Castle In The Sky [Tenkū no Shiro Rapyuta/Laputa: Castle In The Sky] (1986)

Just The Two Of Us, Building Castles In The Sky

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Castle In The Sky is one of those films upon a first-time viewing, it’s easily apparent how much of its fingerprints are over so much media that proceeded it in this Jules Vernesque, steampunk adventure. The heroes’ journey, chase movie follows youthful protagonists Pazu & Sheeta as they embark on the search for Laputa, a floating Tower of Babel of which the surface has the appearance of a deserted Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Little information is given about the history of Laputa, with the viewer given the task of filling in the blanks.

Castle In The Sky is littered with moments of pure wonderment and melancholy from scenes such as a cave being turned into a makeshift planetarium with the use of the element volucite (a fictional element sadly) to the sense of awe upon the arrival to Laputa itself. There is something about the blue skies in Studio Ghibli’s films which is endlessly beautiful to look at while the lighting present in the animation provides much visual stimulus (although I would just say the contrast with Sheeta’s pirate outfit between light and dark is too drastic). The physicality and sense of space the animators are able to convey as well as the suspense created in the film’s action sequences through the medium really is a remarkable feat. Correspondingly, a Ghibli film ain’t a Ghibli film without a rich and melodious score, especially courtesy of Joe Hisaishi. The main theme of the picture itself balances a line between its dark, mischievous yet optimistic tone. Some of my favourite highlights include Morning In Slag Ravine which is the ideal accompaniment to any morning sunrise to that piece which plays as Sheeta slowly Ancient Aliens herself from the sky is one catchy ditty. Likewise, the Celtic-sounding Memories of Gondoa conjures visions of the rural landscape of the British Isles and appropriately is used as Sheeta tends to cattle resembling that of the Scottish highlands. 

Pazu resides and works in a fantasy version of a Welsh mining town and I do have to ask was John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley used as a visual pretext for the film? Hayao Miyazki visited a Welsh mining town a year prior to the film’s release and in he appears to pay tribute to them in the film when Pazu utters the line, “Miners aren’t exactly wimps”. Ah Pazu & Sheeta, one true pairing if there ever was one. It is remarkable how attached one becomes towards this duo and their shared chemistry which is able to be portrayed through the medium of animation (take a sip every time Pazu screams “Sheeeeeta!”). No full-on romance ever develops between the two nor do they ever kiss but small displays of affection are present in this young love. In the sweetest scene in the film, Pazu & Sheeta are atop the pirate’s airship at night as Pazu gives reassurances to Sheeta that all will be fine, all while the pirate captain Dola unintentionally hears their endearingly innocent conversation.

As is recurring in Miyazaki’s films, Castle In The Sky showcases the innocence of youth and having minors overcome obstacles which force them into maturity. Like In Kiki’s Delivery Service, the young protagonists are thrust into positions of adult reasonability. Pazu lives by himself and works a full-time job (literally a minor-miner) while Sheeta is left to run her parent’s estate after their passing and it’s later revealed she has the responsibility of being part of the Laputa royal family. Furthermore, during the sequence as the military base is going up in flames, the absolute trauma in the face and voice of Sheeta is intense (although the duo later show no fear walking and even celebrating on platforms with drops in which they could fall to their deaths). I do believe the medium of anime is the best at portraying this sense of innocence and vulnerability due to the hallmarks of anime character design with those big wide eyes, the almond face shapes and the head-to-body ratio. This is where the English dub by Disney really falls short, James Van Der Beek and Anna Paquin sound far too mature for Pazu & Sheeta. Not only do their voices not match their clearly pre-pubescent appearance, but it also takes always from their characters and doesn’t replace it with an alternative that has any merit on its own (as was the case with Jiji in the Disney dub of Kiki’s Delivery Service). This is a shame as Mark Hamill and Cloris Leachman are fantastic in their respective roles but the casting of the children makes this dub hard listening.

Castle In The Sky is a rare instance of Studio Ghibli film with an outright villain in the form of “that pencil pushing upstart” Colonel Muska. The man is one dapper gentleman but I never can brush off the creepy, groomer vibes when he tries to bribe Sheeta with fancy clothes. The other major foe in Castle In The Sky is none other than the government of this fictional land, and what better way to portray an overbearing, authoritarian government than by turning them into ze Germans of course, you vill eat ze boogs and vill like it! Furthermore, the appearance of firearms and ammunition in children’s animation is a shock to the western viewer rather than a fantasy Star Wars-style blaster. Once adjusted to this reality it is far more preferable rather than having them digitally altered into walkie-talkies. Then there are the bay guys turned good mid-film with the Marty Feldman look-a-like Dola and her band of pirates. The film doesn’t make it clear if Dola is the biological mother of her crew or mother in spirit but either way, their dynamic is like a more endearing version of Mom and her three sons from Futurama. Dola herself is really made an interesting character by her belief in traditional gender roles despite being a model of non-conformity herself. Despite wearing the pants, she insists Sheeta be ladylike and holds concern for Pazu’s lack of masculinity following his initial surrender when trying to rescue Sheeta.

