“What ‘Castle in the Sky’ aims for is a movie that first relaxes the hearts of young audiences, entertains, and delights them. Laughter and tears, genuine emotions, things currently considered the most ‘cheesy,’ yet, in reality, gives what audiences want the most, even if they don’t realize it themselves: selflessness towards others, friendship, and the passion of a boy who tirelessly advances towards what he believes in. All this is told without embarrassment, but also in a language that resonates with today’s audiences.”
These are the words written in the project memo for the animated feature film “Castle in the Sky,” directed by Hayao Miyazaki.
If you have ever seen this movie, just touching upon this passionate thought at the root of its creation should vividly remind you of Pazu and Sheeta’s adventure. One might even long to look up at the sky and meet those straightforward pair again.
As is often said, “Laputa” is one of the most adventurous action movies in the Ghibli series. The story is rich in narrative and the structure is skillful and rhythmic, keeping the audience engaged until the end. One threat after another, if they’re saved, another commotion arises. The audience is absorbed in the world of the film, barely having time to reach for their popcorn, being drawn into the unfolding mystery of Laputa. The grand adventure of ‘What is Laputa?’ and ‘Where are they heading?’ will surely bring anyone, regardless of age or gender, a sense of excitement and catharsis without logic. Of course, the illustrations that decorate the screen are beautiful, and the human characters, robots, and landscapes all convey warmth. The scale of compositions make us marvel, guiding us to a world we’ve never seen before.
In short, “Laputa” is a work that even an amateur’s eye can see feels ‘exquisitely made’.
However, for me, the reason why “Laputa” is a special piece among Ghibli’s works, and despite watching it countless times (I still watch it every time it airs on TV) is probably not because it’s ‘exquisitely made’. No, the high level of craftsmanship may be a factor, but the main appeal isn’t that, per se. As I was pondering where it could be, I came across the aforementioned note by Director Miyazaki and felt a deep sense of understanding.
“Selflessness towards others, friendship, and the passion of a boy who tirelessly advances towards what he believes in” – in the end, the charm of “Laputa” might lie in the image of the boy that was set at the core of the project from the planning stage.
If I may add another point, the girl who interacts with the boy also shares that charm. Selflessness and friendship, naturally, cannot be established without a partner. Having both lost their parents and being in a solitary situation, Pazu and Sheeta nurture and flourish their good qualities by caring for and helping each other.
In this navigation-like role, I would like to retrace the path of their inner hearts once more. While slightly deviating from the narrative trajectory—from the boy’s perspective, the girl’s perspective—I aim to touch upon the true value of the adventure they undertook.
(1) Encounter: The Girl Feels at Peace, The Boy is Excited
The story begins with an air pirate attack on a flying passenger ship by Captain Dola. A gloom is cast over Sheeta, who is aboard the targeted ship. Having lost her parents, she had been living alone, defending her home and fields in the Gondoa Valley located in the country’s northernmost part, when suddenly, she was captured by the military’s special task force. Sheeta does not know where the airship is heading, let alone their purpose. However, it begins to appear that both Colonel Muska of the special task force and Captain Dola are after her amulet.
Why is the stone that has been passed down in her family being targeted?
The audience learns the answer before Sheeta does. After being attacked by Dola, Sheeta escapes to the outside of the ship and slips from the window frame, falling straight down towards the ground. But then, she is saved by the stone’s mysterious power. The mystical light protecting the girl makes it clear why the attack happened – no further explanation is needed.
However, Sheeta herself does not see this light. Having fainted from the impact of the fall, she has no way of knowing about the power of the stone.
Therefore, at this time, she simply thought, “Ah, I’m going to die” as she fell. Falling from an airship floating in the sky, there’s no way she can survive. “I’m scared,” “It hurts,” “It’s cold,” “It’s dark,” “I’m going to where mom and dad are…” These might had been the thoughts that grazed her fading consciousness—being taken away from her hometown valley, and buried without understanding the meaning of it all. I believe it have been a completely empty fall, what could have been a lonely and unnoticed death.
However, when she woke up, Sheeta found herself in a bright room bathed in the morning sun.
The sound of a trumpet could be heard.
Pigeons were dancing outside the window.
The kettle was producing white steam.
Where was she?
Half-asleep, she climbed the ladder towards the sound, and when she peeked out from the skylight, a boy’s radiant smile, surrounded by seven pigeons, jumped into Sheeta’s eyes. “Hey, how are you feeling?”
Upon hearing the boy’s lighthearted call and seeing the pigeons joyously fluttering around him, Sheeta would have instinctively sensed that she had come to a very safe place.
