039

Huge rant follows – after all, it’s the first post to be tagged “Music” and post no. 39 (3 * 13 = 39, my middle name, so that deserves something extra special).

While I was home for the weekend (oh, Mom’s cooking is absolutely DELICIOUS), I ripped a few of our DVDs to take with me back up to the dorm so that I wouldn’t have to carry disks with me. We need the backups anyway.

Among my selections was Castle in the Sky, one of the classics from my childhood. I had the choice of outputting the final product into the original Japanese dub or the American re-release English dub (with augmented film score). I was torn, because the re-release’s lush score exerted a huge pull on me. If nothing else, the main theme HAD to be given its glorious due somehow (the re-arrangement is just that much more jaw-dropping).

I happily spent maybe an hour (or more – and this is with the first math midterm looming) practicing a procedure that would enable me to kludge a solution for this “overdub”:

1. Start the (original dub of the) film in VLC. Have the track from the film score loaded in GNOME Mplayer with the window focused and ready to control.

2. Wait until the shot of [SPOILERS] Sheeta losing her grip and falling from the airship to fade out to black. The instant it hits pure #000000,

3. Hit “play” on GNOME Mplayer,

5. Switch windows back to VLC and mute the volume there.

It took more than one try to get the perfect synchronization I was looking for – the climax of the piece MUST occur right when [SPOILERS] Sheeta’s crystal bursts aglow with energy and breaks her fall.

It is EXTREMELY satisfying to watch the opening with the improved score; the story comes out so much better. The hour I mentioned practicing this synchronization is mostly due to me fanboying over possible analyses of the opening visuals (and the music). Lengthy fanboy rant (though I prefer “lecture”) follows:

We are removed from the present frame by fading away from Sheeta’s predicament; the title of the film appears over a decorative plaque that reads “Laputa.” This is purely eye candy for the audience to confirm that they’re in the right theater and that there will be a flying castle later on in the film. The piano plays broken, mildly dissonant chords (D-flat major 7th, C minor 7th, B-flat minor 7th) and the shot cuts to a symbolic figurehead of the “wind” (the flow comes from her mouth, the B-flat minor 7th resolves to a G dominant 7th of sorts on fourths), who, as we will see, should be taken as a transition in and out of timeframes. Not only are we taken out of Sheeta’s frame, but we are to understand that mankind also makes a bit of a transition: from technology-less, unmechanical beings, they learn to harness the earth for their own purposes; two men are shown at the base of a rudimentary windmill, their backs to the wind and the camera and the light. One stirs some smoking thing, the other (probably) tends the fire. Man has learned how to enslave the earth; so begins his greedy conquest.

Reeds and winds juggle a scherzo section back and forth in C minor; cut to a dirty, sepia-toned shot of enormous windmills and gears and other things which all scream “industrialism.” Color is important, too; the man, dark as he was, was in a very clean, very healthily-colored environment. These machines we see now have nothing natural about them. They begin the end of the symbiotic give-and-take between man and nature, whereby man upsets the balance and simply takes too much. The camera pans down. The orchestra winds down to a G dominant 7th chord, which gives way to the lyrical main theme.

Cut to a continuously downwards-panning shot of a man in an excavation machine (I was quite taken with its design as a youngster; it looked so efficient) delving deep into the earth. Clearly, this digging fuels whatever technological development happens next; on the surface, the windmills and their mechanical roots have turned into enormous, perpetually smoking, almost insect-like mounds with long lines of mining trucks and machines working busily at their bases. Again with the dirty sepia tones.

For a change, a sidewards shot of two flying machines – neither which we can see entirely, one too close to the camera, and the other obscured by the closer machine – which remind us a bit of dirigibles shows the gained technology put to fantastical good use. The colors here are much, much cleaner than the filthy pea-soup we get on the ground level shots. The singing main theme repeats its first strain. We cut to a shot that (if you could imagine) is filthier yet; you can hardly make out the environment. A huge brown ship, buoyed by innumerable propellers all over the top, is lifted. A menagerie of fantastical flying machines (again, shown against a clean, beautiful shot of the untainted skies) parade past; the strain of the main theme resolves and gives way to musical development.

We see a majestic cake-ish castle; as we zoom out (the theme comes to a crashing false climax in E-flat major) we see that it is actually suspended in the sky by means of a single enormous propeller underneath. Numerous smaller ships dot the air around it. The music (and the use of zoom) would have us think that this is mankind reaching its peak: where all things wondrous have suddenly become commonplace, and where the mundane is no longer of any real concern. Again, in the sky, we see whole islands lifted up; they look so beautiful, cruising freely through the air.

