Sunday, April 29, 2012

Castle in the Sky

Director Mamoru Oshii (Ghost in the Shell) once said that he liked Laputa: Castle in the Sky (1986) best among Ghibli movies. Considering that Oshii's own films have always evinced an affinity for darker and more adult themes, it's surprising to me that his favorite Ghibli movie would be arguably the studio's most straightforward boy entertainment. It's a swashbuckling adventure, full of sky pirates, airships, lost cities, chase sequences and daring rescues. If this movie had been available to me as a kid, I'm sure I would have cherished it and watched the VHS tape over and over again. Probably it would have joined the likes of Sleeping Beauty and The Sword in the Stone, as one of those cartoons that I would reenact together with the bossy girl at the family day care, who happened to be my only playmate there, even though I kind of hated her.

Castle in the Sky makes for an enjoyable viewing experience, but not an especially provocative one to stay with you afterward, unless you are of an age to be contemplating floating castles in earnest. There is a definite romanticism to this story and this world, among the most universally appealing (read: least discernibly Japanese) of all Miyazaki's. The main boy and girl are perfectly ordinary children, almost nondescript, that any young viewers who wish should easily be able to see themselves in those roles. The bad guy here is Ghibli's most unambiguously evilthe sort of monster that my child self would always relish role-play slaying, except that this one is just slightly unimpressive-looking.

Coming to it as an adult, I can still appreciate the craftsmanship but never get swept away by the story, which is rather by-the-numbers. To spin all that I've said above another way, Castle in the Sky is narratively conventional, the characters are generic and entirely forgettable, and I don't know that there is anything thematically of substancecertainly nothing for adults, but probably nothing for kids to meaningfully apply on growing up either. And as I re-watch these Miyazaki movies, I'm realizing how utterly devoid of comedic wit they are, which makes for some pretty bland casts. I think perhaps Miyazaki equates cleverness with insincerity. With the exceptions of the villains in this movie, every character, however rough their exterior, is almost insipidly gentle at core, and I'm betting that I'll only be seeing more of that as I get further through his catalog.

But there is room in cinema for gentleness. Castle in the Sky is also a beautiful film, an exciting one, and it has robots! Indeed, the robots were my favorite part, and I wonder if they weren't Miyazaki's as well. The old man claims not to own a computer, says he writes letters instead of emails, and rarely even watches TV. And yet this nature-lover also reveals through his works an affection for technology, so long as it's of the imaginary steampunk variety.

Late in the movie, when our young heroes finally arrive at the lost city of Laputa, they are met by a robot. It can't speak, but it reaches for their glider. Knowing how strong the robot is, the kids fear that it will destroy their craft. But the robot carefully lifts the glider to reveal a bird's nest underneath, which the humans had thoughtlessly landed upon. We also observe that the robot is covered in moss, and birds and the little fox-squirrels from Nausicaa rest and play upon its shoulders. Apparently, after generations with no humans around, Laputa developed into an idyllic paradise of robot and nature existing in perfect harmony together. And I might ask, what's the point if there are no people? But, of course, things literally fall apart once the humans do arrive.

One last note regarding the soundtrack: For the English version, Disney had Joe Hisaishi rework the score. He replaced the original synthesizer soundtrack with symphony orchestra recordings for a much fuller sound, also adding music to scenes that had none in the Japanese version, so as to make it more suitable for American markets. Hisaishi and Miyazaki were both reportedly quite pleased with the results, and I personally wished Disney would have made similar arrangements for its Nausicaa release. Instead, on Disney's most recent 2010 DVD of Castle in the Sky, they apparently ditched the new music and reinserted the original score into even the English version. Frankly, I find it baffling that all that work would just go abandoned now, especially given that the Japanese audio track has always been there as an option for anyone who prefers it. I'm hoping that they'll include the re-score as an option on the upcoming Blu-ray (I understand that it's on the UK and Australian Blu-rays, not released by Disney).


Czardoz said...

You're starting to get what I'm saying about Ghibli not being that great, right? The same will be true if you start watching the Pixar movies again.

Henry said...

I just try to give sober and balanced assessments. But my opinion of Castle in the Sky has not lowered since re-watching it, while my opinion of Nausicaa has actually risen on second viewing. I wonder how you would expect me to sound when discussing something you think I consider "that great" (whatever that means).

If I come across as overly negative, it's because 1) I think my audience already knows these movies well enough that I don't need to use this space to sell them, and 2) I personally find it a lot easier to go on about a work's imperfections rather than its strengths. Especially with something as short as a movie, I don't especially see the point in my spending too many words explaining why it's good. If it really is good, I'm never going to be able to represent the work better than it represents itself, and so my readers' time would be better spent just watching the movie for themselves.

Henry said...

And, yes, I would recommend Castle in the Sky to anyone who hasn't seen it. I would recommend it as great family entertainment. I would recommend it over most (read: more than half) of the Disney animated canon.

Jon Turner said...

I too hope that Disney will place the new score on the BluRay release. It was THE reason I loved the dub so much. I'm actually surprised you didn't mention Hamill's performance as the villain; he was a real stand-out.

Henry said...

For sure, I love how, starting out, Hamill uses something close to his normal speaking voice, but then, as the character grows increasingly unhinged, he sounds more and more like the Joker. Muska is not one of his more recognized roles, but it's the one to share with anyone who wonders how Luke Skywalker and the Joker can possibly be voiced by the same guy.

