For this week’s post, I went back to animation, which I haven’t done in awhile. I decided to look at two Miyazaki films. I love Miyazaki, and a couple years ago I got a really nice box set of all of his films on Bluray. I still haven’t watched all of them, so this was a good opportunity. This week’s films are:
Hayao Miyazaki – Castle In the Sky (1986)
Hayao Miyazaki – Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989)
These are both films that I’ve seen in the past, but it’s been a long time since I watched either, and I didn’t remember much of either. So let’s get into it.
Castle in the Sky (1986)
A young girl named Sheeta escapes her captors and falls from an air ship, magically floating down safely to the ground. A young boy named Pazu sees her, and vows to help her. As Sheeta and Pazu try to dodge her captors, both a group of pirates and the government, they begin to unravel the mystery of the crystal necklace Sheeta wears, and how it connects to a lost city in the sky, named Laputa. Will they make it before their pursuers do?
The film is directed by Hayao Miyazaki, and is his follow-up to Nausicaa: Valley of the Wind, which we’ve covered before. The American voice cast includes Anna Paquin, James Vanderbeek, Mark Hamill and Cloris Leachman. I watched the original Japanese version with subtitles, but I wanted to point out the American cast, because I think the Disney dubs of the Miyazaki films are pretty good. I think the Japanese versions with subtitles are the way to go personally, but these dubs have a lot more care put into them than most dubs usually get.
The first thing I want to talk about is the genre of the film. Miyazaki’s films are interesting to me in that they often defy categorization. They have drama, comedy, and action, all in equal measure. But this film is different. This film definitely has some drama, but this feels entirely like an action-comedy. The action is big and bold, with major battles and giant airships with big stakes, and bigger explosions. The entire film plays out like a chase film. Everyone is after Sheeta. The comedy is essentially slapstick. A lot of this comes from the pirate crew, who are bumbling and silly. We also get it from the villagers who Pazu lives with. There’s a particularly silly scene when the pirates come into town looking for Sheeta and a brawl starts between a villager and a pirate. Both men first flex and rip open their shirts with their muscles before they fight. Then the whole town joins in.
The action begins right from the start. Sheeta is on a giant airship when pirates attack. The pirates board and begin fighting their way through the ship. If we aren’t sure of Sheeta’s loyalties, we discover it when the man with her turns his attention to the pirates, and she knocks him out from behind, taking the necklace he had taken from her and going out the window. The pirates chase her, but Sheeta falls, and passes out. As she falls, the crystal on her necklace lights up, and she begins floating slowly to the ground.
So before we even know this characters name, we’ve learned that she’s in danger, that multiple people are trying to capture her, that her necklace has some mystical powers, and that it will protect her.
As she floats down, a young boy named Pazu, on his way to bring his boss dinner sees her. She floats down right to the mine where he works. He catches her on a scaffold, but when the crystal stops working she suddenly becomes heavy, and we have our first bit of physical comedy.
There’s also a great little animation moment here, where Pazu is running up to catch her, he suddenly realizes that he’s still holding the dinner pail, and hurriedly set it down before reaching out to catch her. There are a bunch of little moments like this that are completely unnecessary, but make the whole world feel more alive.
We learn some more about Pazu as he takes her home and cares for her. Specifically, we learn that Pazu’s father saw a mythical floating city in the sky called Laputa, but no one believes him. Pazu hopes to one day find the city and prove his father right. He builds his own flying machines in his spare time.
Early one we get several familiar elements of Miyazaki films. First, we have a female protagonist. Many of Miyazaki’s best films, including the second film in today’s Double Feature have female protagonists, particularly young female protaganists. Films like Princess Mononoke, Nausicaa, Spirited Away, and others all have female protagonists. We also see Miyazaki’s love of flying machines. Many of his films feature complex steampunk style flying machines. The army’s flying machines are massive and imposing, while the pirate’s flying machines are quick and maneuverable, with small wings akin to bug wings flying them.
