Japanese Title: Tenku no shiro Rapyuta
Directed By: Hayao Miyazaki
Produced By: Isao Takahata
Originally Released: August 2, 1986
Using the funds from the wildly successful Nausicaa, Miyazaki and Takahata were able to open a newly formed studio which would produce work that didn’t have to face outside influence. They wanted to make films their way, and the first of these was going to be the tale of a young boy who catches a girl as she falls from the sky and forever changes his life. Laputa: Castle in the Sky borrows heavily from other iconic films and books of pop culture, but ultimately creates something wholly unique. It is a story which is bold and daring and often times surprised me with the twists and turns it made. Characters who early on seem deceitful, actually become heroic. This is not to mention the surprises waiting for our band of heroes and villains at the castle itself. Castle in the Sky acts as an adventure story on par with the likes of Indiana Jones, which is big praise indeed. Let’s take a closer look.
In the early 1980’s, a power struggle was taking place in the United Kingdom between workers, their employers and the state itself. The Miner’s Strike was a big part of this. In 1984, during the height of this issue, Miyazaki visited Wales and was deeply inspired by the plight of the miners. Two years later, he would return to start work on Laputa. However, by that time, the movement had been quashed. While this struggle is in no way the heart of the film, it provides an excellent background for our main character Pazu, whose family exists in a sort of alternate reality and acts as a way of showing the community that he comes from. Laputa itself comes from Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. While that book had Laputa acting on a set of magnets, Miyazaki has the island operating on crystals, which are actually the byproduct of rocks being mined. This brings the story full circle.
The very heart and soul of this story revolves around the relationship between Pazu and Sheeta, who we eventually find out is Princess Sheeta, a descendant of the families of Laputa. There are a lot of things I love about these two, but I want to point out something that was striking to me first. As I mentioned in the Intro to this series, we watch these films, going back and forth every 30 minutes or so between English and Japanese, in order to get a feel for both. I’ll be honest, I originally did this because it allowed me a break from reading subtitles to take some notes while we watched, BUT this film gave me new perspective. Something I love about Sheeta and Pazu is that they are friends and as the film plays, we see their friendship grow until they would do anything for each other. This is not a romantic relationship. I love that. I love that a boy and girl can have a story that is all about being connected deeply, but not about falling in love.
The problem is that in the English version, their voices sound much older and thus leads you to sort of think of them as more romantic. They sound like they could be teenagers. In the Japanese version, they sound incredibly young. This also manages to make Sheeta sound very frail and helpless, so in the end when she does stand up for herself, it really makes you feel it in your gut. In the English version, she sounds fairly tough already, so it’s not a huge surprise. There’s something to be said for really understanding these characters as children who are learning to trust each other, but also learning to trust themselves and, in my opinion, the English film suffers greatly for them sounding older than they should.
But while Sheeta and Pazu are phenomenal characters in their own right, one of the real stars here is Captain Dola, who leads a band of pirates. This character goes from being arguably the main villain to helping Sheeta and Pazu in the end. She’s an incredibly deep character. She wants gold and riches, but she also cares for her family and has a code of honor. More than anything, it is amazing to see this older woman, who in many films are portrayed as frail, be such a leading force. She is easily the strongest character in the film, both physically and intellectually. While she and her family provide plenty of comic relief, it’s great to see such a strong female character, especially as she becomes something of a role model for Sheeta.
Once again, Laputa weaves a tale which dissects man’s relationship with technology and nature. Laputa is a weapon. We find this out pretty late in the story. It has the power to cause ultimate destruction, as do the robots who inhabit it. BUT, when Sheeta and Pazu land on Laputa, the robots don’t try to kill them. They aren’t hell bent on destruction. The technology is good. It’s tending the land and caring for the animals. What causes the tech to become malicious is human intent. And that ends up being the message of the film is that humanity’s intent makes all the difference. Sheeta and Muska, our villain, are both descended from Laputa, BUT they both have a different idea of the world, and thus their affect on the castle in the sky is greatly different. One of them causes destruction, while the other turns it into a floating relic garden, harmless to all. This also makes the bold statement that our desires shape the world around us for better or worse.
There is so much that I liked about this film, but while the animation is amazing, the thing that strikes me are the little details that Miyazaki infuses into his work. Pazu licks his lips before blowing into his trumpet. As he leaves his town, he frees his doves, representing his own freedom. The robots putting flowers on the graves. All of it has the precious feel to it and it all feels deeply important. So much anime is regurgitated images re-used over and over in order to save on budget, but here, you fear taking your eyes off the screen because you might miss something truly splendid that lasts mere seconds. From the way that Pazu scrambles through a hole in the wall to the way he reloads his gun, everything is so precise and it never feels as though a corner was cut. Because of this, the quality feels unmatched, perhaps even by Pixar.
Laputa: Castle in the Sky is a superb film, ripe with adventure, heart and meaning. It transcends typical action fair by having a deep purpose and explaining the intent of humanity and it’s relationship to technology and the natural world. We are challenged by this film, and while it has metaphors which reach into our soul, it is also a film that the whole family could watch for fun and fully enjoy. Sheeta and Pazu’s relationship is incredibly engaging to watch grow and Captain Dola may be one of the most cliche breaking characters to ever grace the screen. She’s essentially Furiosa from Mad Max but in her senior years. The animation is beautiful. The music is sweeping and by the end, you are incredibly sad to see the island floating away, wondering what could have been if only human greed were not a problem. With Studio Ghibli full in swing now, we are headed towards a darker tomorrow with the first film on our list from director Isao Takahata.
NEXT UP: Grave of the Fireflies