“Thank you for saving me.”
Sheeta, who had a stern expression in front of Muska, shows a defenseless smile to Pazu from the start. This boy saved her. Alongside the deep feeling of safety, realizing that he lived alone in the cabin, she must have developed curiosity and a sense of connection towards the boy, who shared a similar essence to her own.
By the way, both Pazu and Sheeta are set to be twelve or thirteen years old. Normally, they should still be living comfortably with their parents. It would be difficult to find peers in the same situation.
Such an extraordinary boy emerged before her, a person whose very existence was astonishing. He was the savior who caught her as she plummeted from the sky. From their very first encounter, Pazu must have held a unique significance in Sheeta’s life.
From the night sky where the enemies attack, to the blue sky where pigeons soar.
In the center of the vividly transformed world, there is a boy smiling refreshingly.
This is the “meeting of the two” from Sheeta’s perspective.
Having been kidnapped by ominous men in black glasses, then attacked by air pirates, the girl, who had been wandering in a time too intense and unrealistic, was finally able to return to her own peaceful daily life thanks to Pazu.
On the other hand, “daily life” for Pazu meant colorless days based on hard labor. He lives day by day, absorbed in making ends meet in a town so depressed it’s called Slug Canyon, the valley of mineral residues.
Although it isn’t depicted in the film, the background details are elaborated in “Castle in the Sky: The Novel,” published by Animeju Bunko in 1986. This book, co-authored by “Original Work and Illustration: Hayao Miyazaki” and “Text: Osamu Kameoka,” contains numerous side stories not told in the film. It’s probably designed for movie fans to enjoy twice over.
According to this “Castle in the Sky: The Novel”, Pazu, who had been orphaned for several years, was picked up by a bona fide mine boss and started working as an apprentice mechanic in Slug Canyon, where rumors of mine closure were whispered. Work in the mines is ruthless. Pazu would arrive at the mine earlier than anyone else in the morning to prepare for work, and work non-stop until sunset even after the miners arrive. If he dallied, the boss’s log-like arm would come flying.
Even when he returns to his cabin exhausted, there’s no family waiting for him. As if resisting the days that only keep him alive, Pazu goes down to the basement at the end of the day, fighting off sleep. Only dreaming of completing the bird-shaped aircraft, the ornithopter he’s working on there, may have been supporting his harsh and monotonous daily life.
In short, Pazu was stuck in an unexciting everyday life. Although he was living strongly and brightly, there was no promising future in a mining town where the minerals had run out. He heard the adults’ sighs as he earnestly tackled a mountain of chores day by day. Today, tomorrow, the day after, the colors reflected in his eyes remain unchanged.
However, one day, suddenly, it changes.
At the twilight of a day that should have been no different from yesterday, he encounters a sight that dramatically changes his world.
A girl falls from the sky.
“When you fell from the sky, my heart raced. I knew something wonderful had just started.”
As he later confesses to Sheeta, if the meeting with Pazu meant comfort for Sheeta, then for Pazu, the meeting with Sheeta was exciting. It was a flash of lightning that lit up his gloomy daily life. It was the thrilling beginning of the adventure that a boy of his age longs for.
(2) Growth: A Girl Changes a Boy Three Times
It didn’t take long for Pazu and Sheeta to recognize each other as their “irreplaceable one” after their dramatically fateful encounter. Perhaps, even in the mundanity of everyday life, Sheeta would have continued to find comfort in Pazu, and Pazu would have continued to find excitement in Sheeta—at least while they were children. However, a fate awaited them that would quickly deepen their bond.
There were relentless threats from the rough Dola gang, the military and Muska, who advanced with force. One crisis after another struck. As they held hands to escape and approached the mystery of Laputa step by step, I read that there were three changes in Pazu’s awareness of Sheeta.
The first change is remarkably simple. They escaped from Dola’s gang in the cabin and ran into the boss’s house, where the matron’s words to Pazu had an effect.
“What a pretty girl. Better protect her.”
Up until this moment, Pazu had only been running away because Sheeta was. He himself had no reason to run away. No, he was even more ready to fight than to run, as evidenced by him rolling up his sleeves beside his boss.
However, when the matron told Pazu to “protect her”, he suddenly looked back at Sheeta. For the first time, he awakened to his role.
To protect a girl who had no one else to rely on. For the boy, it was as thrilling a role as accepting the girl who fell from the sky. At this point, Pazu did not yet know the true power of his enemies, nor did he have any way of knowing how much of a difficult struggle laid ahead. He needed to undergo further trials before he could fully grasp the true meaning of protecting Sheeta, a responsibility too heavy to be handled by excitement alone.
