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March 19, 2009


Anime Feature Film Review – Laputa: Castle in the Sky (1986)



Writer-director Hayao Miyazaki’s anime feature Laputa: Castle in the Sky begins as it means to go on with an action-packed pre-credits sequence. A girl is being held captive in a sleeper cabin on an airship. Her captor Muska has “evil secret service agent” written all over him and commands a contingent of regular army soldiers. The ship is attacked by air pirates Mama Dola and her large brood of overgrown sons. The pirates are also after the girl, who in the confusion, seizes at the chance to escape by breaking a bottle over the secret service man’s head, retrieving her pendant necklace from him, and climbing out the window. One of the pirates grabs at her as she inches her way along the outside of the airship, she loses her hold, falls, and is lost to sight in the clouds.

This exciting opening introduces nearly all the major characters and plot points. The only parts missing are brought into the story within the next few scenes: the girl, Sheeta, lands safely – thanks to the mysterious powers contained in the pendant – in the arms of a nice boy named Pazu whose dream is to find the legendary aerial city of Laputa. Pazu has the explorer’s thirst for the thrill of discovery. The pirates seek Laputa for its fabled riches; Muska lusts for the advanced technology that in the distant past enabled the city in the sky’s rulers to dominate the land below.

The film’s on-the-ground setting is a fantasy version of Industrial Age Europe. Pazu’s town resembles a Welsh coal mining village built into the side of a deep ravine. A main rail line and myriad spurs connect villages and disappear into the mines; the train tracks are built on high, spindly trestles. The military headquarters is a massive industrial complex ringed by a Medieval-style fortification. Means of transportation are a mix of appropriate to the setting (the railroad), slightly incongruous (early automobiles), slightly fantastical (engine-propelled airships that look like dirigibles), and completely fantastical (short-range aircraft rather like chariots with propellers).

Laputa is an Atlantis submerged in clouds, the city a Classical ruin encircling a unique gemstone of arcane and unfathomable power. The city is topped by a grassy platform dotted with architectural remnants. It is thriving arcadia of flowers, birds, and small animals. The source and centerpiece of Laputa’s second life is a monumental tree; the tree’s canopy arches overhead to provide shelter and its root ball extends throughout the city to support the garden from below. The tree is a beautiful symbol of renewal and the earth’s sustaining bounty.

Pazu and Sheeta are nice kids, cheerful and of upright moral character. Dola and Muska are more memorable personalities, although more for sheer force of personality and, especially in Dola’s case, distinctive appearance than for character development. The other characters figure too little in the story and are too generic in their types to make much of an impression.

As the last paragraph suggests, the film emphasizes action over characterization. Castle in the Sky is overstuffed with adventure. There are numerous chases, battles, and militant confrontations on the ground, in the air, and inside Laputa, and involving in various combinations, Sheeta, Pazu, the pirates, Muska, giant robots, and the army. Some of the sequences go on too long, others become a bit repetitive. These are minor criticisms taken individually, but they add up to a film that is, at a running time of over 2 hours, a trifle over long.

The animation is vibrant and detailed. It is a pleasing characteristic of the film that bright, joyful colors predominate. They are used even in places where realism would dictate dark colors or pale shades: Dola’s pink pigtails; the army’s light green uniforms; a tricolored smokescreen in green, blue, and purple.

Note: The film was re-titled for the U.S. DVD release as “Castle in the Sky.” The DVD cover and marketing materials use the shortened title, although the credits sequence in the film was not altered.


Review Series – Directed by Hayao Miyazaki

Previous: Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984)
Next: My Neighbor Totoro (1988)

4 Comments Post a comment
  1. Mar 23 2009

    This is one of my all time favorite animated films

  2. doc
    Mar 25 2009

    The filmmaker captures the early romance and wonder of aviation, when technology mattered and every flight was an adventure.

  3. Apr 1 2009

    Pazu’s father riding his air craft, ultimately on the edge of the hurricane encircling Laputa, is an oft-repeated, key part of Laputa’s old world imagery. So too quasi-WW2 cannonades, aerial and land cannonades.
    Sheeta and Pazu’s enemies are also reminiscient of WW2 imagery, most often either American Dola and her overgrown sons or a home army, or secret service agents.
    And, while much of the Industrial imagery looks European, Industrial East Asia is also recalled.
    I thus propose that Japanese Imperial Nostalgia following WW2 defeat looms large as an ultimate cause, inspiration.

  4. Helen
    Apr 2 2009

    It’s worth noting that an aspect of the film I didn’t emphasize in my review is its strongly anti-militaristic tone. This is developed in several areas, including the depiction of the army as corrupt and power-hungry; the backstory given for the destruction of the Laputan kingdom and abandonment of the city; and the privileging of nature-renewal over human-destruction in the imagery. The film is also markedly anti-imperial. The villain, direct descendant of the Laputan royal line, brings about his own destruction in his quest to re-establish the Laputan military hegemony. The heroine escapes sharing his fate because she rejects his philosophy; her dreams have no connection to her bloodline.