Countless words and fruitless hours of debate have been dedicated to the question of whether JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is literature. There a majority of the public like it well enough and there is a general consensus that it is ‘good’, good is not enough. It seems that, while the category of ‘good’ is a bountiful field in which all and sundry may partake, between ‘good’ and ‘great’ is a fraught battlefield held by the elites of the literati who do not lightly suffer new additions to their high shelves. The fact that there is still a healthy appetite for this discussion (prompted though it may be each time the Tolkien estate’s coffers desire a new adaptation) says something about Tolkien’s enduring legacy. As well it should: Tolkien more or less codified Western fantasy. By no means is Middle Earth’s mythology original, nor does it preclude more ambitious works of fantasy in the future, but its orcs, elves, and dwarves shape the genre to this day and there is a reason modern fantasy authors call Tolkien the master.

In a similar sense, the one to call master in anime is undoubtedly Miyazaki Hayao.

I’m not above cribbing images from Wikipedia

My fellow RandomC writers recently got to gush about their favourite anime thanks to a generous patron (may the hairs on his toes never fall out). Since I am most definitely not active but am definitely Passerby, I’ve gone out of my way to do my own whatever thing. I’m going to talk about what I would argue is the most important anime of all time: Tenkuu no Shiro Laputa.

I can hear the music just from the artwork.

I admit I hold a great deal of bias here, what with Castle in the Sky being my first anime (and therefore, by rose-tinted logic, the best). I also note that Miyazaki doesn’t really consider what he makes ‘anime’ (though that’s a heavy topic for another day). I don’t intend to claim that, in terms of objective quality, Castle in the Sky is the greatest of Miyazaki’s oeuvre, let alone the greatest anime of all time (but I will onetheless use it as clickbait in the title of this article). What makes Castle in the Sky great is the same thing that makes Lord of the Rings great: they are an indelible influence on all those who would follow and managed to in themselves shape an entire genre and, in the case of Castle in the Sky, Japanese popular culture as whole.

Before we get into any analysis, can we just recognise that Castle in the Sky has everything great that you’d want from a swashbuckling anime adventure? It has airships:

Battle airships!

It has robots that learn compassion:

Don’t tell me that this is not where we got the Iron Giant.

It has sky pirates:

At very least Dola is the greatest grandma of all time.

And more! If you enjoy any of those things, you have castle in the Sky to thank. Now I’m not saying that Miyazaki invented blimps and robots and pirates; dwarves weren’t original to Tolkien either. But Castle in the Sky managed to build such a compelling world behind its adventure (aided by stunning and imaginative visuals the kind that only Miyazaki at Ghibli can deliver) that for a generation youth airships, flying cities, and Miyazaki’s brand of steampunk became the quintessential adventure setting. So popular were the motifs of Castle in the Sky that they became ingrained in the Japanese popular imagination. Take sky pirates: these days, they are such a staple of Japanese media that sky pirates and their cousins in space outnumber the traditional seadogs (though if we go by weight of chapter-count One Piece probably blows everything out of the proverbial water). Now, nobody so much as bats an eye at the idea, whereas back in 1986 they were shiny and awesome and everybody wanted to be one, I would argue thanks to how Miyazaki protrayed them as a lovable rascal family.

The 1980s was a boom time for Japan and of course that was true for anime again. With the success of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind Miyazaki was able to start Studio Ghibli with fellow director Takahata Isao and producer Suzuki Toshio. It was proof that the Japanese audience was receptive to Miyazaki’s particular vision. Much of Japan’s post-war art – and when I say ‘post-war’ I want to put into perspective that Japan only normalised relations with China in 1972 – were attempts to either grapple with the horrors of the conflict or to look at a future beyond it. Science fiction was popular; the god of manga, Tezuka Osamu’s own Astro Boy was an idealistic, even utopian future. But Miyazaki, especially in Castle in the Sky peddled in the opposite direction. Although much of his work still was obviously influenced by the War, Miyazaki evidently wanted to evoke nostalgia for a simpler, pre-imperialist time, for a peaceful agrarian ideal, for childhood. They also incorporated elements of Japan’s nature-centric Shinto faith, and it was perhaps this that spoke most to his countrymen. Arguably this spiritual element was more important than any other in shaping what anime is today and is now part of what makes anime distinctively Japanes. Another motif Castle in the Sky gave to anime: giant Shinto trees.

