The success of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind afforded Director Hayao Miyazaki and Producer Toshio Suzuki, with some additional financial backing, to strike out on their own with the formation of Studio Ghibli in June 1985.
Suzuki was Editor of Animage magazine, which had serialised Nausicaä, and was involved in the production of the film. They invited Isao Takahata to join them and together they set out to make the films they wanted to make - personal, ambitious films - without the constraints of previous studios. They would also employ their animators full time, rather than as ad-hoc freelancers as was the norm in Japan.
Laputa: Castle in the Sky tells the story of Sheeta, abducted from her quiet life by nefarious Government agent Muska as part of his quest to find the elusive flying city of Laputa; the last flying city. Muska’s dirigible is attacked by Dola and her band of ragtag pirates and in the struggle, Sheeta plunges from the airship towards an untimely demise. Suddenly her otherwise innocuous pendant sparks into life, slowing her fall to a graceful descent and giving us our first taste of the magic in this film.
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The sight of the unconscious Sheeta, silently floating towards the ground, catches Pazu by surprise and the two are first united when he catches Sheeta in his outstretched arms. A boy from a hearty mining town, Pazu, soon reveals to Sheeta his own plans to find Laputa and redeem his father’s reputation. Throughout the rest of the film the pair rely on each other as they flee from both Muska and Dola in their search for the mysterious floating city.
Miyazaki scouted locations in England and Wales during production of the film, prompted by a previous visit to Wales in 1984 where he witnessed the miners’ unions fighting the closure of Welsh mines and the threat to their livelihood by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government. While the economic situation in the UK at the time is not overtly explored in the film, the struggle of hard-working, industrial communities was undoubtedly an influence.
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As the newly-formed studio’s first film, there are a lot of strong elements here which ensured the film’s critical success: fast-paced action sequences, outlandish violence, bellyfuls of humour and strong characters. It also has the less marketable elements that we now know are typical of a Ghibli film: detailed flying machines (of course), unorthodox gender roles, and a blurring of the lines between technology and magic.
The characters in this film each hold their own and have interesting motives and character arcs. We see Pazu’s initial alliance with Sheeta as a means to an end - the discovery of the floating city, Laputa - which blossoms into a strong friendship. A particularly emotional scene sees the internal conflict between Pazu’s unquestioning loyalty towards Sheeta and his frustration at his inability to help her when she sends him away after being recaptured.
Sheeta herself starts the film as a typical damsel in distress and relies heavily on Pazu. She seems fearful of the potential power of her crystal pendant and the discovery of the floating city. Later, when she realises the danger of such a discovery in the wrong hands, she stands up to Muska, thwarting his plans whenever she can.
One of most memorable characters of the film is Dola, leader of the pirates. Despite being one of the most elderly characters in the film, she’s an energetic and forceful presence. Always to be found right in the thick of it, causing mayhem, she bounds across the screen with unchecked enthusiasm. She makes for a lot of the comic relief in the film and her wicked grin reminds me a little of Yubaba from Spirited Away (2001)
There are more than a few fore-shadows of later works here. Dola’s husband, engineer of the airship Tiger Moth, bears more than a little resemblance to the six-armed boiler-room attendant Kamaji from Spirited Away (2001), while the pirates’ flying machines, ‘flaptors’, are reminiscent of the larger Flying Kayak’s from Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)
There’s also something familiar about the animation here: some of the cartoon violence is reminiscent of Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro. This is especially evident in the brawl between the government lackeys and the miners in Pazu’s hometown. There are several familiar faces too in a group of Fox Squirrels from Nausicaä that playfully dance around the shoulders of a robot gardener.
Oh the robots! They’re my favourite feature of this film! On the one hand their expressionless faces and immense destructive capability make them terrifying, while on the other they lurch around with a clumsy, jangling, lopsided gait and play a part in some of the most tender moments of this film. They also communicate in an endearing little three tone beep pattern. Beep boop beep!
The other thing I should mention about Laputa is the fantastic score by Joe Hisaishi. Delicate piano and acoustics combine with synthesised compositions to provide a soundtrack at times playful and evoking a sense of adventure, while at others sombre and almost mournful. Hisaishi is a name we will see frequently as - starting with his work on Nausicaä - he has provided the soundtrack to many Ghibli films and his work on Laputa complements the visuals wonderfully.
While not my favourite Ghibli film, there’s a lot to love with Laputa. It has painstaking attention to detail in the flying machines and the workings of the mining town, combined with memorable characters and beautiful landscapes. It’s very much an escapist fantasy: a nostalgic look back to a time of exploration and wonder, when the skies above held so much promise and freedom.
Next up: prepare yourself for a sobering tear-jerker as we follow two orphans and their struggle to survive the horrors of World War II