Castle in the Sky | A Study in World-building

In an effort to write a little more on this blog, and taking a small break from making and iterating on my board game, Of Duchies and Polities (which, if you're interested in it, you can take a look right here), I want to begin a series in one of my geeky past-times: looking at art and media in terms of story and storytelling.

This is going to be another series in addition to my normal blogs. In it, I want to look at works of art and media through the lens of story-crafting and world-building, and how they came to be some of my favorite things.

In this first one, with the release of all of Studio Ghibli's catalogue of films on Netflix, I'm going to take a look at a childhood favorite movie of mine. It's an anime created by one of my favorite filmmakers, Hayao Miyazaki, called Castle in the Sky.

Plot Summary

Before I begin, it'll be good to give a rundown of the basic plot and premise of the film. If you haven't seen it before, I'll try to be as spoiler-free as possible, but its summary on Netflix already gives most of the story away, so there's not much need to give any kind of warning.

The plot of Castle in the Sky is pretty basic. A mysterious girl named Sheeta and a boy named Pazu look for a lost city that is said to be in the skies. While they search, they are tracked by pirates and government agents who want to use the floating city for their own ends.

Additionally, the characters are decently cut and dry as well. Sheeta, while having a mysterious past, is a typically kind and generous child who is simply caught in the middle of everything. Pazu is a pretty one-note chivalrous boy who's life as a loner in a mining town has made him tough, but hasn't taken away his dream of finding Laputa, the fabled castle in the sky. The villainous government agents are just that: evil and desire to take over the world.

It's really only the pirates who have slightly more depth in their character, as they can't be exactly labelled good or bad. But even then, their character development serves more often to move the plot forward rather than giving pause for viewers to think about them as analogs to the real world.

It's in the Details

So why do I love Castle in the Sky so much? Because, despite the straight-forwardness of the film's plot and characters, Hayao Miyazaki displays a stunning ingenuity and mastery of world-crafting without modern film-making's trappings of sequels and high budget CGI.

Let's take a look at a microscopic moment in characterization. In film, there's an idea of “show, don't tell”. Castle in the Sky does this in spades, even with characterization. Even though Pazu is a pretty straight-forward character, little time is spared explaining it. Instead, Miyazaki shows us, within the first few minutes of the audience meeting him.

Here's the scene: Sheeta has fallen from an airship in the sky, and her crystal necklace saves her by slowing her fall (though she passes out before this happens). Pazu, seeing Sheeta falling from the sky, goes immediately to catch her. When his boss (a miner) shouts for him to help out, Pazu is immediate in responding. But right before he goes to help his boss, he takes a couple seconds to take his own vest off and cover Sheeta to keep warm, then hurries down into the mine shaft.

The moment is a “blink and you'll miss it”, but in that one, brief glimpse, the viewer immediately knows: Pazu is a gentleman, and doesn't let his awe take away from his manners. This characterization carries through the rest of the movie, and helps the audience be informed of why he makes the choices he does, even though we don't get any detailed backstory for him for the rest of the film.

A Masterclass in World-building

This kind of painstaking detail in showing rather than explaining to us what or who to expect is what puts almost all of Hayao Miyazaki's films into the “art” category. And in Castle in the Sky, he masterfully does it in the film's setting and world-building.

The tense atmosphere of the opening action sequence, where sky pirates attack an airship, thus causing Sheeta's fall from it, is filled to the brim with a beautiful and nostalgic steampunk aesthetic. Then the film gets into an opening montage where, upon the backdrop of Joe Hisaishi's swelling orchestra, the exposition for the mythology of Castle in the Sky is shown. Few words are used, but the Victorian-inspired, cross-hatched moving pictures do more than enough to let the viewers know how the world of the film came to be how it is (there's an excellent Youtube video about it here).