Competing with those giant Norse trees – it’s Tolkien again!

Even Castle in the Sky couldn’t have achieved its immense influence all by itself. Its reach was extended by another cultural phenomenon. In 1987, Nintendo released the ‘Family Computer’ or, as it will be known in the West, the Nintendo Entertainment System.

Videogames is perhaps Japan’s foremost cultural export and many videogames are good ol’ fashioned adventure tales. It should be no surprise that Castle in the Sky has seeped its way into games as well. If you cared to look you’ll find all sorts of influences you can trace back to Miyazaki (and let’s not even get started on those that lift from it wholesale; looking at you, Skies of Arcadia). For our purposes, though, we’ll only look at the big one, the franchise equated with the Japanese Role Playing Game: Final Fantasy.

It’s no coincidence that every FF has an airship

Obviously, Final Fantasy cribbed from a lot of things. But at a time when ‘fantasy RPG’ more or less meant ‘Dungeons and Dragons (look, we’ve looped all the way around to Tolkien again!), the things that Final Fantasy cribbed that were not D&D made it distinct. Thanks to in large part to the burgeoning franchise of Final Fantasy (Which proved to not be very final at all), airships and floating continents became the face of the JRPG. But it didn’t stop there. As soon as the series started to have protagonists other than ‘Fighter Fighter Fighter Fighter’, Final Fantasy cribbed the protagonists too.

Sheeta and Pazu are very simple characters, and not just in visual design. They have meagre histories, uncomplicated motivations, and no particular lessons they are supposed to learn about themselves at the end of the story. And they should be simple, being almost emotional moons, there to experience the world and the adventure and then reflect their feelings onto the audience. If they could get through the story from start to finish like good little tourists, maybe repudiate the antagonist at the end, then that’s a success. Plus, they were clearly meant to work together, complement each other. Sheeta is the more stoic, spiritual one. Pazu is the more impulsive, physical one. They are yin and yang, anima and animus. The contrast is what gives them an effective dynamic.

Someone at Square really enjoyed that.

She’s a witch, it counts.

Obviously, that’s reductivist but you can see the general shape, right? I’m not saying that every director of every JRPG looked at Castle in the Sky and decided that they wanted to cast Sheeta and Pazu and these characters have a lot more to them than just miner boy meets farmer girl. It’s that, back when videogames were embracing the fact that they were adventures, Castle in the Sky was the perfect influence. When your machine could only handle 8 bits per data block, having strong theming elevates the game – and your mage/fighter duo – beyond the limits of your graphics. And when there is already a tried and true formula you can borrow, one that has already captured the imagination of Japan, one that has alrady connected its audience with their inner child, one that a player will instinctively understand, why not? And so, even as systems got more powerful and videogame stories got more complex, you can still see some of that Castle in the Sky DNA.

And this is what makes Castle in the Sky great. It allowed for so much greatness to spring from it. Truly, it has been the Miyazaki generation.


    speaking of robots, dont we see a shade of these in Made in abyss…
    and the giant tree possibly influenced things so far away from anime, at first glance, as James Cameron’s Avatar
    adventuring duo is a constant fixture of Miyazaki’s works – compare and contrast Mononoke Hime where it is Ashitaka who is more completative one, asking questions and seeking answers, while San is action heroine par excellence…

  2. I take the point about how something doesn’t have to be original to be great, but Castle in the Sky has always felt a bit too derivative to me. There’s Laputa, of course, straight out of Swift, with the eco-robot seemingly inspired by the movie Silent Running, and the steampunk air pirates setting from, well, steampunk. As pastiche it works well, but I still don’t like it as much as some of his other works.

    For me, it has to be Princess Mononoke. Right from the ironic title (San is neither princess nor mononoke) to the hopeful ending, it has always enthralled me. And the music too! On top of that, it’s a kind of prequel to Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, a mythic story of the Fall of Mankind to complement Nausicaa’s Redemption narrative. But to be fair there’s a lot of personal baggage involved with it too, so I’m probably idolising it a bit more than it actually deserves.

  3. My first Miyazaki Hayao movie was also Princess Mononoke. I remember buying the DVD at a Sams Goody at a single story run down mall. Group together on the same shelf as Hentai and Porn. This was how a very small rural commuter town valued Anime. Thankfully I would not be swayed by senseless debauchery.


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