The trial, in other words, was separation from Sheeta.
The chase with the steam locomotive automobile, the shine of the levitation stone that saved the two who had fallen from the track, and the clues to Laputa heard in the underground coal mine. Despite sharing many unique experiences and always supporting each other through hard times, Pazu and Sheeta are finally caught by the military’s armed soldiers at the end of their escape drama and are separated.
Confined in its underground prison in the robust stone-built Tedis fortress, Pazu is primarily concerned about Sheeta before himself. He tries to escape countless times to find Sheeta, but fails.
However, the Sheeta who appeared before Pazu, tells him, “They didn’t do anything terrible to me.”
“Pazu, I have a favor to ask. Please forget about Laputa.”
To Pazu, who is stunned by these unbelievable words, Muska adds insult to injury.
Muska: “The military has decided to conduct a secret investigation of Laputa with the help of Sheeta. I understand how you feel, but I want you to step back.”
From Pazu’s perspective, it was a shock that Sheeta had joined forces with the military, even before he was asked to step back from Laputa.
Laputa was a special island for Pazu and Sheeta. Pazu talked about his father’s regret of trying to prove its existence, and Sheeta revealed her secret name given to her. They were bound by this commonality of Laputa. Their meeting, having a point of connection, evolved from a coincidence to a necessity.
They even promised to go to Laputa together. Why would this unlikable adult man interfere in their plans? Did Sheeta choose the stronger military over him?
Sheeta, without giving any explanation, turns away emotionlessly from Pazu, who is visibly shaken.
On his way home, clutching the three gold coins given to him by Muska with the words “Keep them,” there’s a scene I like where Pazu, who is devastated, is about to throw the coins on the street but restrains himself. If he had discarded the coins impulsively then, it would imply that his hardships were trivial. This boy understands the difficulty of life. This understanding makes his pain from Sheeta’s change of heart even deeper.
Suddenly, I also love the sight of Pazu, now dejected, returning to his cabin, only to find it occupied by the Dola gang, who are indulging in quite a feast. I think there’s no need to bring so much food into someone else’s house while they’re away, but given the damage they took from the military attack in the previous scene, this must be the Dola way of cheering up.
In fact, Dola’s appetite, more beastly than carnivorous, has a power to sweep away the dampness that the heartbroken Pazu has dragged with him. The desire to eat is the desire to live. The iron stomach of the mature woman jumps into the eyes of the boy whose spirit has been broken. It’s a splendid contrast.
I may be deviating from the main story a bit, but I think that Dola is an outstanding supporting character among the many in Studio Ghibli’s works. Despite her formidable and comical appearance and behavior, she is an extremely competent woman with superior pirate skills. She fearlessly takes extreme measures, makes quick judgments, and is superhuman at operating guns and machines. Her athletic prowess is unparalleled and can be seen in the scene where she escapes from the army on the railway tracks, outrunning the tough men she leads. Most importantly, no matter what crisis she faces, she never complains in her endeavors. Instead, she just spouts fervor.
“What’s wrong with pirates targeting treasure?”
“A woman has guts. You guys back me up.”
“No matter what kind of island Laputa is, there should be treasure to console a proper pirate. Now everyone, earn your keep!”
“I don’t want to hear any crying. Do something!”
There are countless memorable lines from the spirited Dola. If creative works have the role of “showing cool adults who are rarely found in reality,” Dola is indeed the embodiment of that. She took over her father’s occupation and became an air pirate, inspiring her crew with her refreshing greediness and harshness. While concealing her compassion, she shows no mercy to Pazu and Sheeta, and as a result, she plays a role in pushing them up several steps towards adulthood.
Another side note: have you noticed the poster-sized photo of a young Dola on the wall of the captain’s room on the Tiger Moth? Dola boasts that “Sheeta looks just like I did when I was young,” but looking at her younger self, one might think, “Well, it’s not completely unfounded.” The picture of Dola shows her as an 18-year-old. She’s a poised beauty with pigtails just like Sheeta, but without any childlike traits. She exudes the vibe of a woman who has already faced and conquered many hardships. Will Sheeta also possess this aura in a few years? And in a few decades, will she be like Dola now…?
Let’s return to the main story.
The scene where Pazu, his heart in tatters, returns to the cabin, and Dola, who is stuffed full, greets him.
“Sheeta told me to do it!”
In response to Pazu, who explains why he left Sheeta at the fortress, Dola blithely responds.
“Fool, she obviously did it under threat, to save you.”
