Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Screenplay: Hayao Miyazaki
Producer: Isao Takahat
Starring: Mayumi Tanaka, James Van Der Beek and Anna Paquin
Year: 1986
Country: Japan
BBFC Certification: PG
Duration: 124 min

Hayao Miyazaki’s Laputa – Castle in the Sky; was Studio Ghiblis’ debut in terms of feature films and is considered a great homage to Jules Verne and Jonathan Swifts “Gulliver’s travels” – an acknowledged inspiration.

The film starts with a neck breaking sequence of gunshots and bottles to the head as a young girl – Sheeta – attempts to escape her captors from a dirigible. After tempting gravity she falls from the airship, only to beat it half way as a sacred crystal around her neck helps her float safely into an orphan’s arms below. The observing orphan named Pazu (or “Patsu” as the English version so unattractively renames him) vows to help the girl escape the sinister government agents from which she fled. The duo eventually embark on a journey of misadventure as they try to dodge capture with the help of sky pirates, old wise men and Pazu’s bare knuckle fighting capability – in a bid to discover the lost land of Laputa before their foes.

Although a favourite of mine, it took three times before I’d actually seen it in full. Firstly I saw it in Japanese, but decided I’d wait for the English version as subtitles are not my cup of tea. Weeks later I caught the last quarter of it in English on TV, but turned it off so not to ruin the end. I then finally bought the English DVD and watched it from start to finish, and if I’m honest, I genuinely regretted not sticking with Japanese version. Yes, subtitles are a pet hate of mine, but the English voice overs are almost terrible. In the Japanese version of Laputa, Pazu is presented as a rough and ready, angry little fighter; if this orphan asked for more it would most likely be with a blunt object in hand. But in the English version, due to Pazu’s weightless voiceover – one that makes him sound around ten years older than he is – his personality literally seems to change. And it’s not just the airy American accent; it’s the expression and mannerisms in his English voice that are lacking. In the Japanese version of Castle in the Sky, Pazu vocally tears his way through most conversations, this adds to the grit and vulnerability of Pazu; whereas the English version has him sounding like he just woke up from a great dream – even when hanging from a dilapidated steam train, precariously crossing a deep canyon. However the voices are more of an irritant than a hindrance, after getting over them, the fast paced story and graphically immersive world speak for itself.

Laputa – Castle in the Sky begins in a fantasy like world; it could probably be described as “steam punk” and is definitely a favourable setting for this tale. The industrial drive of a quaint village by the cliffs is disrupted by the sudden arrival of Sheeta and her crystal; the community spirit is evident as the locals take well to her. This is especially conveyed when Pazu helps hide Sheeta from the sky pirates in a neighbours’ house. The whole village attends as Pazu and his muscle bound boss proceed to bash seven shades out of the pirates. Interestingly – despite the obvious physical violence – this is done in an extremely slap stick way and adds something many of the feature length Ghibli films lack – comedy. There are several laughable moments within Laputa, something welcome amongst a serious setting. Scenes that are done in a way that are comedic, yet taking nothing away from the underlying theme, shows the quality of Hayao Miyazaki’s writing – something never compromised within Ghibli classics.

Toward the end of the film, the world in which its set almost takes a shift in dimension, I was under the impression that the fantasy environment was one of many, but it becomes apparent that Laputa is actually set in a version of our own world. Personally I didn’t take to this theme quite so easily; however the aspect of nature and honest living that the arrival to the Castle in the Sky explores redeems this. Laputa is about a world forgotten, a world where money, greed and lust are not the main driving force behind peoples decisions. Science on the floating land of Laputa is far advanced, not for the benefit of industrial gain, but to preserve the Earth’s natural beauty. Gigantic robots preen roses and bask in the sun as birds sit upon their moss laden shoulders. Attacking only in defence of harm upon nature and the environment they exist to relentlessly preserve.

One of the deeper themes to Laputa is the connections to the Bible it touches upon. For example one of the bad guy Generals speaks of how it was not God, but Laputa that destroyed the city of Sodom and Gomorra. This could be used to explain many situations in which almost UFO like appearances are mentioned in Holy Scriptures; albeit obscurely, but still mentioned. Also in the Qur’an it talks of how the saviour will return to topple the one eyed monster of ill society, in the Ghibli tale this could be perceived as Laputa, destroying the power hungry general and his armies, yet saving the good hearted Sheeta and Pazu.

Even if you’re impartial to deeper meanings and biblical references, you will still enjoy Laputa simply if you like Ghibli – or even animation in general. Just be sure to watch the Japanese version to be fully immersed and related to the narrative of the characters. Castle in the Sky is a visual feast and as well constructed as the story is it’s still easy to follow. This serving from the colourful collection has more of a Japanese cultural influence to it, as opposed to some of the more Westernised releases from the animation giant that is Studio Ghibli. This is possibly a vice for some, but a welcome change for many.

4 Responses

  1. David Brook

    As mentioned before I’m a massive Ghibli fan and this is one of my favourites. Nausicaa’s still top of my list though. I’m definitely with you on the language options, I can’t stand the English dubs . They use big name actors on these new releases, but it just doesn’t fit and they sound like they’re shopping it in half of the time. Give me the subtitles any day of the week!

  2. jeff

    I have only seen the dubbed version and found it to be the greatest film I have ever seen. I think that, although I haven’t seen the japanese version, the dubs really don’t lessen the greatness of the film but instead change the personality of pazu from a tough guy looking for adventure to more of an unlikely hero in love with the heroine. I believe this deserves five stars, but that’s just my opinion.

  3. David Brook

    I’d probably go with a five or four and a half star rating too.

    As for the dubs, I just can’t sit through the English ones. They seem wrong whenever I see them. I think I automatically relate the style of Ghibli animation to the Japanese language and when I see it any other way it feels wrong and I can’t shake the feeling that the English is getting warped to fit with the mouth animation (or whatever you call it) that has been synced to an original Japanese voice track. I’m sure they’re professionally done, but there’s something about it that I can’t deal with. I guess I’m just fussy!


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