Thoughts On: Laputa: Castle In The Sky (天空の城ラピュタ, 1986)
An orphan girl with a magic crystal, chased by the government and pirates, runs into an orphan boy in a miner town.
Castle In The Sky is an utterly flawing explosion into feature film production for Studio Ghibli (Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind is sometimes considered the first Ghibli film, but it pre-dates the company’s existence). It doesn’t really need to be said, but the animation in this movie is spectacular, not only capturing landscapes and characters with a deep understanding of nuance and personality, but also situating the entities of this given world within an intricate domain of physics where forces themselves are a form of expression. And having mentioned the world building, again, it doesn’t really need to be said, but: masterful. Containing the core tropes of a Ghibli film, that being a fascination with aviation and nature as well as strong, rounded female and male counter-parts (often with emphasis on the female), Castle In The Sky is not only astounding formally and experientially, but also narratively.
Castle In The Sky is an amalgam of many mythic tales. However, in essence, I think this is best thought of as the archetypal Atlantis story. Atlantis, or the island of Atlas (the titan who holds up the world in Greek mythology), comes from the works of Plato and is a city that, once it was condemned by the gods, sunk into the sea. This story is mimicked by the biblical tale, which Castle In The Sky mentions directly, Sodom and Gomorrah. Sodom and Gomorrah were also cities that, after they were condemned by god, were destroyed by fire. Many other incarnations of this archetype have emerged over time, such as the El Dorado myth, and many have been revived to explore exactly what Castle In The Sky does. In such, in the stories that revive El Dorado or Atlantis, explorers attempt to re-discover the lost land and exploit it (steal its riches or higher knowledge), but fail terribly.
What is there to learn from these stories? In the instance of Atlantis as well as Sodom and Gomorrah, there is the implication that humanity is not invincible; that the gods ultimately control the fate of people. In Sodom and Gomorrah in particular, this concept has been used to comment on living in excess, sin and indulgence. And though these stories may be fictional, they resonate with reality and history incredibly well. We can look, for instance, to the fall of Rome. One of the greatest empires in of all of history fell because of the internal atrophy of infrastructure and culture and the rise of other empires. To specify slightly, it was corruption, slavery and over-expansion that made the empire weak and forced it to slowly recede whilst Eastern empires and barbarian tribes rose and new traditions, such as Christianity, spread. In essence, Rome became too great to manage, or at least too great to be managed without serious reform. And this idea of “too great” is mimicked across many incarnations of what we can essentially call “the fall of the great city” myth and can be seen as a clear reflection of the story of Icarus – which encapsulated the understanding that you can fly too close to the sun. However, I think it is always best to mention the caveat that Stanley Kubrick added to the Icarus myth, and that was that, maybe Icarus didn’t fly too high; maybe his wings just weren’t good enough.
Taking this concept into Castle In The Sky, it becomes very clear that this is a story about re-visiting Atlantis and being unfit to bring it back to life. Mayazaki (to a degree) makes this story his own by putting ‘Atlantis’ in the sky, and in turn modernising the tale to incorporate the concept of human flight as an allusion to humanity transcending its natural capabilities. Through this, the Atlantis myth becomes a story about industrialisation and technology, key themes of the post-WWI world that have only intensified over the 20th and 21st century. Following the fall of a great city myth, Castle In The Sky then sees a corrupt government attempt to revitalise a lost culture and world, but fail by virtue of their selfishness and power-mongering.
There is quite a bit more embedded into this film, however. Firstly, the archetypal story of Rama, Sita and Ravana seen in the epic poem of Ramayana is reference directly. This story of Ramayana is, in essence, every single Mario game – which is to say that it follows a prince that has his princess stolen by an evil king and so must go on a long, circuitous journey to rescue her. The story of Rama, Sita and Ravana is a deeply archetypal one, and it is referenced by Castle In The Sky only loosely through the evil king who steals Sheeta (a direct allusion to Sita) and the highly generalised “rescue the princess” myth.
Added to this, however, Swift’s famous novel, Gulliver’s Travels (which Miyazaki would have come into contact with as he worked on Gulliver’s Travels Beyond the Moon in 1964) is also referenced through the floating island which, in Swift’s story also, is called Laputa. “Laputa” in Gulliver’s Travels is used much like Sodom and Gomorrah and Atlantis are in their narratives: as a form of critique. Swift himself critiques the people who inhabit this island as they are a highly intelligent, but nonetheless stagnant, society that rely on servants (just like the Romans). However, Swift didn’t mean to allude to the Romans with his Laputa, which, in Spanish, means “the whore”. Instead, he meant to allude to imperialist Britain and in turn comment on Ireland’s revolt against the nation.
Mayazaki is said to have also been influenced by his travels to Wales (which is apart of the UK), where he saw local miners strike, for Castle In The Sky. This experience inspired him to capture the feel of the Welsh miner community, the aesthetic of the region’s architecture and, seemingly in parallel to Swift’s use of Laputa, he uses Pazu as a commoner who revolts against a governing body.