Here, Pazu has a realization. That Sheeta, to keep him from getting involved in dangerous things any further, deliberately took an attitude she didn’t truly feel.
Yet, he had accepted the gold coins and came back, leaving Sheeta behind. He couldn’t stay by Sheeta’s side, believing in her…
For Pazu, who always considered Sheeta before himself, this was a grave mistake. An unacceptable failure.
“If I weren’t stupid and had the strength, I could have protected her…”
Shamed by his own immaturity, he curses, regrets, and from this he climbs up and swears in his heart. If he can’t protect Sheeta as he is now, he will become a different self.
Although this has become long, I interpret this as Pazu’s second “consciousness change”. Rather than just trying to protect the girl, he makes a more earnest resolution, raising the burden on himself and deciding in his heart to gain the power to protect the girl.
As a result, Pazu becomes stronger. He no longer whines. If it’s to rescue Sheeta, he will temporarily become a member of the pirates. From the moment he leaves his familiar home of Slug Valley and starts moving with Dora and the others, Pazu’s face on the screen visibly matures. A spiritual leap like a gift given only to adolescent boys and girls, a leap like skipping grades. The heart-touching action scene where he rescues Sheeta from the eastern tower of the fortress with the robot soldier is also likely due to this growth.
Pazu is no longer just a boy who merely accepts the girl who fell from the sky. He confronts danger with his own will, fights risking his life to protect what is important, he has become a “man”.
Then, where is the third “consciousness change”?
It progresses slowly.
But, before that, one question. Which scene can you enjoy the most relaxed in the main story of “Laputa”?
The scene where Dora’s son and Pazu’s boss have a muscle showdown on the street?
The scene where Pazu and Sheeta munch on toast with fried eggs in the underground abandoned mine?
The scene where the two arrive at Laputa and tour the island guided by the robot soldiers?
Various scenes would come to mind, but for myself, I always smile at the scene where Dora’s sons make a big fuss upon learning that Sheeta will be on board the Tiger Moth.
“Can you make pudding?”
“I like mincemeat pie.”
After the two sons announce their favorite foods in hearty voices while flying around in the air with the flaptors, the third one stammers, “I, uh, I uh…”
“I’ll eat anything!”
I’m always done in by this single exclamation.
The fun scene where the pirates’ true faces are glimpsed continues even after Pazu and Sheeta board the Tiger Moth. Dora thrusts oversized pants at Sheeta saying, “Wear this,” and one after another, the men crowd into the kitchen where Sheeta is showing off her cooking skills. There are many enjoyable episodes on the ship, and it can be seen as a big service relaxation time, but upon closer consideration, this isn’t just a rest given to the audience, it seems to me it was also an important healing time for Sheeta in the story.
This is because, at the time of boarding, Sheeta was deeply wounded in her heart due to the robot soldier who had protected her and perished.
The fate of a robot, implanted with uncontrollable destructive power by the Laputan people. That painful sight no doubt carved a lasting suspicion towards her ancestors into Sheeta’s heart. What kind of kingdom was Laputa? What kind of blood do I carry? Onboard the ship heading towards Laputa, Sheeta must have been followed by anxiety. That’s why she murmurs, “I’m so scared,” when she’s alone with Pazu on the lookout. That’s why she wipes the tears from her eyes at the sight of the peaceful robot soldier she encounters in Laputa.
However, the brave Sheeta only gently exposes this wound to Pazu and tries to maintain her smile in front of Dola and others. The girl who used to cry a lot had grown through repeated trials. Her inherent flexible strength has surfaced, and she has grown into a reliable ‘woman’ who can look after her own heart.
She isn’t shaken, even when she’s told in the extravagantly worn-out kitchen, “We eat five times a day”. She rolls up her sleeves and starts cleaning immediately. Because people find comfort in the ordinary when their hearts are weak, cleaning and cooking might have played a role in calming Sheeta’s heart. The same goes for the lively dining table surrounded by pirates.
Anyway, Sheeta diligently completes the tasks given to her, capturing the hearts–and stomachs–of the pirates, and showing an incredible skill that makes one think she’s truly the second coming of Dola. She has the ability to distribute tasks to the men who gather in the kitchen and the courage to climb up to the lookout tower without being afraid of high places or strong winds. It’s understandable that Dola would want to take her under her wing. Pazu, while doing his own work, must have been watching such a Sheeta. The potential of the girl he had been trying to protect exceeded his expectations. As he recognizes her reliability, she shifts from a ‘girl who must be protected’ to a ‘comrade who overcomes something together’ in Pazu’s heart. In other words, without the deepening of his trust in Sheeta, Pazu couldn’t have taken her on the dangerous task of disconnecting the lookout tower from the main ship, even when Dola was calling out to Sheeta, “You should come back”. Pazu’s transformation becomes even more prominent after they fortuitously crash land on Laputa, having been buffeted by the raging wind.