The action picks up again quickly, with both the pirates and the army finding where Sheeta is. She and Pazu have to escape their village being chased by pirates. They get on a local train going to the next town to tell the police, but the army comes from the other direction, firing at them as well. The two fall off the raised train tracks, and the crystal once again activates, gently dropping them into a dark mine. There they meet an old man who Pazu knows who tells them that the rocks down in the mine are alive. As he talks, they begin to glow softly. Sheeta takes out her crystal and the man is in awe. He tells them that it’s a volucite crystal, and only the Laputans know how to make them. He explains that the rocks down here only react when Laputa is overheard. Pazu takes this all as confirmation that Laputa is real. This is confirmed by the story as Sheeta reveals to Pazu that her real name is Lucita Toelle Ur Laputa. But she claims she doesn’t know anything about the floating city.
The story turns pretty sharply here as Pazu and Sheeta are captured by the army. Here we meet Muska, the main villain. He wants the crystal and Sheeta’s knowledge of it, and he seems to know a lot that Sheeta either doesn’t know or hasn’t revealed. He tells her that her Laputan name means that she is the queen of Laputa and that there’s a phrase she can use to have the crystal point the way back to Laputa. He also shows her a broken robot that fell from the sky. The technology is way beyond what their society could accomplish. He threatens Pazu if she doesn’t help him unlock the secrets of the crystal and reach Laputa. She agrees to help him to save Pazu, and he is released, with Sheeta telling him to leave her alone.
Of course, we as the audience know that she’s just trying to protect him, but Pazu doesn’t read it that way. When he returns home the pirates are there, assuming he knows where Sheeta is. Dola, the head pirate, also called Mama tells him how foolish he is to give up on her. Pazu changes his tune, and begs Dola to let her come with them to save Sheeta. After some hesitation, Dola agrees.
Here we get to one of the major action set pieces of the film. The pirates speed across the countryside on their insect like flying machines, while Sheeta sits in her gilded cage at the army base. She casually remembers her childhood, at a moment when her mother was teaching her a phrase. She softly says it, and the crystal suddenly comes to life, almost violently. Muska runs to check on her as we see the robot in the basement wake up. The soldiers don’t know what to do, and the robot begins moving towards the crystal. We see it’s power and the threat almost immediately. It can’t fit through the doorway, so it simply uses a laser to make a bigger opening and blast it’s way through. As it moves Sheeta runs through the castle, trying to get away.
When the robot reaches Sheeta, she is terrified of it and runs, even though we as the audience interpret the robot as trying to protect her. When they get to the top of the tower, the army opens up it’s full firepower on the robot, damaging it briefly, but then the robot fights back, essentially single handedly destroying the base. While this is happening, the crystal on Sheeta’s neck is clearly pointing a beam of light to the sky…towards Laputa. Muska and Sheeta both clearly see it. In the tussle, Sheeta drops the necklace, but the pirates arrive just in time and save her.
Here, the pirates and Sheeta and Pazu form an alliance to find Laputa. This is a nice little section of the film, as things calm down and we get some good character moments for Sheeta and Pazu, and Dola becomes a main character. Early in the film, we saw Dola as a villain, but here we can see that she really does care. There’s a very sweet scene in a crow’s nest while Pazu keeps watch between Sheeta and Pazu where they talk about the future before the action ramps up again.
Muska has retrieved the crystal, which is still actively pointing the way to Laputa, and the Goliath, the armies air ship catches up with them and we get another chase scene. As they make it to Laputa, Sheeta and Pazu are separated from the pirates and land in a different area. There they meet a friendly robot who’s still working on a garden in the city. The city is portrayed as peaceful and idyllic, but it is definitely a dead city. As the robot leads them around the city, they find many broken down robots, but no people.
This is one of the weaker aspects of the film for me. I really wanted to know more about the people of Laputa. What was their life like? And why did they abandon the city? Did they plan on ever coming back? None of this is explained, or even hinted at in the film.
As they look around the city, they hear an explosion, and find that the army has arrived and is blowing apart openings to get at the interior of the city. They have also captured the pirates. The army is only interested in what they can loot in treasure, but Muska has other plans. He is in search of the power of Laputa to use as his own.
In the finale, we learn that Muska is also descended from the royal bloodline of Laputa, and has been studying it for years, with detailed notes on how to make the city function. Sheeta is captured by Muska and Pazu must get her out and defeat Muska before he takes full control of the city. It’s an exciting conclusion to the story.
I’m used to Miyazaki stories being really thoughtful and introspective, but this film is big and brash with huge action setpieces and broad comedy. Ultimately it’s a story about realizing your dreams no matter how difficult the road seems. Miyazaki films always have this kind of uplifting message, even the darker films in his repertoire, and that’s something I greatly appreciate about his work.
