Requiem and Gravitas in Castle in the Sky
Here's a pair of shots from one of the more poignant scenes from Laputa: Castle in the Sky. It's one of my favorite moments and I'm sure it's one of yours. I think this scene gets to the heart of what makes Miyazaki so special. He's not content to simply deliver cliffhanger thrills and adventure. While he's certainly more than able to handle any sort of action, his concern remains squarely on the human element. There's a greater concern about the characters and the world they inhabit, and these are often the moments when Miyazaki becomes more reflective about the human condition.
As he enters into middle age, Miyazaki's work achieves a new level of seriousness, a new thoughtfullness, and a greater urge to deal with the darker questions of humanity. Castle in the Sky is a skillful example of this. While its structure is firmly rooted in the cliffhanger serial style that he mastered so well in his youth - Puss in Boots, Animal Treasure Island, Lupin III, Future Boy Conan - the heavier questions emerge from the background.
By the time we reach the movie's third act, Castle in the Sky poses serious, troubling questions about ourselves and our civilization. There's a conflict between man and nature, which is a hallmark of so many Ghibli films. That battle between civilization and the natural world is depicted as greek tragedy in Miyazaki's world; this is a war that man is fated to lose, due his own arrogance, greed, and stupidity. There's little question which side he prefers, even though his heroes argue valiantly for peace and reconciliation. But that's more of a Mononoke issue than a Castle in the Sky issue.
No doubt the experiences of the War, and the memory of Hiroshima, haunts this movie. It's impossible to see the giant flying city, its doomsday weapons and its mushroom clouds, without recalling the Atomic Bomb. This is a common theme in Japanese art, but I don't recall anyone as passionate as Miyazaki. He almost gleefully destroys his toys and his cities. You know he was rooting for the Ohmu all along. The closing moments in Castle in the Sky, the image of the giant tree floating free into space, are a celebration and a requiem at once.
Which brings us back to this scene. The giant Superman robot leads the children down to the forest garden. There, they discover the tombs of the lost civilation. Even the robots themselves have died centuries ago, becoming part of the forest. There's something almost subversive about the giant monster presenting a flower. We remember the tragic death of the earlier robot, and we may look forward to Ohma, Nausicaa's God Warrior. It's always the same lament, the same blues song, about the decay of the mechanized world, and the need to reconnect with nature.
This tone - sad, wistful, almost mournful - is what gives this film its gravitas. It's what seperates it from so many of the mindless video game pictures to emerge in Star Wars' wake. In 1986, Miyazaki is no longer satisfied with entertaining us. Now he wants to engage us, as adults and as equals. He once had the answers for life's harder questions, but these were lost to the midlife crisis. Now he seeks new answers, and contemplates a future in which there are no more answers to be found, only questions. Only questions.