Pazu no longer worries about Sheeta all the time. He’s confident that she will follow him, even if it’s a little tough. This confidence is clearly manifested in the tree-climbing scene.
To save Dola and others captured by the army, Pazu plans to follow the giant tree roots encircling the walls of Laputa, and nonchalantly asks Sheeta, “You’re okay with climbing trees, right?”
Unless there’s a lot of trust, this single phrase wouldn’t come out. Because it’s not just climbing a tree, it’s more like rock climbing on giant tree roots resembling a cliff. Moreover, he says “climbing the tree” but he is trying to descend it, not ascend it. Naturally, descending is more difficult than ascending, and a regular girl would probably be scared stiff.
Even when jumping from one stone pavement to another severed pavement, Pazu says, “I’ll jump first” and jumps over a considerable gap. He believes that Sheeta can surely jump over it too. His light leap is due to that belief.
As a result, the stone pavement collapses and the two are separated, and Sheeta is captured by Muska. But even then, before Pazu goes to help her, he first takes the calm action of cutting the rope that binds Dora and the others.
From the beginning, the boy and the girl, who have lived carrying the same loneliness, took each other’s hands and desperately clung to each other, vowing never to let go of that hand. However, during their adventure around the mystery of Laputa, as they get to know each other deeply, they might have come to believe in an unshakeable bond that feels as if they are part of each other, and as if the other is also part of them, that nothing can separate.
No matter what happens, the two are one.
Conversely, if they had not reached this state, it could be said that the two could not overlap their palms and chant the unknown spell of destruction to protect the world from Muska’s ambition.
The world might be destroyed by this. They might be swallowed up in that destruction. For a twelve or thirteen-year-old boy and girl, it must be a fear beyond imagination. But, at that moment, their hearts, like the light of the levitation stone that points to the Laputa in the sky, are completely focused in one direction. There is an absolute affirmation of the fact that they met each other and that they are still together.
“Laputa”, as everyone says, is an adventure drama filled with the joy of watching. The continuous moving stages of the chase, the numerous mysteries surrounding Laputa, and the shocking climax do not lack elements that excite the audience, and we get a thrilling experience as many times as the trials faced by the boy and girl. But I think the real meaning of their overcoming those trials together is not about finding the answer to the mystery of Laputa, but about nurturing their relationship towards that ultimate trust, the moment when they overlap their hands and chant the spell of destruction.
(3) Rooted in the soil, with the wind, with the seeds, with the birds
Pazu and Sheeta. This article has traced the story based on their relationship, but finally, there is another crucial core in “Laputa” that must not be forgotten. It is the “warning against too great a power,” the hidden theme of this work.
The film doesn’t specifically state why Laputa, a city once renowned for its scientific prowess that dominated all territories, ended up in ruins. However, the implication that it was a consequence of an excessive bias towards faith in science and a disregard for reverence towards nature is deeply imprinted.
“No matter how terrifying a weapon you have, no matter how many poor robots you control, you cannot live apart from the earth.”
This is Sheeta’s answer to Muska, who clings pathetically to the revival of the kingdom.
There is a backlash to too much power. Even if it is a positive force, too much energy harbors the danger of invoking the negative. The spell of destruction that Sheeta inherited to empower the good spell is a symbol of this duality.
A warning against too great a power.
Needless to say here, for us living in the aftermath of March 11 (Fukushima), this is a painfully pertinent theme, not at all “someone else’s story.”
Rooted in the soil.
Live with the wind.
Survive the winter with the seeds.
Sing the spring with the birds.
The “Memories of Gondoa” may be a song about a scene that is incredibly simple and casual. But we, in the present, understand how difficult it is to protect such casual things. So, we might feel a mix of respect and sadness when the boy and girl say good bye to Dora and go back to their unchanged hometown at the end of their journey.
Morie Eto, born in Tokyo in 1968, won the Kodansha Children’s Literature Newcomer Award with “Rhythm” in 1990 and made her debut. She has won numerous awards, including the Sankei Children’s Publishing Culture Award for “Colorful,” the Shogakukan Children’s Publishing Culture Award for “Hi,” and the Naoki Prize for “A Plastic Sheet Dancing in the Wind,” among others
Memories of Gondoa: https://music.apple.com/us/album/castle-in-the-sky-original-soundtrack/882407903