Film Review: Laputa: Castle in the Sky / Tenkū no Shiro Rapyuta (1986)

*All reviews contain spoilers*
Disclaimer: This blog is purely recreational and not for profit. Any material, including images and/or video footage, is property of their respective companies, unless stated otherwise. The author claims no ownership of this material. The opinions expressed therein reflect those of the author and are not to be viewed as factual documentation. All screencaps are from Animationscreencaps.com.

Japanese Cast
Kotoe Hatsui – Captain Dola
Tarako Isono – Madge
Hiroshi Ito – Mr. Duffi (Pazu’s boss)
Sukekiyo Kamiyama – Henri/Anli
Takuzō Kamiyama – Charles/Shalulu
Ichirō Nagai – General Muoro
Tomomichi Nishimura – Train Operator
Ryūji Saikachi – Old Engineer/Motro
Mayumi Tanaka – Pazu
Minori Terada – Colonel Muska
Fujio Tokita – Uncle Pom
Machiko Washio – Okami
Yoshito Yasuhara – Louis/Lui
Keiko Yokozawa – Princess Sheeta

English Cast (1998/Disney)
Jim Cummings – General Muoro
Debi Derryberry – Princess Sheeta (young) and Madge
Andy Dick – Henri/Anli
Richard Dysart – Uncle Pom
Mark Hamill – Colonel Muska
John Hostetter – Mr. Duffi (Pazu’s boss)
Cloris Leachman – Captain Dola
Tress MacNeille – Okami
Mike McShane – Charles/Shalulu
Matt K. Miller – Old Engineer/Motro and Train Operator
Anna Paquin – Princess Sheeta
Mandy Patinkin – Louis/Lui
James Van Der Beek – Pazu

Sources of InspirationGulliver’s Travels, a British novel by Jonathan Swift, 1726, and the Welsh miner’s strike of 1984-1985
Release Dates
August 2nd, 1986 in Japan (premiere and general release)
July 14th, 1987 at the Los Angeles International Animation Celebration in the USA
December 25th, 1989 in the UK (TV premiere)
Run-time – 124 minutes
Directors – Hayao Miyazaki (and Jack Fletcher for the Disney adaptation)
Composers – Joe Hisaishi
Worldwide Gross – $15 million
Accolades – 1 win (Is that all?)


