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Laputa: Castle in the Sky (1986)

Many of Miyazaki and Ghibli films speak to us, because of their themes revolving around the creative process, introspection, relationships, and the complexities of the human condition

I grew up on Japanese animation. 1980s kids would be familiar with how dubbed series aired on free TV throughout the week — from Rurouni Kenshin to Neon Genesis Evangelion to Gundam Wing and so forth.

It was only recently when I rediscovered a keen interest in anime in film. Studio Ghibli’s portfolio was recently introduced on Netflix, after all, making it all the more accessible. My daughter and I would watch movies every night. Since she’s a fine arts student, we get to observe and discuss many of the art styles and storylines, both on animated and live-action feature films.

Many of these movies speak to us, because of their themes revolving around the creative process, introspection, relationships, and the complexities of the human condition. In my case, the movies also evoke nostalgia and a longing for one’s more innocent days. This is often reinforced by Joe Hisaishi’s soundtrack, whose style which is very rich with what I can refer to as “hauntology” for the way it makes you long for better times (or places).

Laputa: Castle in the Sky was initially released in 1986 as the maiden production by Studio Ghibli. I watched it for the first time in 2020. And even if 35 years after, there are interesting themes, including making sacrifices and letting go of one’s heritage for the greater good. It also touches on destiny vis-a-vis uncertainty or forging one’s own path.

Themes

Woodcut-inspired scenes in the intro credits

Written and directed by the famed Hayao Miyazaki, Castle in the Sky’s story centres around its two main characters, Pazu and Sheeta, who are in their pre-teens (nothing specific, but it is suggested they are at the cusp of adolescence).

While Pazu is a simple boy from a mining town, he is heroic in his simple ways — through his loyalty to his friend Sheeta, and with how he addresses challenges by being flexible and able to adopt to any circumstance.

Meanwhile, Sheeta — whose full name is Lucita Toelle Ur Laputa — is on a journey to discovering her true heritage, but has to make decisions that will ultimately have a bigger impact beyond her own imagination.

Miyazaki is known for featuring children and youths as main characters in his story — said to embody hope and renewal. The screenwriter and director is said to have a pessimistic outlook on how humanity has mismanaged our world and thus looks to future generations to salvation.

Story and Style

You’ll need to conquer your fear of heights, even if you’re watching anime

The beyond two-hour runtime might be daunting, especially given today’s short attention spans, but the length is compensated by how Miyazaki’s creations really pull you into their universe and lore.

Castle in the Sky starts with action at the outset, and there is violence all throughout (although you can’t see anyone dying on-screen). There is even a scene that resembles a nuclear bomb explosion.

There is a certain timelessness to the scenery and visuals, including the mining town where Pazu originates from, complete with railroad tracks and houses carved across canyonside tunnels.

Steampunk is also a centerpiece of the film, with flying contraptions powered by either lighter-than-air design or flapping wings (something we will see in other Miyazaki and Ghibli works, such as Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind and Kiki’s Delivery Service). There is also something visceral with the ship-like mechanics of the flying vessels — you’d be getting sweaty palms if you have a fear of heights.

The art styles also share many similarities with Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind —a 1984 pre-Ghibli feature by Miyazaki — from flight animation to creature design (e.g., how the robots from Laputa look somewhat similar to the Giant Warriors from Nausicaä’s world).

Some similarities in flying vessel style and mechanics shared with Nausicaä

Some Thoughts on English Dub

I have some concerns with the English dubbing in the version I watched, which seemed quite misplaced. Netflix has the version with Anna Paquin, James van der Beek and Mark Hamill.

I usually watch original dubbing with subtitles, but sometimes choose English dubbing when the younger kids are around, so they can also appreciate the story without having to read.

Perhaps the redub was not well-produced, unlike that of 2001’s Spirited Away, wherein John Lasseter’s team was said to have made extra effort to ensure a good match.

Resolution and Conclusion

Technology and nature in harmony

One complaint I have with the story is how evil is personified and how things are black-and-white, particularly with the character of Colonel Muska — or Romuska Palo Ur Laputa. The audience may be lulled into an oversimplification, for instance, by eliminating the antagonist as a resolution. Note that this is also a shortcoming in many film and media franchises. This is why stories that deliver conflict without necessarily having a personified central antagonist are a refreshing change.

Still, the saving grace might also lie with other characters — for instance, the band/family of pirates led by Captain Dola. One might think they were the antagonist at first, but turn out to be collaborators, which brings more depth (but not necessarily development) to the characters.

The film does not delve too much into character development. The adventure is mostly shown as external. There are also some plot devices mentioned near the start of the movie that would obviously be a key element to the resolution near the end.

A fictional gem called “Aetherium,” or “Volucite” in the original Japanese dub, is central to the story. I wonder how much fictional accounts of Aetherium influenced the naming of the blockchain and cryptocurrency Ethereum — although I’m aware this name also appears on other media franchises such as Elder Scrolls.

An Adventure

As a story, Castle in the Sky is a journey/adventure movie after all, with the lives of its characters forever changed as an effect of their experiences. As is common with Miyazaki films, we see our protagonists with a vague ending. In this case, they are riding off — or flying off, actually — into the sunset, their fates unspecified, but with the hope of it eventually being a happy ending.

I kind of felt that the audience gets caught up midway into the adventure without learning too much about the backstories and the complexities behind each character. I would have wanted to learn more about Colonel Muska, for example, and his motivations for wanting power. Same with Pazu, Sheeta, and the pirate family — It would be interesting to know more about their origins and motivations.

However, there’s only so much that a two-hour feature film can cover.

Ultimately, the story is about how we humans need to temper our destructive natures, even to the point of denying our own heritage or destiny. It’s about being mindful of how power — or technological advancement for that matter — can potentially be beneficial but also very addictive and very dangerous in the wrong hands.

It’s also a story about how destruction can be part of creation, and how destroying something might ultimately be the thing that saves us.

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Angelo is editor at TechNode.Global. He writes about startups, corp innovation & venture capital (plus amateur radio on n2rac). Tip box: buymeacoffee.com/n2rac