Hayao Miyazaki, “Laputa, Castle in the Sky / Tenko no shiro Ryaputa” (1986)
One of Studio Ghibli’s great joys, this film has everything you could possibly want: a poor orphan boy’s dream of flying and of seeing a magical island paradise in the sky fulfilled; a girl lost and found who is the heir to a long-vanished civilisation; sky pirates with hearts of gold; and a sinister government agent ready to betray anyone and everyone in his monomaniacal desire to harness a secret power to rule the earth. Throw in a message about the use and misuse of powerful technology and a lesson on how to handle great knowledge and energy weapons responsibly, and you have yourself a wondrous family movie that stands the test of time nearly 30 years after it was made. That’s “Laputa, Castle in the Sky” in a nutshell.
All right, a bit more detail is needed: the orphaned miner’s son Pazu finds a young girl, Sheeta, apparently fallen from the sky and saved by a mysterious blue crystal on a necklace she wears around her neck. No sooner have they become acquainted than they are on the run from sky pirates led by elderly matriarch Dola and government forces led by Muska the spy. The two children literally go on a rollercoaster ride down a train track into a mine, then into a garrison that’s torn apart by a giant robot, thence into a flying pirate ship and a tiny glider plane, to land on a floating island high in the atmosphere powered by an ancient technology utilising a strange mineral element. Pazu discovers that the legend of Laputa his long-dead parents told him is true and Sheeta learns about her family heritage and the nature of her crystal and its source of power.
Pitched at a general family audience, the film is relatively uncomplicated compared to some of Studio Ghibli’s other films like “Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind” and “Princess Mononoke” and there is not such an epic feel to it. Characters tend to be one-dimensional and quite conservative in their portrayal, and the princess Sheeta is less independent and coherent than most of Miyazaki’s famous pre-teen / teenage heroines. There’s just enough ambiguity in the film to satisfy adult watchers who can fill in patches in the narrative with their own imaginations and to intrigue children wondering at the immense knowledge and command of technology the Laputans had, why they decided to abandon this technology and their powers, and why the Laputan craft is destroyed, leaving behind a giant floating tree that presumably will have to rely on storm clouds for the rest of its life for water. The film deteriorates into a series of clichés in its last half hour in order to resolve the plot and drive home its earnest anti-war message about how humans must use the resources of Earth wisely and with love and compassion for their fellow beings.
As is usual for Studio Ghibli films, the visual details and backgrounds are stunning in their beauty and the alt-world steampunk technology is at once original, inventive and faithful to the style of 19th-century steam-age Victorian technology before it leapt onto air travel decades before the Orville brothers took off in their little plane. The most inventive and memorable scenes in the film are those in which Pazu and Sheeta in their tiny glider are forced to separate from the pirate mother-ship and dive into the storm circling Laputa: the blackness illuminated by lightning and the terror and wonder on Pazu’s face close up are very impressive. On the other hand, the drawing and portrayal of the characters varies from good to mediocre: Pazu is called upon to perform endless feats of strength and endurance without taking so much as a sip of water, let alone a swag of performance-enhancing energy pills, and the pirates might have come straight out of old 1960s TV adventures of “Astroboy”.
The major letdown with the film is the schmaltzy movie soundtrack music which is par for the course for Japanese family movies.
As it’s pitched to young children, “Laputa …” delivers less complexity than other Studio Ghibli creations and does not immerse viewers as fully but it is one of the studio’s most joyful pictures.