The animation even at this early point in his career is really on point. Miyazaki’s films really take the time to make the world feel alive, while keeping things beautiful. The landscapes and backgrounds are epic throughout the film. In addition, the designs of the technology in the film are fascinating. Miyazaki has an obsession with flying, and it shows in many of his films with the imaginative flying machines and the Laputan technology we see.
Let’s look at our next film.
Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989)
A young witch has turned 13 and as is tradition, she heads off on her own for a year as part of her training. She flies her broomstick to a seaside city with her cat Jiji and begins looking around for someone to host her. But she soon finds that not everyone in the world knows or cares what a witch is. How will she fare out on her own for the first time? And how will she maintain her identity as a witch when her worldview is challenged?
This film, as the previous film, is directed by Hayao Miyazaki, and while it’s only a few years after Castle in the Sky, the animation is a major step up. The character models are more detailed and the animation is much crisper. In addition, this film includes an animal as a main character, Jiji the cat. The cat acting is wonderful, and I think Jiji is one of the best parts of the film. Being a witch, Kiki can understand what he says, and he has the voice and personality of a human. But his movements are very much cat based. It’s a really great performance for the animation.
The film starts with Kiki at home, listening to the weather report. When she hears the weather will be clear, she decides she has to leave tonight. As she gets home, we get the entire story. When witches turn 13, they go off on their own for a year to train. They have to leave on a night with a full moon. Her mother objects slightly, as Kiki’s original plan was to wait for a month, but she’s determined to leave on the perfect night.
Kiki is portrayed as a girl who loves being a witch, she sees it as the special thing she can contribute to the world, but she’s still very much a part of the modern world. When her mother gives her a witch uniform in a dark purple, she suggests she’d look better in a brighter color. And she isn’t surrounded by witches. It is simply her mother. None of her friends appear to be witches either.
It’s unclear what makes Kiki a witch, other than that her mother is a witch. Her father doesn’t appear to have any powers. It’s treated almost like a trained vocation, rather than some mystical birthright, but the film doesn’t make it exactly clear.
That night, Kiki has her bag, a small radio, and her cat Jiji when she takes off on her broomstick, bouncing off every tree on her way out of the yard. We’re never allowed to forget that Kiki is new at this, and doesn’t quite have the skills she might need to make this work. But she is enthusiastic. On her flight, she meets another witch who’s been out for a bit longer. She seems a little stuck up and pointedly asks Kiki what her special skill is. Kiki doesn’t know.
Before she finds a city, though, it begins to pour rain. She takes cover in a train car filled with hay for the night, which begins moving while she sleeps. When she is awoken by some cows eating the hay she’s sleeping in (another beautifully animated animal), she sees a beautiful seaside city which she immediately falls in love with.
She flies by a clock tower and an old man is excited to see a witch. But it’s clear that the rest of the city has no idea what to make of her. Witches are not a common occurrence in this town. People are shocked to see a girl flying on a broomstick, and Kiki doesn’t understand how to interact in the city either, getting tangled in traffic and accosted by a local police officer. She also has trouble finding a place to stay, as most people there are confused as to why she doesn’t have her parents with her. They don’t know the traditions of the witch, or what value she offers. She also catches the eye of a young boy named Tombo who seems to fall for her immediately.
Finally, Kiki runs into a kind bakery owner who is trying to return a pacifier to one of her customers who has just left. Kiki offers to take it for her, and flies it down. She decides that she can start a delivery service as her special skill, and the bakery owner Osono gives her a spare room in her attic in exchange for some work in the bakery.
Kiki finally feels like she’s figuring things out. She uses the money she has saved to buy groceries for herself and Jiji and gets into her daily grind, working at the bakery, and waiting for delivery work. But she never forgets how out of place she is. She’s out of place with her peers, because they’re all off having fun and running around town, and she’s out of place in the town, because the people don’t understand who she is and what she’s there for.
Ultimately, this is a story about an outsider trying to find acceptance. Trying to reveal herself to people, and always being aware of how they might reject her. It’s also a story about a young woman taking on major responsibilities, and missing out on some of the other experiences that people her age might have. This leads her to initially reject Tombo, even as kind and accepting as he is.
