Last week we looked at Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, not strictly speaking a Studio Ghibli film, but made by a lot of the same people before the founding of the studio. In 1985 the studio was founded that would go on to win an Academy Award for Spirited Away, and their first film project was Laputa: Castle in the Sky, released in 1986. The title is sometimes shortened simply to Castle in the Sky, as Hayao Miyazaki borrowed the name from Gulliver’s Travels, presumably without realising that Jonathan Swift chose the name as a political commentary and it is actually a vulgarity in Spanish.
It is remarkable how the Studio Ghibli style of making animated movies arrives fully formed here. Unlike Nausicaä, the film lingers on beautiful scenery throughout, with even the mining village visually stunning, and as for Laputa itself… absolutely beautiful. This is one of the things that sets Miyazaki’s work above most modern animations. The hand-drawn art is incredible. If you really appreciate beautiful artwork, the Ghibli films are the place to look.
In fact, this gets to the heart of something that I feel makes the film industry in general so important. Where are the great artists to be found, in the 20th and 21st Centuries? What will future generations look back at and appreciate? Certainly little that’s hanging in the Tate Modern. Modern art, like modern classical music, is largely a confidence trick, an exercise in the Emperor’s New Clothes, reliant on pretension. But talent does not evaporate. Where are the great artists of our generation to be found, and the great musicians? Making films. Studio Ghibli was lucky enough to be able to combine the talents of at least two geniuses: Miyazaki, probably the greatest artist of his generation, and Joe Hisaishi, one of the world’s greatest composers.
Miyazaki, like most filmmakers, tells stories about good vs evil. Unusually, we have a character here who is totally, irredeemably evil: Muska. This is the only time this will happen in a Ghibli film, unless I am forgetting something obvious. Miyazaki learnt pretty quickly that shades of grey are much more interesting, and we already have the seeds of that approach here, with Dola as the pirate captain with a heart, who ends up working with the good guys. Sheeta is of course the epitome of Miyazaki’s typical young female hero, full of courage and enjoying a very innocent, gentle romance throughout the film, literally falling into the arms of Pazu. The film has one major misstep in terms of characterisation. As fun as Dola’s childish (but adult) pirate sons are, their attempts to impress Sheeta, with one of them even declaring his love for her, is uncomfortable to watch.
Many of Miyazaki’s favourite themes are present here. British and Japanese cultures are combined, and not just in the Jonathan Swift source of inspiration; the mining village is based on one in Wales visited by Miyazaki, and the courage of the miners is likewise inspired by the strength of character of the Welsh miners whose livelihoods were being lost in the 80s. Miyazaki often looks to Britain for the starting point of his inspiration.
Just like Nausicaä, we get a grotesquely drawn old lady and a wise old man. We also get the first appearance of our moustachioed engineer, a character trope that will be gloriously subverted in Spirited Away. Remember Tito, the fox-squirrel in Nausicaä? Look out for more of those cute creatures on Laputa. Then there is the fascination with flying machines, with the Tiger Moth, the scary Goliath, the smaller aircraft with insect-like movement, and of course the flying Laputa itself. Miyazaki gives us fairy tales where old and new technology is crashed together in a post-apocalyptic world, just like Nausicaä, a steampunk world before the term even existed. At least, that is the obvious interpretation; little is made explicit. We can guess that this is set much further in the future, with the landscape recovered, but the threat of ultimate weaponry is still there. The Laputan robots are incredible, with one almost going too far and destroying everything in sight. Again our brave heroine has to find a way to tame a seemingly unstoppable force that is acting on instinct when attacked.
The robot attack on the castle is an incredible sequence, an unstoppable force melting through everything in its path, and this is one of several exciting moments in a film that balances beauty with fear. The robots that still reside on Laputa are a wonderful contrast, gently tending to the wildlife. The robots, like the whole film, show the balance between good and evil. They are capable of unimaginable destruction, but choose to guard birds in their nest. Likewise, Sheeta possesses magical abilities for good and evil, and she cannot have just one within her without the other. This ethos of balance gives Laputa an edge that is lacking in some of the other Ghibli films, skewing it slightly more towards an older audience. This is not really one for very young children, like Totoro or The Cat Returns or Ponyo.
If I had to pick out one stand-out moment of the film… well, I couldn’t. I would have to pick two. One for excitement, and one for beauty. The train chase is an incredibly fun sequence, exhibiting Miyazaki’s supreme talent for triggering off feelings of vertigo in the viewers. Miyazaki loves to progress his stories across vertical landscapes, and Pazu displays improbable feats of climbing abilities throughout the film.
But if you appreciate beautiful artwork then you will love the first sight of Laputa: the stuff that dreams are made of.
As a measure of this film’s popularity in Japan, the term “Balse Festival” might ring a bell, something that gets reported in the news every so often. Whenever Laputa is shown in Japan, the viewers tweet “balse”, a magic word used in the film (I won’t spoil it by saying what for), at the point it is spoken in the film. In 2013 the word reached 143,199 tweets per second on Twitter, more than quadrupling the previous record. Amusingly, the CEO of Twitter seemed to be unaware of the meaning of the word in interviews at the time. He should really watch the film if he hasn’t done so already. Everybody needs to experience the beauty of that moment when Laputa first comes into view.
The second Studio Ghibli film was Grave of the Fireflies. I know it has its fans, and I did try to watch it once, but that kind of downbeat, unhappy drama is not for me, so I’ll be skipping that, and next week we’ll look at one of the most popular and charming animated films ever made: My Neighbour Totoro. Get ready for the Catbus, and watch out for soot sprites in the attic… RP
Read next in the Junkyard… My Neighbour Totoro