1986 in History

Space Shuttle Columbia is launched with the first Hispanic American astronaut, Dr. Franklin Chang Díaz
The Voyager 2 space probe makes its first encounter with Uranus
On January 28th, Space Shuttle Challenger disintegrates 73 seconds after launch from the United States, killing the crew of 7 astronauts, including schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe
Pixar Animation Studios are opened in California
The People Power Revolution occurs in the Philippines, sending President Ferdinand Marcos into exile in Hawaii
Halley’s Comet reaches its perihelion, the closest point to the Sun, during its second visit to the solar system in the 20th century (after 1910)
The Soviet Union launches the Mir space station
At the 27th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev introduces the keywords of his mandate to the audience: Glasnost and Perestroika
Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme is assassinated in Stockholm on his way home from the theatre
The Today national tabloid newspaper is launched in the UK, pioneering the use of computer photosetting and full-colour offset printing
The 1986 West Berlin discotheque bombing at the La Belle club leaves three dead and over two hundred people injured
Pope John Paul II officially visits the Great Synagogue of Rome, the first time a modern Pope has visited a synagogue
Following Operation El Dorado Canyon, British journalist John McCarthy is captured in Beirut as part of the Libyan Hostage Crisis; he is not released until 1991
The world’s worst nuclear accident to date occurs at the Chernobyl Power Plant in Ukraine, then part of the Soviet Union; the fallout affects the entire northern hemisphere
The Diamond Jubilee of Emperor Hirohito is held at the Ryōgoku Kokugikan in Tokyo
The Firearm Owners Protection Act is enacted in the USA
Following Somali President Siad Barre’s injuries from a car accident, Somali opposition groups kick off the ongoing Somali Civil War
At least 5,000,000 people form a human chain from New York City to Long Beach, California, to raise money to fight hunger and homelessness in Hands Across America
South Africa declares a nationwide state of emergency
The Statue of Liberty is reopened to the public after celebrating its centennial and an extensive refurbishment
New Zealand decriminalizes homosexuality
In London, Prince Andrew, Duke of York marries Sarah Ferguson at Westminster Abbey
The first film produced by Studio Ghibli, Laputa: Castle in the Sky, directed by Hayao Miyazaki, is released in Japan
The Lake Nyos disaster, a rare limnic eruption, occurs in Cameroon, killing nearly 2,000 people
Desmond Tutu becomes the first black Anglican Church bishop in South Africa
The Phantom of the Opera, the longest running Broadway show in history, opens at Her Majesty’s Theatre in London (it’s the third-longest running for the West End)
The Marshall Islands gain full independence from the USA in a Compact of Free Association
The Big Bang in the London Stock Exchange abolishes fixed commission charges, paving the way for electronic trading
The Iran-Contra affair comes to a head, with the US secretly selling arms to Iran to try and secure the release of several hostages
Births of Colin Morgan, Raviv (Ricky) Ullman, Mischa Barton, Jessica Ennis-Hill, Dane DeHaan, Amber Riley, Jamie Bell, Alexandra Daddario, Lady Gaga, Amanda Bynes, Robert Pattinson, Megan Fox, Rafael Nadal, Shia LaBeouf, Ashley and Mary-Kate Olsen, Drake Bell, Lindsay Lohan, Christina Perri, Usain Bolt, Emilia Clarke, Josh Peck and Kit Harrington


It’s been a long time coming, but now I’m finally ready to tackle Laputa: Castle in the Sky, an early adventure film from Hayao Miyazaki. (Took me long enough, I know). This film is often overlooked in discussions of Miyazaki’s greats, but it’s time it got the respect it deserves. It was born out of an incredibly busy period in the mid-eighties, following the massive critical success of Miyazaki’s 1984 work Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind; the public’s embrace of that film was one of the key factors that allowed him and his colleagues to co-found Studio Ghibli the following year, with Castle in the Sky going on to become the first film produced under its name in 1986.

Like any other director with a big hit under his belt, Miyazaki was being pressured to create a sequel to Nausicaä for his next work, but all he wanted to do initially was take a well-earned break. Following the film’s debut in March of 1984, he spent the next nine months musing on future projects, taking his time before committing to one (a wise move), but at last a proposal was announced in December, outlining a whole new film that would be aimed at a slightly younger set than Nausicaä had been.

Castle_in_the_Sky_(1986)

The intent with this new project was to create a “fun, intensely thrilling classic action film” with “themes of emotional bonding and self-sacrifice – things that modern audiences are sceptical of but, without realising it, really crave.” This time around, Miyazaki was specific in not wanting to cater overly to older viewers, since he was confident that plenty of them would come to see the film regardless: “It is important for us not to lose sight of the fact that animation should above all belong to children, and that truly honest works for children will also succeed with adults.” I’d say I agree with that; it’s exactly the kind of attitude that makes films like Abominable feel weaker. While I don’t think animation as a medium should be entirely restricted to children’s fare, I agree that kids deserve high quality works of their own which, if cleverly made, can still appeal to their elders too.

Interestingly, the pre-production phase for Castle involved some location scouting, a practice which was just starting to become more common at Disney, too. Around May of 1985, at the suggestion of producer Isao Takahata, Miyazaki and some other team members set out for the UK to visit Wales, which he also seems to have visited the previous year, perhaps more recreationally (I’m not clear on whether there were two separate trips or not). Of course, Wales in the mid-eighties was in turmoil, but Miyazaki actually drew a lot of inspiration from what he saw during the mining strikes going on there at the time.