I’ve read accounts that Castle In The Sky aired on UK television channel ITV 1 on Christmas Day 1989, with other accounts stating various surrounding dates including Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve of 1988. Either way, it’s remarkable that Castle In The Sky was able to make it to the west so quickly back then and odd by the way of a one-off TV airing. I’ve tried to find recordings or promotion material for this broadcast but have come up empty-handed – hopefully, someone can close a chapter on this lost media mystery.

Kiki’s Delivery Service [Majo no Takkyūbin] (1989)

Someone Left The Cake Out In The Rain

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

For a country which reportedly has one of the world’s highest stress rates (and perhaps as a result), Japan has produced some of the screen’s most tranquil and relaxing viewing experiences, whether it’s the works of Yasujirō Ozu or Studio Ghibli. Kiki’s Delivery Service tells the story of a trainee witch travelling to a city and using her flying skills to start her own delivery service. Set in the fictional city of Koriko (or Corico as some sources spell it), an urban dwelling inspired by Stockholm and the small Swedish town of Visby which is given no real-world area however the geographical layout of the city within the film feels incredibly well defined (bring on the Kiki’s Delivery Service open-world video game). Director Hayao Miyazaki is quoted as having said “Kokiro has one side on the shores of the Mediterranean, and the other on the Baltic Sea [laughs]”. Correspondingly, Miyazaki states Kiki’s Delivery Service takes place in an alternative 1950s Europe in which both world wars never happened and this rejection of modernity is a constant theme throughout Studio Ghibli’s output. It’s easy to lose yourself in the world within Kiki’s Delivery Service with its classical European architecture, cobblestone streets and houses equipped with traditional ovens. During the film’s opening, Kiki wants to leave her tiny village in the countryside for the city, yet to the viewer, this place is heaven on Earth with its green fields, bright blue skies and cosy cottages. The accompanying music score by Joe Hisaishi features many moments of joyful bliss with a mix of classical European, vaudevillian and ragtime music. On A Clear Day radiates that feeling of a sunny day while the piece which plays as Kiki arrives in her newfound hometown titled A Town With An Ocean View is dark yet optimistic. My favourite piece is that played over the unveiling of painting featuring Kiki titled An Unusual Paining in which the dreamlike, new-age mystic piece leaves one with a sense of wonder.

Kiki’s Delivery Service is one of the best films about entrepreneurialism and the entrepreneurial spirit. The world of Kiki’s Delivery Service appears to be a libertarian paradise, a world which appears to be devoid of any business regulation (“Oi mate, you got a loicense to deliver that cake?”) in which children are driving cars, flying permits are not required for amateur aircraft, a minor can own a business, there is no mention of child labour laws nor any mention of Kiki continuing or ever having attended a school and a place in which you can invent flying machines without any apparent regulations – what Ayn Rand would describe as “full, pure, uncontrolled laissez-faire capitalism”. This lack of regulation or government oversight extends to the fact that Kiki leaves her home to be independent while still a minor at the age of 13. Her mother does mention “nobody leaves home that young anymore”, but aside from this, no concern is raised for a 13-year-old going off to live by herself nor any form of social services is present to get involved. Is this form of libertarianism and capitalism presented here ultimately a fantasy that would not work in real life with the presence of predatory big business (or am I over-analyzing a film for subtext that’s not there)? Miyazaki once stated about capitalism: “During the time I was trying to conclude Nausicaä , I did what some might think is a turnabout. I totally forsook Marxism. I decided it was wrong, that historical materialism is also wrong, and that I shouldn’t see things with it.” Only a few years following the release of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, Miyazaki would craft fictional benevolent capitalists like the ever so loving and joyful Osono, the owner of the bakery Gütiokipänjä and a compassionate, benevolent landlady who showcases the human side of business (likewise, there’s something comic about the mere presence of Osono’s unnamed husband, the tall, buff, stoic figure who utters little more than a grunt). Kiki’s Delivery Service is a film which conveys the value of money as Kiki has to carefully budget what money she has after arriving in town, forcing herself to live off pancakes and work for her money while other kids her age spend their time procrastinating and driving cars. It’s moments like her visit to the grocery store and her sticker shock over the price of items which really makes the film so down to Earth.

