Project Ghibli #7: Laputa: Castle in the Sky

Laputa: Castle in the Sky is the first film released under the actual umbrella of Studio Ghibli, which was formed in 1985. The studio was set up by director Hayao Miyazaki and producer Toshio Suzuki (with other financial backing), and employed full time animators rather than freelance animators which was the norm in Japan at the time.

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Isao Takahata was invited to join them, and the trio would go on to make some of the most successful, ambitious, and artistically beautiful films in contemporary cinema history. The formation of the studio allowed them to make films without any of the constraints they faced working under other animation studios, and allowed them to explore themes and stories that mattered to them.

Original Release: 02nd August 1986
Director(s): Hayao Miyazaki
Producer(s): Isao Takahata
Screenwriter(s): Hayao Miyazaki

Laputa is the story of Sheeta, who is abducted by Muska, a sinister government agent who is on a quest to find the lost flying city of Laputa. His airship is attacked by a band of pirates, led by the inimitable Dola, a formidable woman determined to get her hands on the crystal that Sheeta has around her neck. In the confusion, Sheeta falls from the ship, and her necklace sparks to life with a bright blue light, floating her safely through the air to the ground.

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A boy, Pazu, living in a rural mining town, is shocked to see Sheeta falling to the ground, and rushes to catch her before she falls into a pit. He saves her and gives her a place to recuperate in his own home. They become fast friends, and he reveals his own late father’s fascination (and sighting) of Laputa, and that Pazu himself is building a ship in the hope of setting out to find the city himself, and redeem his father’s tarnished reputation. However, Dola and her band of pirates soon catch up with the two of them, and they end up being chased by both the pirates and the government agents. As they help each other escape, they form an alliance and decide to search for Laputa together.

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Laputa is a fantasy adventure film, with elements of magic, robotics, and steampunk, as evidenced by the flying machines, guns, robots, and period attire. However, Pazu’s town was inspired by Miyazaki’s visit in 1984 to Wales, where mining strikes were in full swing under the iron rule of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government. He was inspired by the unions, the community atmosphere, and the strong, fighting miners.

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Although the depiction of the village doesn’t serve as a form of protest or as an issue-based portrayal, it instead shows a thriving community atmosphere in which everyone looks after each other. It forms a backdrop to the fantasy elements of the film and contrasts against the depiction of Dola’s chaotic band of pirates and the militaristic government agents with Muska.

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There are many elements to the film that ensured its success and makes it a must-watch. As with many of Miyazaki’s films, it has depth, humour, great fast-paced action sequences, and characters that you can’t help but root for. In particular, I loved Dola – at first she seems to be a greedy, grasping pirate after treasure, no matter who gets hurt along the way, but as the film progresses, we begin to see that she is a fairly warm-hearted, strong woman, capable of wrangling a band of complaining men yet also having hidden wisdom and emotions.

Pazu eventually has to work with Dola to rescue Sheeta from Muska after she is captured, and we see a completely different side to her and the pirates (though they are still rather fond of stealing treasure). She is also an example of a strong, capable, and headstrong older woman, of which there are rarely depictions in popular culture. Studio Ghibli films often show positive examples of older characters, and this is no exception. Dan has commented that Dola reminds him of Yubaba from Spirited Away, and I feel that she also paves the way for Madame Suliman and The Witch of the Waste from Howl’s Moving Castle.

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The relationship between Sheeta and Pazu is also quite interesting, because they are both still children, probably pre-teens, and there doesn’t appear to be a romantic undercurrent between them. Instead, they form a strong friendship bond, and this is lovely to see as it shows that boys and girls can be close friends without any kind of romantic subtext. Particularly in the Japanese language version with English subtitles, I’ve read that their voices sound young, whilst in the US dub, their voices sound more teenage which changes the relationship subtext. Since we watch the Japanese and English subtitles versions of the films, we stay closer to the original effect and themes of the films as Miyazaki meant them to be.

Laputa itself is a stunning piece of imagination and construction – on one hand it is a ruined city and castle above ground, where a gentle giant robot tends the overgrown garden and looks after the animals and the graves of Laputan ancestors; whilst below, inactivated lethal robots lie in wait for the return of a King or Queen of Laputa. It becomes clear that the bottom part of Laputa is actually a weapon, capable of destroying cities, towns, and even the world. Muska, in a shock twist, wants to use Laputa as a weapon, whilst Sheeta wants to keep it as it is – a strange floating overgrown relic, with a friendly, nurturing robot. The largest theme and tension in the film is human intent, and how our desires can shape the world around us. Muska wants to destroy and have more power, whilst Sheeta wants to preserve, and keep the peace.

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To me, it seems as if the flying castle itself is a visual metaphor. On one hand, we have the green, lush, alive, and growing top part, which has spread its roots through the entire structure, whilst the bottom part is mechanical and man-made, with a huge magical crystal  (made of the same magical stone as Sheeta’s necklace) keeping the whole thing afloat. The battle and symbiosis between nature and man-made is clear to see – and it is only with human desire and intent that something can become dangerous or remain harmless. Do we choose to live in harmony with nature, and learn to nurture and protect it, or do we choose to constantly fight against it and use it to our own ends, with a casual disregard for the consequences?

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Although this film has everything going for it, and there are aspects I love, I felt that there were some things that made it fall a little short from being one of my favourites. Sheeta is generally a lovely character, but she lacks a little spark and personality compared to some of the other characters (like Pazu and Dola). For most of the film she is being rescued by Pazu or used by Muska. She does make decisions for herself, yet it isn’t until nearer the end of the film that she decides to take some initiative to save the day.

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I would have liked a little more attention paid to her character, but the energetic and mayhem-causing Dola more than makes up for it anyway. It reminds me a little of The Castle of Cagliostro, with Muska and Sheeta being descendants of Laputan Royalty (with divergent branches), and Sheeta a little too compliant and princess-like (like the Princess in Cagliostro). Most of the upcoming heroines in Miyazaki’s films have more personality and attitude, which is one of the reasons I love watching his films.

As always, the visual detail and scenery animation is beautiful and often breathtaking. There are moments of slow stillness, such as in the revealing of the floating Laputa, and moments of breathless action, as in the dragon lightning storm leading to it, where Pazu and Sheeta are torn through. There are small moments that illustrate character: when Pazu takes the time to release his doves before he takes off with the pirates, and moments that carry the weight of big themes. It is a film more than worth the two hours, six minutes running time: both adults and children will enjoy it.

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I leave you with a quote from Hayao Miyazaki in his director plan for Laputa. Our next film is Grave of the Fireflies, a haunting, heartbreaking film about survival in World War II.

‘The future of animation is threatened by the fact that for most films being planned today the target age is gradually creeping upward. More and more animated films are being made to cater to niche interests, and there is ever more subcategorization and diversification taking place. In the midst of this, it is important for us not to lose sight of the fact that animation should above all belong to children, and that truly honest works for children will also succeed with adults. Pazu (Laputa) is a project to bring animation back to its roots.’ – Hayao Miyazaki, Starting Point: Original Proposal for Castle in the Sky.

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