He respected the solidarity among the workers he met, which made him nostalgic for times gone by in his home country; back in Japan, such attitudes were beginning to be seen as old-fashioned, so Miyazaki “really admired the way the miners’ unions fought to the very end for their jobs and communities, and {he} wanted to reflect the strength of those communities in {his} film.” Pazu’s hometown of Slag Ravine thus ended up with a very Welsh design, incorporating versions of the people and the architecture he saw on his trip.

However, Pazu’s town was only part of the story. The grand fantasy centrepiece of the film was going to be Laputa, the mysterious floating island featured in Jonathan Swift’s classic 1726 novel Gulliver’s Travels. Now, just to get this out of the way – no, Miyazaki was not aware of the unfortunate meaning of “la puta” in Spanish when he set out on this project, explaining that he would not otherwise have chosen it for his title. Still, regardless of the name of the place, Laputa certainly had a lot of potential for an adventure film of the sort Miyazaki wanted to make, so he had Osamu Kameoka draft a novel version of the story which later served as the basis for the screenplay (an unusual move for the director, who usually lets the story unfold by itself during storyboarding).

New animators were drawn to the budding studio until they had a full production staff of several hundred by the end of the project, many of whom were just beginning what would prove to be highly fruitful careers with Ghibli. In characteristically speedy fashion, production was completed in about a year and a half (at a time when most western animated features took closer to three or four) and the film opened to big business in the middle of 1986. Although the Ghibli name would not become widely known in the west for at least another decade, the studio had taken its first, important step and would quickly begin to establish an excellent reputation.

Honestly, I can’t fathom why people seem to be sleeping on this one. I love Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke and My Neighbour Totoro as much as the next person, but Castle in the Sky is a fabulous treasure from the early days of the studio, well-paced and gripping despite a hefty two hour run-time and boasting some of the most stunning visuals in Miyazaki’s filmography (which is really saying something). If you haven’t seen this one yet, I’ll recommend it to you right now before we even begin – it’ll take you on the ride of your life.

Characters and Vocal Performances

In the seventies, Miyazaki had worked on an anime series called Future Boy Conan, which he drew considerable inspiration from for this film. The show’s stars, Conan and Lana, were early precedents for Pazu and Sheeta, and Pazu’s rescue of Sheeta was based on a similar scene from the show. It has to be said that the characters in Castle are rather less complex than the ones in Spirited Away (my last Ghibli review), but that’s not a criticism; this story is less character-driven than that one, and Pazu, Sheeta, Dola and Muska are all perfectly suitable for an adventure like this.

Pazu that crystal's gonna help us find Laputa

Our leading lad is Pazu, a plucky young resident of the mining town of Slag Ravine, who has long harboured a dream of finding the floating city of Laputa so he can vindicate his late father’s name. Like so many animated protagonists before and after him, he is an orphan – we never learn what happened to his mother, but it’s hinted that his father, at least, died a broken man after having his claims of Laputa’s existence dismissed as lunacy. Pazu was clearly close to his dad and now spends his spare time working on a homemade flying contraption, which he hopes someday to use to fulfil his dad’s dream.

Interestingly, Pazu seems to live entirely independently, although he does have a sort of father figure in the form of Mr. Duffi, a local miner who has taken him on as an apprentice. It’s perhaps a little unbelievable that this twelve-year-old kid (at most) doesn’t have so much as a landlord, but then Pazu does have the local community to watch out for him. He’s easy to like, both in-universe and out of it; you have to admire the guy’s spirit, never without a smile even after all life’s thrown at him. He’s never had much, but unlike the film’s main villain, Pazu has not become greedy – on the contrary, he’s happy with his simple life and is well on the way to establishing himself as a talented engineer.

Pazu catches Sheeta

It is into this environment that Sheeta unexpectedly falls, witnessed only by Pazu as he works late one night at the mine. Although he’s as surprised as anyone else would be, he’s still careful to treat the girl with care, placing his own scanty waistcoat over her in an attempt to keep her warm and taking her home with him after work, where he gives up his own bed for her to sleep in.

