Friday, July 13, 2012

Castle in the Sky (orig. Tenkû no shiro Rapyuta) [1986]

MPAA (PG)  Fr. Dennis (3 Stars)

IMDb listing

Castle in the Sky (orig. Tenkû no shiro Rapyuta) [1986] written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki [IMDb] is the flagship movie of a remarkable animated film series entitled Castles in the Sky playing at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago this summer (June-Aug 2012).  The series celebrates the works of the famed Japanese animation studio Studio Ghibli [IMDb], which last year celebrated the 25th anniversary of the release its first feature film, which was none other than  Castle in the Sky (orig. Tenkû no shiro Rapyuta) [1986].

In the years / decades following, Studio Ghibli [IMDb] has received accolades of praise the world-over for the beauty of its animation, considered at the very-top of the Japanese anime style. Indeed, so impressed was Disney, the American children's animation giant, that it has purchased the international distribution rights to most Studio Ghibli [IMDb] films including all of its most recent ones.  (Readers of this blog could recall The Secret World of Arrietty (orig. Kari-gurashi no Arietti) [2010] one of Studio Ghibli's [IMDb] most recent films passed through theaters here in the United States last winter).

In the United States, most of the films of the series (dubbed into English by American actors, in good part thanks to Studio Ghibli [IMDb] alliance with Disney) are available for purchase through and for rent through Blockbuster's DVD-mail service (Note offers a $4.99/DVD 1 week rent-by-mail service without a need for a subscription).  As such, while it may be difficult for readers of this blog to find time to see these films, they can look the films up through either of these two services and watch them at home.  Certainly, animation / film lovers in general would find the films worth looking-up and renting. 

However, I would offer Parents (from the United States and perhaps Europe) the following caution:  Note where this series is being shown (at the Gene Siskel Film Center which is affiliated with the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, a scholarly venue) and that except for films like The Secret World of Arrietty [2010] most of these films have been relatively hard to find in the United States, this despite Disney's control of the distribution rights.  I believe that this is because Studio Ghibli [IMDb] began as an animation studio with its target audience being Japanese.  Only with time has the Studio's focus become (or it has become more adept at reaching) a more global audience.  As such, I would recommend to adults/parents to see/rent one or two of the Studio Ghibli [IMDb] films before showing them to your kids. 

This is not to say that the films are flawed in some way.  Instead the issue would be that even when dubbed (and Disney makes sure that the films are dubbed well) the early films are (unsurprisingly) "Japanese."  As such the films, especially the early ones like Castle in the Sky [1986] and another, Kiki's Delivery Service (orig. Majo no takkyûbin) [1989] about which I hope to write later, were made based on cultural assumptions that Japanese film-makers took for granted that to American/Western viewers would seem a little strange (because they don't meet cultural assumptions that American/Westerners would take for granted).  Such is the nature of culture.  One often doesn't even appreciate the cultural assumptions that we take for granted until we are exposed to something outside our culture.

What am I talking about? 

For instance, it would seem that the Japanese have a far more positive (even eco-friendly) view of technology than Americans/Europeans do.  In Castle in the Sky [1986], a lost floating city of Lapita (hidden from our view by a veil of thunderstorm clouds) continues to be maintained by robots long after the lost civilization's people have largely disappeared to the benefit of the city's plants and animals who consider the robots to be their guardians/friends.

Similarly, Studio Ghibli's film makers appear to equate magic with knowledge/technology/engineering, magic being simply portrayed as "knowledge/technology/engineering of another kind."  In Castle in the Sky [1986], the floating city of Lapita is kept aloft by means of a large "etherium" crystal. And the residents of Lapita especially its elite were adept in other kinds of "magic" which seems to involve the manipulation of nature in some way to suit the purposes of the magic user (or the larger society into whose service the magic-users' skills are/were employed).  In effect, on Lapita magic-users appeared to have been simply "engineers of another sort."  Compare/contrast this view of magic to western conceptions where conceptions of magic have generally been polemicized. 

Finally, since the Studio Ghibli films often involve stories in which both magic and technology interact, the times/settings in which the stories take place could seem initially rather strange: Both Castle in the Sky [1986] and Kiki's Delivery Service [1989] appear to take pace in "Europe" (sort of).  The architecture of the buildings appear to be such that it would fit into a "sort of Europe" and the facial characteristics of the animated characters could pass for either Asian or Caucasian.  Finally, both of these movies appear to take place "at the turn of the 20th century."  So the technology, from airships to the robots, as well as the dress/uniforms of the soldiers/public officials, all seem to be from that particular era, which is both "long gone" and "not so long gone" and hence an era in which both magic and technology could conceivably exist together.  Fascinating, isn't it?  In a sense, both Castle in the Sky [1986] and Kiki's Delivery Service [1989] appear to exist in the world that appears on the banknotes of today's Euros (which famously have been drawn in ways so as to elicit the sense of "Europeness" without being particularly specific about it -- and perhaps avoiding arguments among the European Union's nations as a result).

These then would all be, IMHO, fascinating characteristics of the Studio Ghibli films like Castle in the Sky [1986] and Kiki's Delivery Service [1989].  However, I think that a lot of Catholic readers of this blog would probably appreciate why I would suggest that parents perhaps see a movie or two of the Ghibli series before bringing them home and "showing them to the kids." Again, it's not that the movies are "evil" or "flawed" some way.  Instead, they are, above all, disorienting/surprising at least initially.  And parents may not want to be initially "surprized"/"disoriented" in such a way in front of their kids.

So then what is Castle in the Sky [1986] about?  It is about a young girl Sheeta (voiced by Anna Paquin in the 2003 Disney version) who is a descendant of the lost city of Lapita.  She had been given a crystal as an heirloom by her grandmother when she was little (and she was taught by her grandmother in some of the most rudimentary "ways of her people of the past" even though Sheeta no longer would have any idea of where exactly her people would have lived).

Sheeta finds herself being pursued by both pirates and the armed forces (dressed for in uniforms that look vaguely like that of Bismark's Germany) for reasons that she initially does not understand.  It turns out that they are after that crystal of course, which both the pirates and the armed forces believe would be a key to finding this rumored city that as of yet had never really been found.

In the course of her adventures she literally "drops out of the sky" and into the life of a little boy named Pazo (voiced by James Van der Beek in the 2003 Disney version) who immediately has an inkling of where she might be from: His father had been a pilot and had taken a picture of a floating city that no one had ever seen before and no one has ever seen since.  Pazo explains to Sheeta that his father had died in disgrace, having been ridiculed for looking for spending the rest of his life looking for that floating city that no one, credible, had ever seen.

Why did Pazo believe believe that Sheeta was from there?  Well, she did "fall out of the sky?"  And yet, when she fell, she came to fall gently so that she was unhurt when she hit the ground.  How could that be?  Eventually, the two figure out that the crystal she wore around her neck had something to do with it.  Of course with both pirates and the armed forces after Sheeta (and soon Pazo) much ensues ...

I found Castle in the Sky [1986] an to be an interesting and as far as I could find, original story written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki [IMDb], one of Studio Ghibli [IMDb] founders.  I found the film (and indeed the whole film series being shown at the Gene Siskel Film Center) offering me a window into a culture, that of Japan, that I would not have seen in quite the same way before.  As such I do believe that both the film and the whole film series would definitely be worthy of the film / animated film lover's time.

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