The development into E-flat major lapses into a cautionary set of chords in F minor (and later G dominant 7th, which will of course resolve to C minor) as we see a sidewards shot of the flying islands: they are grey, nondescript, ugly things with huge propellers underneath. Their design is far removed from the normal, the human, the emotional; they horridly stain the pure sky that was never meant to be the territory of the humans, not taken so forcibly with the technology they plundered from the earth. (It is unclear if these vessels are simply the islands of the previous shot shown from the side or if they are an unwelcome development of the same.)

The G dominant 7th chord shoots up an octave or two on stringed arpeggios as dark brown clouds move in menacingly on the many floating islands, barely visible (and greatly dwarfed) amidst the angry hand of nature. The sudden appearance of these clouds is left unexplained; we are to understand that they herald an “unspecified cataclysm.” Taking context and the director’s background into account, we can narrow it down to two possibilities: one, that Nature struck back au karma against Man a la Ikaros. Man, in his arrogance, paid his due for not properly caring for the Earth which nurtured him so tenderly. Two, that the clouds represent clouds of war and that Man simply does what he does best: screwing over his fellow Man. Winds and flutes voice a dirge-like development that goes across chords C minor –> A-flat major 7th –> B-flat major –> E-flat major –> G minor / dominant 7th 6-4 (with D as root) as the greatest machines ever lifted into the air are destroyed by terrific dark bolts of lightning. Whether this is man-made or natural is ambiguous; while the two interpretations are not mutually exclusive (the second would be the superset of the first), the latter makes more literal sense in the situation. This is easily the darkest shot of the opening sequence, chock full of angry red tones and what may be driving dark rain against black lightning. We see one of the vessels visibly split cleanly in half.

The scene fades and the dirge continues; in faded blues we are shown the great beasts run into the ground, their huge propellers snapped, their bodies broken; humans flood out in meandering, sloven lines like ants.

The shot of the figurehead of the wind is shown again, heralding another change of era for the humans. No more will they meddle so deeply with the earth or their own technology. They refuse to be lifted again if the price is to crash even harder into the ground, a second time. A quiet string transition (G F G C G) cuts the shot back to the windmill first shown, noticeably without its smoking parts or two male operators: instead, a girl (almost certainly Sheeta) stands there, facing into the wind, into the camera, into the light, looking out with hope and courage at the world in all her purity. The colors are as before: without the grime and dirt of technology – at least, the extreme kind which would far remove Man from Nature – the colors are normalized to their default neutral state – neither the filthy sepias of the machinery nor the blinding pureness of the sky.

The main theme has appeared again, handed gently to the cellos; chimes sound gently as the shot fades. We are brought back to the present; we squint through the clouds, wondering what there is to see. Something small appears from behind a cloud and we remember Sheeta, sentenced to death when she lost her footing on the exterior of the airship.

***These closing sections should be read in super-slow-motion.***

I’ve never been impressed by theists waffling on about the greatness of God and how impressive all his works have been, though that could just be because of the tone that most theists take up. I’ve been sometimes impressed by people praising the greatness of some works of man. Aneiss himself brought up a good point: the equation E = mc^2 – a terrifying truth that wrought utter destruction on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but one of the most beautiful discoveries of modern physics…

In that same way, there is a powerful catharsis involved with this climactic moment of the opening. As Sheeta comes in view of the camera, we hear the higher-register strings chattering nervously over the cellos; they’re all wondering what could happen. We get a closer shot of Sheeta plunging headfirst; then the music comes to a head as the horns state “G C B-A-B ~” (everything over a G dominant 7th); we cut to frontside shot of Sheeta’s, we see that she has fallen unconscious and that the crystal is still safely fastened on its chain.

The music takes a breath, and all the strings proclaim a majestic “C ~ D ~” as the crystal begins to glow faintly. And as the full orchestra delivers that heavenly E-flat (back to the main theme – enter the brass with strong presence), the crystal EXPLODES with energy. Sheeta’s fall is broken; she turns as though her body is caught and carried gently by some invisible hand. The crystal floats on its chain (not resting on her chest) as the brass and strings celebrate the triumph of the miracle.

If nothing else moved us in that opening sequence – even if we ignored the sum of all mankind’s deeds, good and bad, and that millions of lives went into the eventual creation of the crystal, and even ignore the tragic quality of the tale – we should at least be moved that it all came together in the end to save the life of an innocent girl.

I felt my eyes moistening as I watched this sequence over and over. It’s unbelievable. It’s an epic tragedy and a happy-ending fairy-tale lumped into the same two minutes.

“THIS,” I said to Alex, “is good story-telling.” He shrugged, having not understood most of my babbled lecture (delivered in real-time).

J39M

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