Again, the concept of “few words” being used. Here, the it is used to promote the visual style of the film and add a mystical aura in the story-telling. Almost everything we learn about the world of Castle in the Sky is done this way. Because it's visual, we must interpret what is going on. However, interpretations can often be more explanatory, since there are many possibilities rather than simple answers. Thus, showing rather than telling tends to expand a fictional world, filling our imagination with more detail than if textual or verbal explanations were given.


The best example of this in the film is the actual city which floats in the sky, Laputa. Throughout the movie, before we get to the city, the audience's imagination is piqued over and over through hints and small glimpses of the city. From the opening montage where multiple flying islands are shown to Pazu's father's trip and picture taken of Laputa, we're left salivating for the revealing of what's to come.

But Miyazaki doesn't just give us visual glimpses. Through the world around the characters, we're given hints and backstories of why this particular city in the sky is important to our characters. From the reveal of Sheeta's ancestry to the destruction levied against the military by the broken automaton fallen from Laputa, it's clear to the audience just how essential finding this city in the sky is to the characters, and thus, to us the audience.

But then, when we actually get to Laputa, the craft of world-building is dialed to eleven. It's initially a slow reveal, as the glider Pazu and Sheeta are stuck in gently flits around before settling on a grassy cliff. Then, the curtains of cloud and sky slowly roll back as sweeping green plains and ancient, ruins fill the screen. Then, we're taken to a more birds eye view, as Laputa's majestic white towers and gardens are revealed. I could go on and on about just this one scene, but to be brief, each scene feels as if one is taking photographs within the world, and there can almost never be enough to satiate our want to explore this massive ancient world. And thus, we the audience are invited into the beautiful castle in the sky.

Thematic Connections

Miyazaki is known for being quite on-the-nose with his themes, and the themes he writes about are almost always the same. Of them, it seems the theme of Nature vs. Man is the most prominent. And this theme runs its complete gamut in Castle in the Sky.

Laputa, the castle in the sky itself, is a visual representation of this theme. As the protagonists (and then antagonists) explore the ancient, abandoned metropolis, the parts which are blooming and full of life are overgrown and covered by trees, grass, roots, and animals. Clearly, the idyllic life being displayed is one-ness with nature. Even the robots here, though mostly non-functional, have “settled into” the surrounding nature in Laputa.

On the flip-side, where there is industry and “perfection” of technology, there is a façade of almost no nature at all. As seen in the previous picture, the core sphere of Laputa is outwardly meant to have little or no influence from the blooming green above. This is made clear when Muska, the central villain and spy, discovers that the source of power inside Laputa has, to his dismay, been filled with overgrown weeds and roots. On this “man” side of the theme, we're told that the work of people and technology ultimately brings about death and destruction, visually exemplified by the ending battle as well as the throne room where the final confrontation happens. This throne room looks more like a “tomb of pharaohs”, rather than the beautiful idyllic life in external Laputa.

The theme of Nature vs. Man is even replete through the smallest details of the film's direction. For example, in the beginning, Sheeta falls out of the sky from an airship, and is saved by her necklace, later revealed to be pure natural crystal. On the other hand, there was no grace to the fall of the automaton the sky, and none from the robots at the end. These parallels again symbolize how man's perversion and industrialization of nature will always lead to ruin, and yet man itself is saved by the very nature which it desires control over.

And thus, the rising remnants of Laputa at the end credits is signified, as if letting the audience know that nature is watching over the work of man, even as we don't always make the best decisions with what we have.

I'm not really going to critique the theme in this film. Rather, I wanted to show how this single theme weaves and leavens the setting and story. And in doing so, the it feels more wholistic and real. This, I believe, is shows what a master Miyazaki is in world-building. And it is this kind of world-building which brings me back to Castle in the Sky again and again.

There is so much about Castle in the Sky that I could probably continue for multiple posts just for this one film. In fact, leading up to this post, while watching on Netflix, I wrote down over 10 pages of notes, trying to cram everything in. So I'll probably re-visit this in the future. Until then, have a great week!

Header Image taken from here. Images in post taken from Netflix.