Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Writer: Hayao Miyazaki
DP: Hirokata Takahashi
Editor: Takeshi Seyama, Yoshihiro Kasahara
Score: Joe Hisaishi
Producer: Isao Takahata
Starring: Keiko Yokozawa, Mayumi Tanaka, Kotoe Hatsui, Minori Terada
Distribution: Toei Company
Length: 2 hrs. 6 min.
The film immediately throws you into the action. A girl with a carved stone around her neck is being held by armed men on a zeppelin. The zeppelin is attacked by pirates. The girl takes the chance to attempt her escape, and falls out the window into the night sky.
What happens next: We see a brief, wordless history of an entire civilization. They were a people who understood the Earth and gained dominion over its resources. With resources from the ground, they took to the sky in incredibly complicated machines. They grew more and more impressive, creating Laputa, a gigantic island in the sky complete with forests, trees, and wildlife. Then, for reasons not entirely clear, they returned to Earth and left their technology behind.
The girl's stone starts to glow, and she stops falling, floating gently to safety. Why is there such an interruption between the moment she falls and the moment the stone's power saves her? We don't know it yet, but the stone is her heritage - a relic of the people who created Laputa.
The girl is Sheeta, and she longs for one of Castle in the Sky's central concerns: Community. Her parents died long before the events of the film, leaving her to live alone in the country on their farm. She has no one, only the stories of the people her family descended from and the stone that had been passed down from her great-grandmother. We find that the history we witnessed before the stone's power was first revealed was to show us the source of that power. The stone is shown to be capable of many things, all of them born from the dreams of an ancient civilization.
After she falls, Sheeta ends up in a large mining town, appearing to a boy named Pazu. Pazu tries to alert his boss to Sheeta's sudden arrival, but no one listens to him; they're too busy, and they need him to be busy as well. His parents died before the start of the film too, but they left him in the care of a bustling community. His father once went looking for Laputa, but only came back with a fuzzy photograph. Pazu hopes to see Laputa for himself one day, to validate his father and learn about what exists beyond the station he holds in his community. Pazu longs for the other central concern of Castle in the Sky: Individuality.
Laputa promises both of these things to Sheeta and Pazu. For Sheeta it's the roots she never knew, and for Pazu it's the proof that his father did reach a world beyond his community. Their relationship is warm and subtly executed. Without either of them saying exactly what, it's clear that each of them offers the other what they always wanted; however, they do not consciously come together for this reason, and eventually find contentment in simply being together and recognizing each other rather than using their relationship to pursue something grander and more tangible.
The villain of the film is Muska, a government agent who wishes to find Laputa to exploit its supposed stocks of incredibly advanced military technology. He is not a particularly complex villain, but he succeeds in a very vital way that many movie villains don't, which is that he presents an ideological challenge to the protagonists. As a man who wishes to create a totalitarian government and place himself at the center, he represents the worst aspects of both community and individuality: dominance through force and an overblown sense of superiority over others.
In one scene, Muska gets his hands on Sheeta's magic stone. The stone has the power to locate Laputa by emitting a beam of light in its direction. When Muska holds up the stone, the beam of light goes straight into his head. Obviously, the literal interpretation of this is that Muska is standing between the stone and where Laputa is, but why was the scene set up this way? For the first hour of the film, Laputa is always depicted slightly obscured, giving it an illusory presence. What Muska tells us later is that Laputa is a collective human dream; to us, it's the manifestation of the deepest held desires of the main characters and the villain. The robots who come from Laputa bend to the will of whoever holds power over it, and they're as capable of being kind caretakers as they are capable of being monstrous engines of violence.
There is a third force in Castle in the Sky besides the two protagonists and Muska. The air pirate Dola is after Laputa for the treasure it supposedly holds. Her crew is her de facto (or possibly literal) family, composed of people who all address her as "mom." They are far from perfect human beings, but Dola understands what Pazu wants. She's old and wise enough to have seen or experienced it herself, and she takes it upon herself to help him better understand what he's after.
Every location depicted in Castle in the Sky is gorgeous, both on the ground and on Laputa itself. Some of the best scenes are the action scenes (mostly chase scenes), either on the ground or in the air. They have an excellent spatial awareness, especially the train chase. However, maybe the most remarkable action scene is one in which the spatial layout is deliberately obscured, when Pazu and Sheeta enter into a storm cloud before seeing Laputa in person for the first time.
The end of Castle in the Sky comes down to a battle between people who were all chasing after something transcendental but developed different priorities along the way. It's rare for Hayao Miyazaki's films to use symbolic dichotomy of hero and villain the way it's used here, but it's typical of them that their characters are pursuing something they believe to be greater than themselves. His films are concerned with that pursuit, but not the destination; rather, they're concerned with demonstrating that meaningful relationships can form along the course of that pursuit.