The overall sweet, wholesome nature of Kiki’s Delivery Service makes my inner valley girl wants to proclaim, “like omg, cutest movie ever!!”. Everything about the titular heroine is unbearably cute from her facial expressions to her over the top reactions to even the slightest bit of good news and her occasional hyperactive nature. Kiki is seen as modern by the standards of her village yet old fashioned by the standards of the city. She struggles to fit in with the city’s children yet is able to engage with two elderly ladies thanks in part to her knowledge of how devices such as how a wood-burning oven works. Kiki is repulsed by how rude the children in the city act from the overly-inquisitive girl hunter Tombo to the ungrateful girl who receives the herring pie from her grandmother. This theme of maturity extends to the relationship Kiki shares with her cat Jiji. After she loses her powers which include the ability to speak to Jiji, it remains the one power she does not regain at the film’s conclusion. I do find it somewhat heartbreaking that Kiki never regains this ability but then again, speaking to a cat as if they’re human is in itself a rather childish thing to do and thus a sign of Kiki’s newfound maturity as she gets older. It does raise the question if Jiji could actually speak to Kiki in the first place or was it just in her mind? Yet in the English dub, Kiki restores her ability to speak to Jiji at the end, regardless Phil Hartman’s sarcastic Jiji makes the English dub worth watching.

So by all accounts, Kiki’s Delivery Service sounds like the most based, conservative, red-pilled, right-wing movie ever made espousing the values of tradition, power of the individual and the pick yourself up from the bootstraps mentality? Well not quite. Kiki is after all practising pagan witchcraft rather than being a good God-fearing Christian. Although in all seriousness, God is actually mentioned in both the dubbed version and the English subtitles of the original Japanese version in which Ursula states – “The spirit of witches. The spirit of artists. The Spirit of bakers! I suppose it must be a power given by God. Sometimes you suffer for it”. Although this is not the line in the original script and is a creation of the English subtitles the film still contains the ever slight reference to religion with Kiki flying past a Christian church in the opening credits. It’s not difficult to buy into the fantasy premise in which witches with supernatural abilities openly co-exist in society, and can even marry non-witches such as Kiki’s father (are her powers genetically passed down from her mother?). However these are not witches in the traditional sense, there are no devils, pentagrams or virgin sacrifices present in the film (Kiki’s mother is introduced creating a potion using modern science equipment). There does appear to be one dark side presented about these witches in which Jiji remarks “Crows used to be witches’ servants” to which Kiki angrily responds “That was a long time go, okay?” – make of that what you will. Also, while it is odd to bring up, I am forced to mention as it does come off as peculiar for the western viewer is the inclusion of many up-skirt shots throughout the film. It’s not sexual but no doubt will cause some monocles to fall into champagne glasses. That said, Miyazaki actually has a reasoning for this. On page 138 in The Art Of Kiki’s Delivery Service, he is quoted saying “It’s a rite of passage for her to fly over the city with her underwear exposed” – make of that what you will.

Despite lacking a villain within the story, Kiki’s Delivery Service does manage to set up a finale with an action set piece and one which utilizes Miyazaki’s love of aviation. Likewise, I do enjoy how Studio Ghibli’s films make the end credits a part of the movie-watching experience, something I wish more films would do general (Kiki’s continued use of a bassline broom after the destruction of her traditional witches’ broom is a nice touch). The aforementioned subplot of Kiki losing her powers immediately reminded me of the similar subplots in Superman II and Spider-Man 2. In all three films, the loss of powers comes from stress, burnout, the descent into depression and the inability to lead a normal life (granted Superman choose to give his powers up voluntarily but the comparison still holds). Kiki’s Delivery Service can be read as an allegory for modern young creatives trying to make it on their own with Kiki’s magic being used as a metaphor for artistic expression whether it’s attempting to become a YouTuber or trying to run a successful movie review blog (wink, wink) and attempting to accompany this into a work-life balance. The other character who reflects the passion for a creative to turn their passion into a job is the painter Ursula. She speaks of how her pursuit of painting is what gets rid of her frustrations and her remedy for the loss of creativity involves “Take[ing] long walks, look at the scenery, doze off at noon. Don’t do a single thing” – and yes, on a personal level this I can relate to. Kiki’s Delivery Service is as fine a tribute to the creative and entrepreneurial spirit and regardless of your passion, “Sometimes you suffer for it”.

