Saturday, October 30, 2010

Miyazaki Notes 2: Castle in the Sky

Speaking about his third feature, Castle in the Sky, Miyazaki remarked:
Personally, I do think there’s a continuity all the way from Nausicaä. I realize that some people may be taken aback when they watch it, thinking of it as the follow-up to Nausicaä. But I created the work hoping that little children could also enjoy it.*
The problem, of course, is that Castle in the Sky is a very different Nausicaä in the Valley of the Wind, which was, in turn, very different from its predecessor, Miyazaki’s first feature, The Castle of Cagliostro. Nausicaä was a dark story, set in a grim world on the edge of the desert and populated by giant insects and fungi. The human race is nearing extinction. The world of Castle in the Sky is pretty much late 19th Century Europe with some steampunk and other modifications. No giant insects, no giant fungi, and the human race is not at the edge of extinction. Nausicaä is in her late teens, while, Pazu and Sheeta, the protagonists of Castle, are, say, 11 or 12. That difference in ages makes a great difference in the kind of story you can tell.

Deep Similarity in Their Worlds

Yet there is a continuity between the two films. If you step back you realize that, beneath the differences, there are broad similarities. In both films, the present is haunted by the past death of a technologically advanced civilization, one that had a mysterious source of energy and that employed large artificial creatures (aka robots). In both stories the central grouping must negotiate for its survival between two larger groups at odds with one another. In Nausicaä we have the people of the valley between the Tolmekians and the Pegites; in Castle it’s Pazu and Sheeta between Muska and the army and Dola and her pirates. The two stories thus share the same fundamental dramatic armature.

Now, consider the role etherium plays in Castle: etherium is the mineral substance that was used to power Laputa. The crystal in Sheeta’s necklace is made of etherium. And the etherium ‘knows’ when Sheeta is in trouble and acts to aid her. In Nausicaä the natural world is in league with the human world through Nausicaä's bond with the ohmu. In Castle it is etherium that makes that bond, through Sheeta. Further, consider that Laputa has functioned for years without human intervention, floating in the sky. Miyazaki has staged that world so that it acts, as a whole, as being with agency.

And then we have the robots in Laputa, artificial creatures that act to defend Laputa and to protect Sheeta. On Laputa there are a number of ‘dead’ robots that are in various stages of becoming absorbed into the landscape; yes, they are decaying, but plants are growing from them too. And that’s important. We assume that, at some point in the past, these robots were created by human beings to serve certain purposes. We don’t see anything that contradicts such an assumption, but we don’t see this happening, not even in flashbacks. It’s just an uncontroverted assumption. What we do see is that these robots occupy a liminal zone between the human and the natural, thus breaking down the distinction between the human and natural worlds. (See this post for further remarks on how Miyazaki stages the relationship between man and nature in Nausicaä.)

Thus, while Castle in the Sky does not focus disaster, as Nausicaä does, it makes similar assumptions about the relations between the human and the nature. They are not distinctly different, and opposed, domains. For this reason, and the similarity of their underlying dramatic armature, I believe that the two films are, as Miyazaki maintains, deeply similar despite very obvious differences.

Sheeta has Breasts?

Now I want to take a look at a specific aspect Sheeta’s character design. It’s something that is both obvious and not. You can’t help be notice it when you see the movie, but I didn’t consciously take note of it until I’d seen it several times.

I’m talking about Sheeta’s breasts. It’s not clear how old she is, but she seems to be a bit younger than Kiki of Kiki’s Delivery Service, and she had just turned 13. Sheeta would seem to be 11 or 12. This is a typical shot of how she appears early in the film:

0-Sheeta in hut

She looks like a young girl. In particular, she is flat-chested. About half-way through the film she and Pazu are rescued by the Dola gang and decide to stick with them. Dola decides that Sheeta needs a change of clothes – she’d somehow lost her dress while in captivity and was wearing only a slip. Here’s Sheeta in Dola’s cabin as Dola looks for something for her to wear:


She looks pretty much as she did in the earlier shot. Now, here she is striding the deck after she gets her ‘official’ pirate clothes:


She now appears to have breasts that she didn’t have before. Not large breasts, but just large enough to be visible. Just in case you might be doubting your eyes, here’s how Dola’s crew reacts to the new Sheeta:

3-Crew reacts

I’m not sure how’d you’d read those still images without any knowledge of the story, but in context, with the sound-track, it’s clear they’re googoo-eyed over Sheeta.

Shortly after these scenes we go into the galley and see Sheeta working. And then we find out that four crewmen are in there, helping her and obviously infatuated with her. Their infatuation would be perverse if she were clearly prepubescent – or so it seems to me – but not so bad if she were clearly a young woman. And it’s an assured young woman who handles those men in the kitchen.

It seems to me that there’s an ambiguity about Sheeta’s age and maturity and that Miyazake is playing on that. That ambiguity extends to the nature of the relationship between Sheeta and Pazu. An so we must consider Pazu as well.

He certainly seems to be prepubescent. And he’s living by himself and supporting himself as the film opens; he’s on his own. Late in the film, when the action takes place on Luputa, Dola and the gang have been captured, but Sheeta and Pazu are still free. They find the gang and sneaks up to Pazu cut the cords that bind Dola and the boys. The gang is sitting on a masonry surface, their legs in front of them, and Dola has her legs crossed. Pazu comes up from below and sticks his head right in front of her crotch and tells her he’s going to cut the cord:

4-Pazu thru Dola

He does so, gives her the knife, and then, as he’s leaving, she reaches down through the hole and hands him a large-caliber gun which she pulls out from under her dress. As he’s scurrying away we see her with a dreamy look on her face as she says “The boy has become a man.”

What’s going on? Under different circumstances, that phrase, and that countenance, would indicate that a boy has had his first sexual experience. But that’s not what happened here, or is it? Well, no, but . . .

In the last half of the film, much of the interaction between Pazu and Sheeta has the feel of courtship, the physical closeness (being tied together at the waist) and the conversation – Pazu wants to go to Sheeta’s homeland and see and know everything about it. The final scene of the film has Sheeta and Pazu together in a small glider-kite sailing off into the sunset, which is a good way to end a romantic comedy.

Yet this film is never explicitly a romantic comedy. And there is never any explicit courtship. When the film opens neither Sheeta or Pazu are looking for a mate. Sheeta’s been captured from her home (where she was living on her own) and Pazu’s working as an errand boy in a mine. They’re brought together quite fortuitously and under circumstances which don’t leave much time for romance. And, in any event, they’re apparently too young for that any how. But then there’s the second half of the film. Still no declarations of love, and certainly no kissing, etc. And yet there are these interactions that seem more characteristic of courtship than of action-adventure. It’s all quite delightful.

And it seems part and parcel of the ambiguity and instability that is central to Miyazaki’s fundamental aesthetic strategy. And that leads me back to the paragraph I used to conclude my previous post:
Children are growing, they’re changing, they haven’t yet arrived. In a sense, they’re unstable. That’s the appeal. Miyazaki’s imagination lives in a universe that’s unstable. It’s in flux. A state of becoming.

*Hayao Miyazaki. Starting Point: 1979-1996. San Francisco: Viz Media 2009, p. 347.


  1. A fine post. Castle in the Sky is a surprisingly tender movie, and that heart, plus the fact that it doesn't follow some of the American action-adventure traditions, has pushed it into my list of favorite films.

    I think if I were going to put a title on Pazu's employment, I would call it "grease monkey."

  2. Thanks for the comment. Yes, though the film has action and adventure aplenty, it is, as you say, a tender-hearted film.