We also see the contrast between Kiki and the other people her age in town sharply as she is hired to deliver a herring pie to a birthday party. The pie isn’t ready when she arrives to pick it up, as the oven isn’t working. Kiki decides to help the woman prepare her old wood burning oven, and some other things around the house, even though she has agreed to go to a party with Tombo that evening. After baking the pie, Kiki has to rush to the destination, but it begins to rain. She finally arrives at the destination completely soaked, but with a fresh pie. The girl who opens the door is Kiki’s age and complains loudly about how much she hates the pie seems to specifically dislike her grandmother. Kiki returns to the bakery, but Tombo has already left. Osono tells her she can catch him, but she’s completely given up, explaining that she can’t go in wet clothes.
This is a low point for Kiki. She gets sick, and Osono takes care of her. While this is happening, Jiji takes the opportunity to start a relationship with the cat next door. There’s a little metaphor here for Kiki’s challenges. She’s still keeping her responsibilities, but Jiji is allowing himself to enjoy more of the modern world.
After she gets better, Kiki has a nice day out with Tombo, orchestrated by Osono. He shows her the flying bike he’s working on, which is essentially a normal bike with a massive propeller on the front. Tombo is fascinated with flying, and it seems clear that what piqued his interest about Kiki was that she was able to fly whenever she liked. After a harrowing adventure on the propeller bike, which includes some of the best animation in the film, they go to a park to look at a blimp that was forced down in the park by the weather. Tombo goes on and on about how cool it is. But when Tombo’s friends drive by and say hello, Kiki recognizes one of them as the girl that was so cruel about her grandmothers gift. It immediately puts her in a bad mood and she leaves, much to Tombo’s confusion.
When she returns home, she realizes she can’t understand what Jiji is saying anymore, it just sounds like meowing. When she tries to fly, she discovers she can’t, she has lost her powers. This is a crushing blow to Kiki. This has been her entire identity her whole life, and it’s been pulled away from her. There’s almost a bit of punishment here for Kiki. She indulged too much in the life of a normal girl, and the loss of her witch powers are the punishment for not following her prescribed path.
The rest of the film is about Kiki’s path to figuring out who she really is, and decide how to be a witch, but still exist in the modern world. It’s a really fascinating journey.
It had been a long time since I’ve seen this film, and there was so much I’d forgotten about it. There’s a wonderful story in here about identity and feeling like an outsider, and how to gain acceptance in a world that doesn’t understand you, but the thing that I find most impressive here is the animation. Miyazaki animation is always good, but for a film from 1989 the animation here is stunning. The character models are all really smooth and detailed, and the animal animation is particularly good. While Jiji has a character, he feels like a real cat. When he sees someone he doesn’t know, he’s wary, staying back. When he sleeps he curls up like a real cat. It’s really impressive. In addition, the scene with Tombo riding his propeller bike is amazing. It’s hard to get a sense of speed in animation, but they achieve it.
But the big set pieces are one thing, but this film gets the little things right too. When Kiki leaves Tombo after meeting his friend, the film takes the time to show a lot of her journey home, to really hit home how she feels. animation is expensive, and it would be easy to truncate this section with a much shorter scene, but this film focuses on the story, and Kiki’s journey, and the film is all the better for it.
The Double Feature
These are two films by the same director, only a few years apart, but they are wildly different. One is a big action movie, the other is a reflection on youth and identity, and finding yourself.
But Kiki’s Delivery Service does have some action scenes, and Castle in the sky does have some reflective and introspective moments. The great thing about Miyazaki is that he can do everything in a single film and make it all work. That’s what makes Miyazaki such a joy to watch.
Still the middle of the summer, still grinding my way through. I’ve got stuff to finish up by the end of July, and then an entirely different set of responsibilities after that. I’m hoping to find a week or so to take to myself, but if not, it’s not the end of the world. So what about next week’s films? Well, I plan out these posts about 2 weeks ahead of their posting date, and from where I am now, the 4th of July is coming up. But it will be over by the time that post goes up. So I thought I might cover some really overly patriotic movies from Filmstruck. So next week’s films will be:
Michael Curtiz – Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)
George Sidney – Anchors Aweigh (1945)
Both films are musicals, and both are well known, and have major stars involved, like James Cagney, Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra. Should be a good time.
See you then.