Miyazaki Showcase: Laputa – Castle in the Sky

July 4, 2004 on 12:02 pm | In Laputa | 1 Comment

Miyazaki’s effort from 1986 is one of his less popular films, but Laputa: Castle in the Sky is enjoyable nonetheless. It has so much to offer, and delivers on much of it; of particular interest is a fresh and innovative take on the Tower of Babel.

Pazu lives by himself in a mining town, when one night a girl wearing a mysterious blue stone floats down from the sky and into his arms. Her name is Sheeta and as it turns out she’s being chased by a team of pirates and also the government. Pazu is one of those characters who is dedicated to whatever cause he deems worthy, and when he finds out that Sheeta is somehow linked to the legendary Laputa, the castle in the sky that haunted his father until death, he has no doubt that he’s going to help the girl.

Thematically, many of the plot elements of Laputa have been covered before. The Tower of Babel is a favourite of anime writers, but this device is a refreshing treatment of the whole element. The anime that this most closely resembles is Nadia. Sheeta’s mysterious Blue Water family pendant holds the secret to a lost civilisation and a team of air pirates who initially want her stone end up helping her.
Despite its seeming lack of originality, however, it’s still a great film to watch.
Basically it’s a tale about Atlantis, but Atlantis is in the sky and there are airships instead of submarines. How’s that for innovation? That Miyazaki didn’t take the straight path actually does make it less derivative than it might sound.

The characters are nice, with the obvious exception of the oppressive government agents. Sheeta and Pazu are young and full of hope and, of course, a bit too idealistic. They go well with the initially villainous air pirates, who naturally take them under their wing in the greatest comical villain tradition. One might accuse them of being overly simple, but Pazu’s dedication to validating his father’s claims to having seen Laputa. Muska is more than a pointless evil man, and he has some history himself. Of course, though, Dola the air pirate matriarch is the film’s highlight; without her the world would be a much duller place. Despite their sparing presence, Laputa‘s other matriarchal characters are also quite strong.

Because Miyazaki was allowed to be fanciful, the scenery is truly innovative, creative and beautiful. He can make rural Japan beautiful, but the products of his own mind are marvellous. The mining town is in a deep valley that could go on forever. It’s the combination of rural charm and industrial grit that makes everything as interesting as it is. Laputa itself goes for another look still; it’s a beautiful castle city which has been overrun by nature.
Miyazaki even takes the chance to use the opening credits to imply the history of the lost civilisation without explicitly saying it. The style is sketchy, and it’s a good way to represent the distant past. It’s used several times outside of the opening sequence, and each time has to do with part of the puzzle of civilisation; it’s a result of careful direction that brings the subtler picture together.

The character designs, as always with Ghibli films, are the least inspired. All of these designs are very simple, following his tradition of putting ordinary looking people in fantastic situations. The biggest problem with this is that he borrows from himself indiscriminately. The air pirates are the only interesting looking characters (the soldiers are actually faceless drones in suspicious uniforms), and they were all used again in 1992’s Porco Rosso (to better effect). Still, the plain characters aren’t a hassle to watch, and it allows for a blank canvas approach to character development.

Laputa: Castle in the Sky is perhaps the least original of Miyazaki’s works (excepting, of course, his films that are adaptations of books), derivative of many things including his past – and future – efforts, but a nice adventure film to watch regardless. It doesn’t take what’s old and make it new again, but it does dress it up in interesting clothes.

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