simple and basic among all of Miyazaki’s films, which isn’t saying a whole lot considering his movies often have highly complicated and far-out plots.
While there were some moral lessons embedded in the film about environmentalism, technological advancement, and abuse of political power, Castle in the Sky also doesn’t have as profound a message as some of the other Miyazaki movies.
With that being said, Castle in the Sky is incredibly entertaining and endearing. One can easily sympathize with Sheeta and Pazu as you watch their puppy love unfold. The dark horse of the movie, however, was Dola, who starts out as a villain but works her way into your heart as she transforms into a grandmotherly sort of figure.
The plot dynamics of the film create wonderful suspense that keeps your heart pounding the entire way through and the visuals are enough to keep your eyes glued to the screen. I will certainly be watching Castle in the Sky with my kids and my grandkids when I have them.