I don’t have a great long term memory. I’ve always been a bit of a dreamer. I get easily distracted, I phase out, and I don’t always hear people (or is it listen to them?) when they talk to me. It’s for this reason, I suppose, that my memories from childhood of all of the Studio Ghibli films are so skewed. It’s been both strange and amusing to piece together what little I sometimes remember of each animation before I rewatch it in adulthood. For example, with Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (I know, not officially a Studio Ghibli film, but bear with me), all I recalled of it before I revisited it about a year ago was the steadfast and terrifying stare of the Ohmu, as herds of them trampled all in their path, charging in some unknown direction. For some reason, as a child watching these magnificent (but kind of gross) beasts, what had brought about their anger was of little importance to me. It was the anger – the blind rage – itself, condensed into the bright red of their eyes, which hypnotized me, and which remained with me as a potent image for years to come.
When it came to rewatching Laputa: Castle in the Sky last week, I found myself scrambling again for any memories I may have retained of the story from when I had last watched it, which I worked out must have been years ago. As I sat thinking about it, mulling over images of mossy robots, I was sure that most of the film’s action took place on the island of Laputa itself. As a child I had been completely transfixed by the magic of the greenery, the flowers, the rays of sunlight, and the birds. In my mind it was a film filled with moments of tranquility, of stillness. To those who know the film, you can imagine my surprise when I realised whilst sat watching, that the majority of the film (an hour and a half of the two hour run time) takes place away from the island. The story follows youngsters Pazu and Sheeta as they run from pirates, soldiers and secret agents, whilst simultaneously searching for a mysterious, floating utopia in the sky. Due to the greed and unflinching ambition of man, the two find themselves repeatedly chased and kidnapped. Unbeknownst to Pazu, Sheeta is the descendant of the people who once inhabited Laputa, and there are those who would stop at nothing in order to manipulate her ties to the island’s magic and gold.
What struck me most about the film on a rewatch was its many scenes of destructive violence. Perhaps this has to do with the fact that my memory of the story was contradictory to what actually happens. I had recalled some darkness, a feeling of uneasiness that swelled beneath the surface of remembered images, such as Pazu and Sheeta taking leisurely strolls through the grass of Laputa. But I had not recollected any particular moments of brutality. This meant that scenes such as those at the fortress of Tedis, where a captured Laputan robot bursts free from its cell and sets fire to the surrounding buildings in an attempt to save Sheeta, only to be gunned down and set ablaze itself by a monstrous airship, were truly distressing. This may sound pathetic to some, but even the sequence early on where the pirates chase Pazu and Sheeta along a railway which towers over the valley below, causing the entire structure to collapse into smithereens, was saddening to watch. Everything was familiar, of course, as is usually the case when you rewatch a film that you thought you’d mostly forgotten. But the images shocked all the same.
And yet, there is something to be said for the shock of violence, especially when it is animated. Too much of film violence nowadays reaches its viewer with a dose of apathy, cloaked in a kind of coolness which numbs its effect. I’m not about to go on a rant about the high levels of violence in film, far from it. But I do think it’s important to remember what horror, what utter dismay and dread, should be provoked by the sight of aimless destruction. What Hayao Miyazaki does, and does so well, in this and many of his other films, is show violence and destruction as very much the product of humanity’s manipulation of technology and mistreatment of nature. For example, it’s no accident, I believe, that Muska’s airship Goliath resembles the Ohmu from Nausicaa, especially in night scenes, with its staring lights and bug-like body. Both Goliath and the Ohmu are not inherently evil (Goliath is a ship after all), but both have the potential to wreak absolute havoc on those around them if controlled by the wrong person. Choices and actions are vital in Castle in the Sky; choosing when to use violence, and when not to. Consequently, the line between nature and technology is blurred (see: Laputa’s robots caring for plants and animals when left to their own devices), and what remains as most horrifying is man’s inability to take responsibility and choose a nonviolent path.
By the end of the film, Pazu and Sheeta must make the ultimate choice. They call upon destruction in order to prevent further violence. And in a twist of fate, after all of the intricate mechanics and weaponry of the island have fallen to the bottom of the ocean, the stone that magically kept everything in the clouds rises up into the roots of the trees on top, and lifts nature even higher and further away from humanity. Less of a shedding of technology (the robots remain), and more of a shedding of man’s selfish influence, the island loses its bottom half, and in the credits we see it floating in space. I like to think of this as an odd reflection of my own memory of the movie from childhood: conveniently shedding all thoughts of violence, and instead deciding to focus on the image of two youngsters befriending a robot, walking through endless greenery, and basking in the beauty of their environment.
FINAL VERDICT: ★ ★ ★ ★ 1/2