Ecology and environmentalism, as well as war and aircraft, figure prominently in maestro Hayao Miyazaki’s films. The encounter between humans and the environment is a subject of dear interest to him, and he explores both its positives and negatives throughout his body of work. In My Neighbor Totoro (1988), a modern-day Japanese family moves out to the country, where the two daughters meet the furry and rotund god of the forest, Totoro, his assistants, and the somewhat unsettling Catbus. In a very Lewis Carroll-inspired excursion down the rabbithole, the girls are ushered into the wonderland of the forest spirits and the simple value of intimacy with nature.
The three themes of airships, war and ecology unite in Miyazaki’s very first Ghibli production (actually a pre-Ghibli film) entitled Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984). Taking place over 1000 years in the future, a devastating “Seven Days of Fire” involving bioengineered “God Warriors” has reduced humanity to small pockets of civilization amidst endless deserts and a newly-forming ecosystem of toxic fungal spores and giant insects. After the warlike kingdom of Tolmekia recovers a dormant God Warrior, they hatch a plot to use the ancient weapon to subjugate the remaining human kingdoms and purge the poison jungles… Bringing them and their air-warships into direct conflict with the glider-bourn Nausicaa and the forest-spirit-like Ohmu insects.
While coming together in Ghibli’s first feature, the three threads are exquisitely tied in their second film, 1986’s Laputa: Castle in the Sky. In what appears to be an alternate earth of the 19th century, humanity had long since achieved the age of heavy industry. Divorcing themselves from the earth and its environment, they fashioned all manner of aircraft, culminating in massive flying island fortresses. With great power came greater violence and destruction, bringing this society and its great flying islands crashing back to the ground. The only one to remain was the mighty Laputa – a massive weapon-fortress and heart of the aerial empire – and eventually its memory was forgotten… Relegated to myth and Jonathan Swift’s storytelling.
Castle in the Sky’s story commences when humanity is once again learning heavy industry and building their own new airships. After an airpirate attack on a passenger airship, a girl with a mysterious blue crystal necklace levitates to the ground in front of the young miner Pazu. Pazu, a pre-teen mechanical genius, has been haunted by the spectre of his aeronaut father’s all-too brief sighting of the flying castle Laputa. Despite snapping a photograph of the island amidst its stormy cloud of protection, no one believed him, and he later lost his life hunting it down. Using his meager wages from burrowing into the earth to build his own plane, Pazu hopes to vindicate his father by finding Laputa. And Sheeta, the unconscious girl who fell literally into his lap, is his key to finding it.
She is, however, also the key for others. The airpirates are hunting her down in the hopes that her levistone – the blue crystal – will lead them to Laputa’s legendary riches. The military is also looking for her, intent on resurrecting Laputa’s unstoppable power for themselves. In the background is the lingering bloodline of Laptua's ancient rulers, looking to return to their former might.
Upon reaching the fortress, they find that the abandoned structure has become overgrown, it’s former army of robot soldiers having become gardeners tending after the plants and wildlife that call the Edenic oasis home. Far from its past as alienated humanity’s engine of domination, a giant tree has grown from the skylight greenhouse and extended its roots deep into Laputa’s innermost sanctums, turning the island into a floating incarnation of the World Tree. What Laputa will become, however, rests in the hands of Sheeta and Pazu.
As Ghibli's first official film (Nausicaa being the film that actually led to the creation of the studio), Castle in the Sky is an excellent starting point. It lays the groundwork of what would become Ghibli staples, in air chases, excellent animation, case scenes and fantastic mechanical designs. More than that, it set the pace for Ghibli's elevated consciousness about character and conflict, treating characters as the complex human beings they are and violence like the tragedy it is.