Ocean Waves [I Can Hear The Sea/Umi ga Kikoeru] (1993)

Youth Is Wasted On The Young

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Ocean Waves is a real unsung gem of the Studio Ghibli library, with this made-for-TV film running at a very digestible and economical length of 72 minutes. Ocean Waves tells the story of Taku Morisaki (Nobuo Tobita), a high school student in a provincial town in the Kochi prefecture whose world is turned upside by a transfer student from Tokyo named Rikako Muto (Yōko Sakamoto). I’ve read many comments and reviews that express a strong dislike for this character usually reserved for the likes of Scarlet O’Hara and it’s not hard to see why – she is spoiled, manipulative, selfish and rude. The city girl thinks herself superior to the provincial folk in the town she has been incarcerated in and even says at one point she hates the area and guys who speak with a Kochi dialect. Rikako gives no acknowledgement for all the trouble she puts Taku through from lending her money, finding himself escorting her to Tokyo at the last minute and being forced to sleep in a hotel bathtub (some men will have the patience of a saint when it comes to a pretty girl). The will they/won’t they story becomes increasingly unlikely as the relationship between the two deteriorates so bad that they end up slapping each other in public, while in another incident soon afterwards Rikako gives Taku another powerful slap for no good reason in an excellent piece of animation as the beautiful young woman suddenly appears so unattractive. Yet as a viewer I can feel sorry for her as her parents are divorced and she has been forced to move with her mother (of whom she resents) to another town against her will (and being on her period as she declares doesn’t help matters). Although I can understand for other viewers she remains unredeemable.

Ocean Waves is also a love triangle story with Taku’s best friend Matsuno Yutaka (Toshihiko Seki) also being in the pursuit of Rikako. The film hints there may be a homosexual attraction between Taku and Matsuno. In the scene in which the two meet for the first time, Taku narrates “Since then, in my mind, Matsuno was different from the others” – a possible dog whistle that the two are friends of Dorothy not to mention the scene is very romantic in nature but it’s ultimately left ambiguous. Regardless their bromance serves as another great relationship dynamic. This slice of life anime is full of those relatable high-school moments which make you go “oh yeah, I remember going through a moment like that”.

The animation present in Ocean Waves is not to the quality of Ghibli’s theatrical films, but for a TV production, it still looks great despite a few technical issues. Several background characters appear as mannequins with no face but more significantly, the film does have some framing issues. I am unable to discover if Ocean Waves was created in the 4:3 or 16:9 aspect ratio. Being a made-for-TV production from the early 90’s I would imagine it was created in the former but I can only find copies presenting it in 16:9 of which the vast majority of the film looks perfectly fine however a number of shots do appear as if a 4:3 product has been zoomed in to fill a 16:9 screen with character’s heads being unnaturally cut off. Likewise, the film does contain some dodgy edits and several scenes have white borders running around the screen of which I fail to see their purpose. That said, such technical quirks are made up for the fact that Ocean Waves is a visually beautiful piece of work featuring many a lovely Ozu style pillow shot. Animation of real-life (for lack of a better term) is something rarely seen in the west (King Of The Hill being the most well-known example and yes, my favourite anime), a shame as it provides an opportunity to create a beautiful Technicolor-like look. Concurrently, the music score by Shigeru Nagata is an underrated work of melancholic wonder. With a main theme that is somewhat reminiscent of Dave Grusin’s score for On Golden Pond, the serene, nostalgic score is the kind that makes you want to reminiscence on days gone by (where music is absent the ever atmospheric sound of cicadas fills in).

At its heart, Ocean Waves is about the complexity of human relationships and the growing pains they endure. During their high school tenure, Taku and Matsuno violently fall out over Rikako but reunite post-graduation, showing how grievance during one’s school years becomes irrelevant later in life. During the reunion party, the characters speak of how everything seemed like a big deal in high school, but post-graduation they have come to realise they were getting upset over matters which were ultimately insignificant in the years to come.  They even speak of affection for Rikako who didn’t attend the reunion, despite how snobbish and stuck up she was. Taku even looks up at a castle in the night and remembers all the times Rikako complained and ranted to him with a smile on his face accompanied by the film’s beautiful score. Ocean Waves concludes with one of Cinema’s most enduring love story tropes, as the unlikely couple find themselves reunited by chance at a train station – an ending that encapsulates pure cathartic, romantic joy.