Almost 36 years ago, on 15 June 1985 (the feast of Sts. Vitus, Modesto and Crescentia) Studio Ghibli, one of the most well-renowned anime studios in the world, was founded by three men: Hayao Miyazaki, Isao Takahata and Toshio Suzuki. These men were longtime co-workers, having collaborated on previous projects over the past 17 years, and hoped that their studio would live to its name, and blow the wind of success throughout the anime industry. Initially partnered with another publishing group, Tokuma Shoten, eventually it would grow to an independent entity and become the powerhouse it is known for today. Since then, it has released 22 feature-length films, some of which have gone to win accolades, such as Spirited Away, The Cat Returns, Princess Mononoke, and many others. But just as God is certainly the originator of the universe and all life on it, the origins of Studio Ghibli‘s filmography can be traced back to one film: Laputa – Castle In The Sky, an action/adventure film which would centralize the ongoing tradition of Miyazaki’s magical tales, featuring gallant visuals, charming characters, majestic worlds and captivating stories that continue to enthrall folks of all ages worldwide.
LAPUTA – CASTLE IN THE SKY
Laputa – Castle In The Sky, most commonly referred to by its secondary name, can be thought of as a kid-friendly version of Steven Spielberg’s Raiders Of The Lost Ark (which was released just five years before), featuring explorer Indiana Jones going on a quest to recover the long-lost Ark Of The Covenant – because truth be told both films are quite similar to each other. You’ve got an explorer, a female lead, a bunch of guys who help him, a government spy and his army who want to covet its powerful abilities, and they’re all going after a heavenly treasure lost to the sands of time. Funnily enough, visual elements of the film were inspired from ancient Egyptian, Hindu, Babylonian and European architecture, while Miyazaki also adapted character designs from 1978’s Future Boy Conan and Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, from which “Laputa” was derived.
The film, which saw Studio Ghibli work in conjunction with Toei, was released on 2 August 1986 in Japan; although compared to other films the film didn’t generate as much revenue, since then has been met with near-universal positive reviews from critics and audiences ever since its television airing in 1988. In 2006, it was rated among the top 3 for the best Japanese animated flicks, behind Nausicaa: Valley Of The Wind (another Miyazaki work) and Neon Genesis Evangelion, and at the time of its release took home top prize in the animation category at the Anime Grand Prix. The film has also been dubbed in English twice: in 1989 by Streamline Pictures, and again in 1998 by Disney.
Having been successful since its release, references to it have made their way into Japanese popular culture, in large part thanks to its heavy use of steampunk (a combination of technology and raving aesthetic features) which is made present in, for example, the airships and machinery at Laputa. It has inspired video games such as the Final Fantasy franchise, Sakura Wars, and the Megaman incarnations from the 1990s; likewise, films such as Disney’s Atlantis: The Lost Empire, Nadia: Secret Of The Blue Water (Hideaki Anno’s last flick before diving into Evangelion) and Fullmetal Alchemist have also been inspired by Castle In The Sky, and it shows in its visuals. One could say that Castle In The Sky really flew right over its competition in its presentation. Many of the voice actors associated with the film would also go on to have successful careers; notably Mayumi Tanaka (Pazu), who would go on to ironically voice Monkey D. Luffy from the hit series (and never-ending slugfest) One Piece.
Pazu, a boy in a small late-19th century town, comes across Sheeta, a mysterious girl who is seen falling from the sky while escaping from a sky-high onslaught between the Dola gang of pirates and government agents, and literally lands on his hands. After nursing her back to health, they befriend each other and Pazu introduces her to a photo of Laputa, an abandoned floating kingdom thought to be a legend by many, which his father took many years ago. He shares with her his desire to find that place and see it for himself, but not before they are chased after by two members of the same Dola pirate squad that went after her, Charles and Henry. After successfully holding them off via diversion, they make their way onto a train, only to engage in another chase involving the entire Dola pirate cast reminiscent of Temple Of Doom. They evade them, but not before being cornered by Col. Muska, a government agent and head of the army.
The two kids end up falling from a broken railway track’s beam, but are saved by the power of Sheeta’s necklace, which sends them floating downwards to a graceful, light descent instead of the original hard drop, from where they make their way to an underground mining shaft. Sheeta reveals that the necklace was a gift from her biological mother, who instructed her in the ways of it, and reveals that she’s been the object of interest from the government for a while now. Though she wants Pazu to not get too involved in it, he willingly accepts it enthusiastically, saying that “We met because of the necklace, didn’t we?” A brief visit from an elderly man, named Uncle Pom, helps them to further realize the necklace’s origins: a creation of the people of Laputa long before their demise, and filled with enormous power to one who wields it. For Pazu, this revelation all comes full circle when he discovers that Sheeta, is in fact, the heir to the long-lost throne of Laputa – not before they are captured by Muska and the army. Pazu is thrown into prison, and Sheeta is forced to ally with Muska and help him get to Laputa, and reject the former’s assistance.
