Laputa: Castle in the Sky (1986)

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Director and Screenwriter: Hayao Miyasaki
Producer: Isao Takahata

“Many people of my generation see the miners as a symbol; a dying breed of fighting men. Now they are gone.’
Hayao Miyazaki.

A floating airship is ambushed by air pirates in pursuit of a crystal in possession of a mysterious girl, Sheeta. Chased out of her room she drops unconscious into the clouds below.  Pazu, a determined boy working in the mines of his local village watches as the girl slowly falls from the sky above, a magic crystal around her neck levitates her body allowing Pazu to run to and catch her, unaware of her lineage as heir to an ancient floating city in the sky. Sheeta wakes and the two quickly become friends. Pazu tells of his fascination with the floating castle from a sepia photograph his father once took. His father was beguiled of his discovery by sceptic villagers leaving Pazu determined to prove his father’s discovery was real. With the air pirates in pursuit of the crystal and with intervention by the military with the presence of a fierce antagonist, Muska, a chase begins to the legendary castle in the sky.

In the presence of the military we’re introduced to a fallen robot with missing limbs leaving only one working arm and leg. Thought dead the robot lays dormant in the military dungeon until Sheeta is captured and uses a spell on her crystal that her grandmother taught her to wield whenever she’s in peril. Upon this begins my personal highlight of the film. The robot awakens, perching on its broken and working limbs it spider-crawls to the door destroying everything in its path to reach Sheeta. This scene was destructive, fun, and incredibly emotional. The robot clumsily shows it’s a friend to Sheeta by tapping the emblem on its chest, the same emblem that’s enshrined on the crystal around Sheeta’s neck. An odd bond is formed as the robot fights off a bombardment of missile fire from the military. Looking indestructible the robot looks to have saved the day. However a powerful missile lands and ultimately ends the life of the heroic sentinel leaving Sheeta to be rescued by Pazu and the Mama Dola, the leader of the pirates. This is the opening of the film. Immediately it sets up an epic journey akin with Treasure Island. The film wastes no time catching its breath and rushes immediately onto the next plot beat. Watching was an adrenaline rush that encouraged me to rush off on my own adventure and reminded me of similar films such as the Goonies with an epic encounter sweeping our protagonist on a grand journey.

Screen Shot 2018-02-07 at 22.37.27.pngThe robot soldier tries to communicate with Sheeta moments before his demise. 

Beyond this is the social commentary regarding the acceptance in technology. The castle, covered in flora and greenery emphasises the tranquillity of the isolated castle however but hiding underneath is a sinister power. This power is overcome with the spoils of nature in the absence of humanity.

There is no time spent spoon-feeding these messages but instead an interwoven backdrop of throughout the film for the audience to observe but not to be overwhelmed with political commentary. Avoiding this heavy handed narrative approach allows for greater immersion and helps envelopes the audience inside the universe Miyasaki has created.

Paza and Sheeta are our main protagonists. Pazu, the miner boy immediately shows his grit, resourcefulness and kindness within a matter of minutes. Sheeta begins her journey has a timid young woman and grows into a bold courageous character of great strength. The two central characters feel so equally important and who resonate with each other so well. Cleverly, their relationship is close and fringes on romance but always remains innocent. The charm of close friendship without the need to resort to romance is part of why Ghibli is able to create whimsy and never anchors itself to the real world.

Castle in the Sky was inspired by the floating island, Laputa from the novel Gulliver’s Travel. However with a twist, rather set in the future Castle in the Sky sets its floating island in a post industrial revolution with the island only spoken of as myth. For inspiration Hayao Miyazaki visited Wales during the UK’s turbulent period in the 1980s while the final coalmines were seeing foreclosure and the unions were hot in dispute. This political and scenic landscape provided inspiration for the coalmining village in Castle in the Sky. Contrasting starkly with idyllic paradise of the mythical floating castle.

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Our protagonists first look at the paradise in the sky. 

What’s interesting about this film is Pazu’s abandonment of his mining town to go in pursuit of adventure, or for more prosperity of the otherworldly floating city that once was lined in riches. You can frame this in a variety of ways. First, is this symbolism for Pazu abandoning his mining heritage in line with the Unions eventual lost battle keeping the mines open, has Paza sought out something greater, or is he pursuing an idea over dealing with the practicalities of a failing mining town? Secondly, is this film showing us failed capitalism? Poignant for the 80s, a time where the American Dream of ‘if you try hard enough you will get your riches’ entrenched a generation.

The reality is that there was never any intention to make a real political point within this film but it’s difficult to look away from the messages when you read into the background of the film. If we remove ourselves from this message what’s left is a story of love, friendship and adventure. This has been the first instalment in Ghibliview and Laputa: Castle in the Sky sets a high bar for the rest of the films to come. I’m curious as to how the future instalments hold up politically socially and whether the story will contain more depth.

And that is my main critique of Laputa, the lack of depth in storytelling. While it does have a political dimension and a linear, albeit exciting story its lack of time given to character exploration is a small negative and yet somehow I feel adding this would have hindered the films enjoyment. It’s nit-picking at best for a film that I found hugely enjoyable and exciting to dissect.

 8 Totoros

8 out of 10 Totoros