Czardoz said...

"I just try to give sober and balanced assessments."

The presence of sobriety may very well be one of the factors that greatly limits my enjoyment of these movies. Like you said, they may have meant more had they been "available to me as a kid."

Are there any Ghibli movies that are just as enjoyable for the man, not just the child inside the man?

Henry said...

Not to be coy, but it depends on what the man enjoys. If you're asking what the Ghibli equivalent of Lost in Translation is, then I'd say maybe you're looking in the wrong place.

What is your opinion of Castle in the Sky? Because I think the adventure elements in that film are enjoyable for any age, but, as with Star Wars or Indiana Jones, I obviously don't take it as seriously as I would have as a child.

Ultimately, whatever their artistic and technical merits, the Ghibli movies are stories for kids and families, not unmarried adult males watching alone. I think maybe the best ones can rouse the inner child without asking your conscious cooperation, but probably not the ones I've covered thus far.

Czardoz said...

I think I liked Castle in the Sky, but I don't remember anything from it. I really liked Kiki's Delivery Service, and watching it again recently, I still liked it. Maybe because it didn't feel pandering, or overly juvenile, even though it dealt with juveniles. And it was basically a comedy, and didn't ask you to take seriously some cancer moms or other heavy matters that the movie wasn't really prepared to deal with.

I watched Totoro recently, and kept wondering why Totoro was such a weird creeper. Yes, it's difficult to imagine how I'd feel about the movie if I were to watch it as a family man with kids in tow. But it's equally difficult to imagine any scenario in which Totoro would not strike me as a weird creeper.

I read an article recently about Maurice Sendak (recently deceased), and it made the claim that his writing connected with children and stood out because he understood that "children need to be terrified." He wrote nightmares, not dreams.

I can see some of that in Spirited Away and many of the Ghibli films. The execution often leaves me cold, though, because the films seem to lack a sense of humor about it. I can't speak for Sendak's books, but if it were Lewis Carroll pulling the strings, Totoro would not have been your friend. He would have creeped you out and compelled you to run away from him.

Henry said...

I don't know on what planet anyone could consider Where the Wild Things Are scary. It was basically the same premise and execution as Totoro, the differences being that it featured a naughty boy protagonist instead of two girls, and the monster characters spoke like people.

I can say now that Sendak was a gifted illustrator, but, as far as writing my nightmares, Walter the Lazy Mouse this was not. I had it read to me in elementary school, and I more remember it offending my sense of justice, as though the kid had gotten away with something.

After the reading, the teacher asked us to discuss what distinguished "wild things" from mere monsters. I don't remember any of the kids' precise observations, but I think everybody got the general point that, unlike monsters, wild things were friendly and not dangerous. Nevertheless, when the teacher then prompted us to create our own wild things, I was determined to do my own thing and have fun with it.

I drew a red-and-green lizard-man with razor-sharp claws and blood dripping from his fangs. I named him Killer.

I don't know if I had learned to roll my eyes yet, but, when the teacher asked me to tell the class a little about him, I thought something along the lines of "Lady, his name is Killer. This is what he looks like. What more do you need to know?"

Jon Turner said...

Even though I mentioned that I adore the new score and think it absolutely adds to the film, one of the reasons why it was taken out was because many, many, many purists hated it with a vengeance, calling it distracting, "stupid", and "butchering" to the film, even daring to say that Disney destroyed the film on account of the new score, never mind that it was by Joe Hisaishi himself. But IMO, this backlash against the new score is both undeserved and quite, frankly, totally unfair. Hisaishi has always said he had wanted to do his music using an orchestra, but budget constraints forced him to do it on synthesizers. Disney's dub gave him the opportunity to finally realize that dream, and to call it a crime against all humanity when Miyazaki himself approved the new score just seems very unjust.

Czardoz said...

Mr. Turner's comment is very funny if you replace all the names with "George Lucas," and all references to "music" and "score" with "Greedo shoots first," "Vader cries 'no'," and so on and so forth.

When the original trilogy is rereleased for direct digital stream, I hope there's a digitally inserted Jar Jar cameo where he shows up as Yoda's manservant on Dagobah.

Jon Turner said...

Czardoz, it's very interesting to hear you say that, because I'm much more fifty-fifty about George Lucas' alterations for Star Wars. While I genuinely believed that Hisaishi's new score for Laputa really enhanced the movie, there were places where I felt Lucas was overstretching it. I honestly didn't know much about the "Han shoots first" thing until I watched both editions again. Yeah, it is annoying, but hardly to the point where I'd let it ruin the film for me. I have not seen the latest Jedi edit with Vader shouting "NO", but that DOES sound like a very curious decision on Lucas' part too. That said, there were some changes in the SW edits that I did like: the backgrounds for Mos Eisley, the climactic Death Star fight and the shots of Cloud City were all spectacular and breathtaking, and bringing Ian McDiarmid as Emperor Palpatine for Empire was a nice touch. That said, I COULD have done without the Jedi Rocks remix, but even then I have no real interest in taking a stand for or against it. Nothing can change the fact that the Star Wars trilogy is, and still is, great entertainment and five-star classic material.