Dejected, Pazu returns home only to find the Dola pirates have raided his place and are having a feast there; after their leader, Dola, gives him a pep talk on how not to compromise his principles for money, and to fight for what he wants most, Pazu joins with them to rescue Sheeta and get to Laputa before Muska does. In this they succeed; Sheeta returns to Pazu’s arms and joins the Dola gang aboard their airship as crewmates. Pazu is enlisted to help
Dr. Robotnik his twin Motro, Dola’s longtime husband, in operating the ship’s mechanism while Sheeta, assisted by Dola’s sons Charles, Henry, Louis and the others, sorts out with cooking and cleaning duties. Not long after, they realize that her necklace is at the hands of Muska and company, who are now hellbent on reaching Laputa, snagging its treasure, and conquering the world with it, and the chase is on to get there before he does.
Upon arriving at Laputa, Pazu and Sheeta are separated from Dola and the others, and relish the ancient beauty of the ruins of the civilization, coming across a group of still-functioning robots performing the same tasks as they did before, preserving the deserted place. Their brief tour ends when they realize Muska has arrived with his army, who begin raiding the place for treasure, and unfortunately in the onslaught Sheeta is recaptured by him, and plans to rule alongside her as leader of a new, revived Laputa – while double-crossing the army in the process. However, Pazu rescues her from his clutches, and together unleash a spell to destroy the place, bring Muska to his blinded demise, and escape the falling kingdom, now out of mankind’s reach, reuniting with Dola and the crew who managed to snag a few gold treasures of their own.
WHAT I LIKED
- The design of Laputa, the sky kingdom that’s the central focus of the film, is both haunting and ethereal to see. Its introduction by Pazu, via a photo his father took only shrouded the mystery of the world, and as the story went forward, they unraveled its timeline steadily and nicely, easy for the viewer to follow and made the memory of it more appreciative. The place was designed so well, that when you first see it on-screen you could literally feel the desolation around you as both protagonists explored the empty, once-majestic region. The part where the robot left flowers at the grave of the Laputan royal family only increased the sentimentality of this moment, and made me think of what eternity must feel like; a good exercise one one of the Four Last Things.
- The opening segment of the film, where Sheeta falls from the sky only to descend upon Pazu’s hands is probably one of my favorite anime opening scenes of all time. The way Pazu looked astonished after coming across her, as if he had stumbled unto an angel (no relation to the famous pickup line), and was just a beautiful sight to help kickstart the movie’s ambitions. Not to mention I loved seeing their relationship develop over the course of the movie and if you ask me, it’s a good model for Ghibli-style romances to go from.
- The inclusion of Dola pirates and their role in helping Pazu and Sheeta was enjoyable. Not only did they make the story more interesting, but I liked how they underwent a change of heart in the middle of the story, going from perceived enemies to something like the best friends/parental figures the two have ever had recently. They fit the bill as the cream topping aboard a cup of coffee.
- The inclusion of Pazu’s trumpet solo, known as A Morning Of The Slag Ravine, was quite an interesting find. Quite frankly, I heard this first in Your Lie In April but was surprised to know, months later, that it originated from this film. In the case of the latter, that’s one heck of an Easter egg if you ask me.
WHAT I DISLIKED
- Col. Muska revealed himself to be a descendant of one of Laputa’s royal branches, which explained his intentions for seeking out Laputa more clearer, but I found this too poorly written in. It would have made sense if this was developed over a period of time – for example, he discovered some ancient secrets and became power-hungry to grab it, but just how he randomly and without context said to Sheeta his relationship to the fallen kingdom was a desperate attempt to explain his ambitions.
- Another weak point from this film was the way they handled Sheeta’s knowledge of the spells that her biological mother taught her. It was mentioned that she had learned spells for healing, finding lost things, destruction, and protection; not to mention that it can protect her from a rough fall from great heights. However, we only get to see the latter two in action, which kind of was a bit of a red herring. I mean, don’t include something if you’re not going to apply it in action later on in the story, y’know?
