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Laputa: Castle in the Sky – Review

by Miguel Douglas

@isugoi

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This high-flying adventure begins when Pazu, an engineer’s apprentice, finds a young girl, Sheeta, floating down from the sky wearing a glowing pendant. Together they discover both are searching for a legendary floating castle, Laputa, and vow to unravel the mystery of the luminous crystal around Sheeta’s neck. Their quest won’t be easy, however. There are greedy air pirates, secret government agents and astounding obstacles to keep them from the truth, and from each other.

Working as the first official film from the then newly formed Studio Ghibli, Laputa: Castle in the Sky was a considerable turning point for both director Hayao Miyazaki and producer Isao Takahata’s work within the Japanese animation industry. Leading up to its release, both Miyazaki and Takahata envisioned Studio Ghibli as an outlet in which to express their creative freedom, releasing themselves from many of the external factors that may potentially affect their future projects and endeavors within the field of animation. They essentially wanted the space to create the films they wanted to create, with the riskiness of their projects resting upon their own shoulders. This decision was due primarily to Miyazaki’s rather strained relationship with foreign distributors who mangled the release of his previous film Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, cutting some 20 minutes of footage and unnecessarily altering its plot. Needless to say, Miyazaki was quite disappointed with their decision to radically change his film. Considering their move to create Studio Ghibli, there were equal amounts of skepticism and liberation as both Miyazaki and Takahata were simply establishing themselves as individuals outside the realm of many traditionalistic animation studios at the time, with Castle in the Sky being viewed as their solution to securing themselves as a formidable presence within the animation industry.

Richly deep in its adherence towards the blending of environmental mysticism and the use of medieval gadgetry, Castle in the Sky contains many elements that easily establishes it as a film displaying substantial crossover appeal. Similar to the likes of Miyazaki’s aforementioned work Nausicaä, a film that surrounded itself with elements of the supernatural and environmentalism, Castle in the Sky continues in this tradition by offering a vividly creative setting based within an early 20th-century European environment. From the massively huge and beautiful inner and outer workings of the film’s nominal flying castle Laputa, to Pazu’s mining town home that is built into the side of a mountain, to Muska’s immense fortress structure where an impressive battle takes within the film, the look and feel of Castle in the Sky is purely distinctive. The animation of the film is surely a highlight and slight improvement over that of Nausicaä, easing us into a world that seems strangely familiar with its European-esque architecture and endearing character designs that are simplistic yet memorable. The film succeeds on a visual level mostly due to Miyazaki dedicating much of the narrative to fantastic action sequences that truly show the technical prowess of the animation team behind the film.

Also sharing many similarities with other Studio Ghibli works is Castle in the Sky’s focus on youth and their willingness to stand up against the greediness and corruptive ways of adults. The undemanding and thoughtful nature of both Pazu’s and Sheeta’s existence conflicts with that of the disastrous and power hungry interests of Colonel Muska and and his governmental group, which is an approach that surely provides the film with some moral grounding that resides outside of simply having the righteous good guys go up against the devious bad guys, rejecting many of the simple stereotypes of good and evil. While not as complex in terms of characterization as Nausicaä, the film presents its characters as multifaceted individuals who are each caught up in something much larger than themselves, with the adventurous Pazu and Sheeta being prime examples of two young individuals removed from wanting nor needing to utterly dominant the environment and individuals around them. Still, the film does somewhat paint Colonel Muska as a heartless villain unturned to the destructiveness of the weapon he seeks to use, but the allegorical take on his quest for power and the consequences that stem from it is certainly befitting.

The narrative works greatly to showcase the growing relationship shared between Pazu and Sheeta as well, never shying away from their innocence and willingness to resist the enormous influence that controlling the flying castle Laputa will bring, with them understanding the ramifications of rearing such unheeded power. The film slowly takes its time to develop them as characters, with their liking for one another being expressed in the most modest of ways. Their emotional connectedness provides the film with a great sense of wanting on part of the audience to see that these characters make it through their perilous journey unscathed. As their relationship flourishes, it feels genuine, with Miyazaki never simply having the two be seen as archetypical characters in which to advance the plot. Here the characters showcase emotional depth that does not feel hackneyed or superficial, instead having us sympathize with their journey to stop Laputa from falling into treacherous hands.

Like Nausicaä before it, as well as many future Studio Ghibli productions, Castle in the Sky is also a film that subverts much of what we may perceive as a traditional genre-specific film. In many ways, the film can be interpreted as seemingly traditionalistic given its rather straightforward narrative structure, but it is the way in which the narrative is creatively executed that makes it stand out as a largely unorthodox viewing experience. It is this sense of whimsical adventuring that had established Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli as a visionary collective willing to test the boundaries of conventional storytelling within the realm of animation, with this film setting the precedent in which all their future films as a studio would follow. Castle in the Sky is perhaps one of Studio Ghibli’s more straightforward works, but nonetheless it remains a film that offers a wonderful, breathtaking adventure that is also a spectacular visual experience as well, certainly embodying the essence of the studio as a whole.

Check out Jon Turner’s article The Dub Reviewer: Castle in the Sky for a review on the English dubbing of the film.

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Author: Miguel Douglas

As an avid viewer of both Japanese animation and cinema for more than a decade now, Miguel is primarily concerned with establishing a critical look into both mediums as legitimate forms of artistic, cultural, and societal understanding. Never one to simply look at a film or series based solely on superficiality, Miguel has dedicated himself towards bringing awareness to Asian entertainment and its various facets.

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Comments

  • Jon Turner

    What? No link to my review of the dub on this article? For shame!

  • http://www.isugoi.com/ Miguel Douglas

    Still working through updating many of the articles for the site – it will be put soon!