There is still more to be said about the allusions that this film makes. This story is set somewhere between 1868 and 1900, and is an alternate history film. Looking into Miyazaki’s own country’s history, 1868 to 1912 is Japan’s Meiji period. So, whilst the end date does not match, it is implied here that there may be a commentary on this period of Japanese history – which is defined largely by Westernisation. This Westernisation began in the end of the previous era, the Edo era, when the United States forced itself, along with the other Western countries such as Russia and Britain, into trade relations with what was a confined and isolated nation, tightly controlled by the shogunate as to nurture a time of prolific cultural evolution and output. The Meiji period, which followed this era and expanded upon Westernisation by embracing European and North American culture saw Japan become an imperialist nation in an attempt to compete with the West – which eventually spurred the First Sino-Japanese War. Moreover, this period saw Shinto become the national religion, which had a core doctrine that views the Emperor as a divine being.
Considering all of the allusions that Mayakaki makes to mythology and culture, this seems to be one of the crucial elements of this film’s commentary. Castle In The Sky, as a piece of alternate history, essentially re-writes the Meiji period. We see this through the use of the imperialist government and pirates, the expansion of industrial infrastructure in the miner world and the heavily Westernised characters. (However, the Westernisation of Japanese characters in anime is a long-debated topic and a trope in Japanese anime and cinema, so, this may not be too relevant of an observation). What Laputa may be seen as is this ideal conception of the Westernised Japan from around the latter half of the 1800s; an Atlantis or El Dorado that the government and pirates of this film want to exploit. Through this allegorical construction, Miyazaki doesn’t seem to heavily critique industrialisation itself (as the miners are portrayed as good people), instead violence and military aggression. This is actually another trope of Ghibli films as Miyazaki himself was a young child during WWII. It is from his experience in this era that seemingly developed a conceptual pacifism in his films. And this is why, though it is not sensationalised, there is much brutal violence and decimation of life in Castle In The Sky, especially by the hands of the corrupt king, Muska.
On the topic of kings, there is a tension in Castle In The Sky that both embraces and rejects the Shinto concept of an Emperor as a divine being. In such, Sheeta is seemingly a divine princes, but so is the evil king, Muska. And with the ending, Sheeta seems to reject her right to the throne. So, whilst Miyazaki appeals to a natural order throughout this film, the literal materialisation of this in the society of this world is loose; people are defined by their character and heroic actions as opposed to divine or inherited qualities.
To now dive straight into the meat of this narrative, Castle In The Sky essentially critiques imperialism, self-aggrandisement and violence through ‘natural order’ that stems from the earth itself. In such, societies crumble and fall much like good is defeated by evil; it all concerns the corruption and self-defeat of the antagonist. The society, Laputa, that falls in The Castle In The Sky is a conceptual imperialist and technologically advanced Japan that mimics the West. This is a baron and forgotten place as it is implied to have destroyed itself by divisions between leaders higher in the royal blood lines of Sheeta and Muska; between a selfish imperialist ‘evil king’ and the archetypal humble ‘good king or queen’. These two representatives of the technologically evolved kingdom imply a tension between progress and conservatism. Laputa is then a cursed place because it managed to progress to the point at which it became self-preservative (which is what the robots represent), but then set its eyes on the wrong horizons and progressed into its own downfall. When Muska attempts to resurrect this kingdom, this tension between creation and destruction arises again, leaving Sheeta with no other option but to destroy (for the good) most of Laputa and leave behind the symbolic image of a great tree.
The great tree in Castle In The sky is the final image which suggests nature’s reign over humanity. So, as much as this is a film about imperialism, violence, royalty and technology, it is also about how people use the earth. The miners, for instance, utilises natural resources, but are tied to the earth; they literally live buried deep inside of it in their valley town. The Laputans on the other hand take from the earth, the volucite crystal, and assume they can transcend their ‘roots’. These roots can be thought to be attached to the Tree of Knowledge (of Good and Evil) from the Bible. This is the knowledge, as the Adam and Eve myth suggests, of the power of humanity – its free will – and how this can be used for good or for bad; in this movie, to decimate through expansion or to create through conservatism. Having freed the latter, conservative concept from Laputa, it seems that the pirates (which are a kind of imperialist) alongside Sheeta and Pazu mine all they needed to, alongside some jewels, from this place. Instead of taking its power, which their country doesn’t seem responsible enough to assume, the central group of this film learn of concept of good and evil from ‘Atlantis’ and so realise that their home should be deeply rooted into the earth and nature to bare the winds of change. What this narrative finally reveals itself to be is then a cautionary tale akin to Terminator: be careful what you create and how you use your technological power. Moreover, this story is an affirmation of the humble family life and its importance to the average person as well as society. So, just like the stories of Atlantis and Sodom and Gomorrah are, Castle In The Sky is about the mortality of human civilisation and also its hubris, which can, and should, be learnt from across cultures.
So, all in all, the subtext of Castle In The Sky may not be the most intricate and profound, but it is certainly vast and beautifully presented. Laying down many cornerstones of the Ghibli narrative, it has to then again be said that Castle In The Sky is an awe-inspiring first feature from Studio Ghibli. That said, what are your thoughts on this film and all we’ve covered today?
Cinema – If It Affects You, It Means Something
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