For those familiar with adventure flicks like the Indiana Jones franchise, the character tropes are quite familiar. Pazu, Sheeta, Muska, and Dola’s gang take on roles similar to Indiana Jones, Marion, Arnold Toht/Rene Belloq, and Marcus Brody/Sallah respectively from Raiders of the Lost Ark. However, the character relationships stood out to me to be very surprising in several ways.
- Pazu and Sheeta’s relationship felt very genuine and totally innocent, as the two meet on good terms, become acquainted with each other relatively well over the course of the series, and genuinely care for each other’s well being. This is no case of puppy love or Stockholm syndrome; just a pure, beautiful friendship.
- The Dola gang started off like your typical Miyazaki gang of pirates; at first, tough, intimidating and apparently the bad guys. However, they turn out to be kind-hearted, comical and parental-like figures, willingly taking in Sheeta and Pazu, keeping them in good hands, and giving them advice. They treat everyone like family, even those who are part of their biological line, and maintain a sense of ethics even when they’re going out doing their thing.
- The bad guys were for the most part, stock folks, with a tunnel-vision kind of goal in mind, and display the typical traits of such a person; namely, Colonel Muska, who seeks to find Laputa and indulge in its powerful artillery. He’s not afraid to betray anyone to get his goal, and has absolutely no regard for life, threatening children with death should they not follow his orders like your typical adventure villain.
The characters all in the end do play their roles surprisingly well, and fit the pieces of an adventure film, for the most part, where they should be – all making the story easily comprehensible and fulfilling to watch.
The music of Castle In The Sky had a very light feel throughout, even for a film in its genre. It had the markings of an adventure film, and it showed through how it articulated itself for various scenes. Most assuredly, this was best displayed through the theme, The Forgotten Robot Soldier, which plays as Pazu and Sheeta explore the ruins of Laputa, and in the process encounter its lonely robotic inhabitants, living their lives as if nothing had changed – which prompts Pazu to ask the question: “If this place was scientifically advanced, how did it collapse so quickly?” I found this theme perfect to describe the allure of lost empires, ancient cities, and heck – even the powerful cathedrals of Europe – but most importantly, a nice song to meditate on the Christian’s true destination: heaven; just as Laputa ascends to the skies far above us, it’s imperative to ponder how our lives will look like when we’re far from this Earth.
Apart from the in-show OST, the opening theme had the feel of a romantic-era overture for an opera: with its orchestral sounds which dominate the first few minutes, and set the tone of what this film’s going to be about. Unfortunately, the ending song, Kimi No Kosete, didn’t really strike a chord with me; it’s a far cry from what I’d expect at the end of a film with all its thrills. Nevertheless, there were plenty of positive things that could be said about the music in my view.
Favorite character: Pazu and Sheeta are just too hard to pass up for this category, they’re just a good bunch of kids with great personalities and innocent endeavors, compared to the other folks they come across.
Favorite scene: Aside from the beginning sequence, the part where Pazu’s boss fights two of the pirates, and later gets the raucuous crowd around him involved was something straight out of a bench brawl in hockey. I mean compare the two pictures together, tell me if you can spot the difference?
Favorite quote: We see this in Pazu’s introduction to Sheeta after his famous trumpet solo, when he dictates the line:
Pazu: Nice to meet you, I’m Pazu…. I’m glad you’re a human, for a second I thought you were an angel or something.
Sheeta: Thanks for helping me out! I’m Sheeta.
Pazu: Hmmm, nice name. I was afraid you fell from the sky, it was pretty spooky to watch.Pazu and Sheeta’s first conversation with each other
I’ll admit, I chuckled a bit on this one, because it reminded me of a very famous pickup line (Are you an angel? Because I think you fell down from heaven). It’s corny, but what’s very amusing is how it worked very well in Pazu’s favor, and helped him strike a positive long-term chord with Sheeta. Meanwhile if you try this on a bar, you might probably get as far as even a slight chuckle or thumbs up.
Laputa – Castle In The Sky is a pretty relaxed adventure flick, one that’s comfortable to watch and definitely preserves that Studio Ghibli charm so often associated with Miyazaki and company’s works. The adventure is exciting and can give Raiders Of The Lost Ark a run for its money, the protagonists were genuinely likable, and the themes especially surrounding Pazu and Sheeta’s journey to Laputa were quite Catholic in the sense of Christ’s command in St. Matthew 6:33 – “Seek ye therefore first the kingdom of God, and his justice, and all these things shall be added unto you.” It definitely set a high bar for future Studio Ghibli films; and that’s all I’ve pretty much got to say for this part. However be assured that this won’t be the last you’ve heard of this film; I will be sure to cover it again in later posts.