Why yes, I am attempting to marathon-post on all the 80s Miyazaki movies. You see, very soon my life will be swamped with thesis and coursework, which will make these sorts of indulgences more difficult to pull off. Yolo, as the kids say.
In 1984 Miyazaki made a trip to Wales in time to witness some of the UK Miners’ strike. He both fell in love with the country and felt a strong degree of admiration for the miners. This would directly impact the aesthetics of his third film, Laputa: Castle in the Sky, which was also the first film made by Studio Ghibli (co-founded by Miyazaki as a result of Nausicaa‘s success).
Laputa is the first Miyazaki film to have a distinctly European feel to its setting without placing itself in a particular time and place. Actually, the film goes out of its way to suggest that the kind of vaguely late 19th-early 20th century Europe we see is really a sort of fantasy version that never was. It’s reflected both in the actual story and in the art style, which is softer, more coloured pencil-esque than Nausicaa‘s giving the imagery both a familiar and slightly dreamy feeling exemplified by beautiful shots like this:
The shot also indicates one of the primary visual motifs of Laputa – elevation. I forgot to mention in my Nausicaa post that Miyazaki has a fascination with flying and aircrafts. But while it’s certainly on display in that film, it reaches a kind of baroque zenith here.
Laputa begins on an airship which is holding a bunch of sinister-looking government agents travelling with a rather morose little girl. Suddenly, air pirates in weird, dragonfly styled fliers board the plane, and an exciting shootout ensues. The girl takes advantage of the confusion to attempt to escape, but only succeeds in falling off of the plane, to her apparent demise.
Then the opening credits role while the movie wordlessly engages in worldbuilding through some beautiful, storybook style images: we learn that people long ago were super technologically advanced, built gigantic floating cities, and that some disaster happened and forced them to return to the land. We also learn that a pendant the girl was holding was magically slowing her fall, thus preventing the story from meeting a short and grisly end.
We then meet our other protagonist, the orphan boy Pazu, who lives and works in a small mining town, and who happens to stumble across the unconscious girl. It turns out her name is Sheeta, and that both the pirates and the government are after her because she and her pendant are the key to discovering the location of Laputa, a legendary floating city that holds great wealth. Coincidentally it just so happens that Pazu’s father was a pilot who saw Laputa once and who died of heartbreak when nobody believed him. So the two of them work together to solve the mystery of Laputa and stop the nefarious plans of government agent Muska.
When you get right down to it, this is a pretty generic treasure hunt story in the vein of Jules Verne and Robert Louis Stevenson (although the idea of Laputa is from Gulliver’s Travels, Miyazaki in true Disney fashion shows no interest in the actual spirit and content of his source material). But it doesn’t matter because it’s done so well. If Raiders of the Lost Arc represents the genre at its most action packed and exciting, Laputa has the most character and atmosphere. Pazu rings in the morning with a trumpet solo; a miner and a pirate engage in a shirt ripping contest; the action moves from train tracks over a massive valley to caverns underneath it and then to a gloomy castle, etc,. All at a pace which is perfect to soak in all the details while still remaining exciting.
But, as wonderful as all that is, Laputa hasn’t kicked into high gear. That happens at around the midpoint, when a robot which has apparently fallen off of Laputa wakes up and things start going kaboom.
Wait, a robot? The sudden introduction of high tech into this proto-steampunk setting would have sent a lesser movie off its rails, but here it serves to bring another dimension to the story: the idea of potentially world-ending technology operating without any human constraints. This is helped by the design of the robot, which is humanoid, but unsettlingly alien in its proportions and features.
Thus we expect that Laputa will be a lot more than a simple floating castle, and when we finally arrive there for the final half hour, the film does not disappoint. It’s a massive, hauntingly beautiful eldritch place with overgrown vegetation which seems like something out of a Jack Vance story:
It’s a powerful setting for what is, again, a fairly rote climax, and it remains haunting no matter how many times Squaresoft has ripped it off (let’s see: the Floating Continent in FFVI, the Temple of the Ancients in VII, Etso Gaza in IX, the Kingdom of Zeal in Chrono Trigger, the Terra Tower in Chrono Cross…)
And once again Joe Hisaishi does a great job complementing the images with the score – this time a double duty, as there exists two different versions of it. The original is, like Nausicaa, synth heavy, albeit with a more minimalist, Steve Reich-esque style. But on some DVD versions of the Disney dub (but not others) you get a version which is more orchestral. Both have the blessing of Hisaishi and Miyazaki.
Laputa is what I would peg as Miyazaki’s first masterpiece, which is recommendable to anyone who has an interest in animation or fun movies.
And a word about the dub: one of the benefits of having Disney as a distributor is that the dubs are typically of a much higher quality than anime usually gets. Even if you have an aversion to them, it’s particularly worth hearing Laputa‘s for a chance to listen to Mark Hamill do a villainous turn as Muska.