Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Castle in the Sky (Miyazaki, 1986)

Long before Princess Mononoke and the Academy-award winning Spirited Away, Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki created Castle in the Sky, a characteristically imaginative effort that shows many of his pet themes already in place and is the very definition of the word ‘rollicking’. Watching Castle in the Sky, it is easy to see why over time Miyazaki has developed a huge following in North America. Apart from some facial features that could be characterized as distinctive to anime, there is very little about Castle in the Sky that stands out as being especially Asian. Indeed, Miyazaki seems to be drawing inspiration largely from American blockbusters such as Star Wars and the Indiana Jones series. Miyazaki takes the X-wing fighters and transforms them into pirate flying machines resembling giant insects. Enormous and destructive ships pursue the protagonists much like Lucas’ star destroyers. A chase sequence set on fast-moving trains is reminiscent in its execution of the mining car scenes in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

Naturally, Miyazaki is no mere pilferer, adding plenty of his own touches that would eventually come to be readily recognizable. There is the aggressive and intimidating elderly woman, the sweet-faced protagonists that look about ten years younger than their actions would suggest, the huge complex piece of machinery with an unclear practical purpose and a symbolic patch of natural environment threatened by the actions of mankind. I especially enjoyed the way in which Miyazaki throws us immediately into the heart of the action with little time to calibrate ourselves. An opening scene featuring two warring factions battling it out in the sky and a young girl taking a rather ill-advised plunge effectively captures our attention and introduces us to a world of murky motives and sudden, inexplicable magic. Before long, we hear tales about a mystical castle that exists above the clouds and we know for certain that our tale will ultimately lead us to that far off place, though for much of the film’s runtime, it is not especially clear why. Once we finally reach the destination, things become somewhat clearer, as we see a metaphorical conflict between technological progress and pure environmentalism taking shape in the form of overgrown roots and large metallic boxes. Considering this is a Miyazaki film, rampant technology doesn’t stand a chance.

It is difficult to visit Castle in the Sky after viewing Miyazaki’s superior films such as Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke. While the film is consistently entertaining and has its fair share of invention, it can’t help but feel like a Plain Jane by comparison. It’s not that the story in Castle in the Sky isn’t told well. It’s just that Miyazaki has gone on to create works of greater maturity and higher aspirations. With two young protagonists possessing little charisma and an awkward schoolyard-level romance, Castle in the Sky does little to distinguish itself as an essential adventure all to itself. There is some kind of pro-environmental message here, but since the struggle seems to be played out above the level of the protagonists’ comprehension, it is difficult to feel any sort of emotional attachment to their vague quest. Still, for those attracted to Miyazaki’s fantasy universe, Castle in the Sky is worth a look.

[***]

3 Comments:

Blogger Old Bull Lee said...

You're so wrong.

10:48 AM  
Blogger Joel said...

What part is wrong? The part where I say it is worth watching?

1:13 PM  
Blogger Old Bull Lee said...

Nah, the part where you say Miyazaki "would do it better posteriorly". Ah, so wrong.

(sorry, but this is one of my very favourite adventure films, animated or not)

6:57 AM  

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