Once Sheeta has awoken the next day, he remains cheerful and pleasant in spite of her… unconventional arrival, chattering away like he’s known her his whole life. In some ways, Pazu is shown to be quite perceptive; with his engineer’s eye for detail, he works out that it is Sheeta’s necklace that prevented her from falling to her death, but he quickly finds out that its power doesn’t work for just anyone as he promptly plummets from his rooftop while wearing it. Still, he also guesses before Sheeta does that her necklace may have some connection to Laputa, demonstrating a certain intuition which can be easily lost on a first-time viewer, given the character’s overall naïveté.

Pazu talking about his father

Before the two of them have breakfast, Sheeta’s attention is caught by a display of Laputa-related items in Pazu’s workshop, prompting an explanation from Pazu about his father’s fate and his own plans to follow in his footsteps. Just after this, a band of pirates show up – and thus, the chase has begun.

For the rest of the film, Pazu proves himself to be a stubbornly loyal friend who sticks by Sheeta no matter what perils they face, trusting her with his life and going above and beyond to protect her from harm. The one time he leaves her is when she is manipulated into asking him to go by the nefarious Muska; he doesn’t want to abandon his plan to find Laputa, but his trust in Sheeta is such that he does it anyway, only realising his mistake once Dola points it out to him. As soon as he realises what’s happened, he feels terrible and immediately sets out with the pirates to rescue his friend, regardless of the danger he’s flying into.

Pazu feels guilty over SheetaPazu holding crying Sheeta

Unlike Muska, Pazu’s dreams of finding Laputa have nothing to do with its legendary treasures or technical marvels; he simply wants the romance of the adventure itself, caught up in the excitement the way any young lad would be. And if it’s adventure he wants, that’s certainly what he gets – in the end, his journey to Laputa starts to feel all too real as he and Sheeta begin to realise the lengths others will go to for the power Laputa holds. While the chase starts out almost cartoonishly silly with a band of pirates tearing after them, by the time they actually reach Laputa they find themselves being shot at and witnessing the cold murder of hundreds of soldiers. In finding the lost city, both Pazu and Sheeta are confronted with some of the worst aspects of humanity, turning the quest into a kind of grim coming-of-age narrative for both of them.

Pazu being shot at

Still, through it all, Pazu remains his innocent, fun-loving self, even after he’s begun to take on a more solemn disposition during his interactions with Muska. He’s a carefree, roll-with-the-punches kind of guy who doesn’t let hardships faze him for long, with his gritty upbringing giving him a solid core of self-reliance beneath his sunny exterior as well as a range of useful skills and connections. Pazu’s friends in the mining community and his engineering abilities all help him and Sheeta on their way to Laputa, particularly when he manages to impress Dola and her pirate gang enough to earn their respect and win a place aboard their ship. The physical strength he’s honed from his job also comes in handy at Laputa itself, as he spider-monkeys his way around the place like it’s nothing.

Pazu and Sheeta laid in the grass

By the end of the film, Pazu has resolved his own conflict regarding his father’s belief in Laputa, but he has also gained something very special that he didn’t even realise he needed – companionship. The extroverted Pazu might not have been lonely, exactly, but he was still living in a run-down old mill by himself, seemingly interacting only with adults due to his demanding job at the mine.

In Sheeta, Pazu finds a likeminded friend who understands his drive to find Laputa, but he also gets an equal of his own age who he can simply goof around with (I don’t personally see them as romantic interests, at least not until they’re older). Their childlike delight when they first wake up together in Laputa is a lovely character moment for the two of them and one of the film’s most recognisable images.

Finding Laputa for real may have exposed Pazu to horrors that he was far too young to witness, but his inner strength and his faith in his beliefs kept him going throughout it all, making him a rock for Sheeta in a time of great turmoil and a valuable friend to her thereafter. He may not be the most complex character Miyazaki has ever created, but darn if he isn’t one of the most loveable.

Sheeta meeting Pazu on the roof

So, let’s take a look at Pazu’s bestie, a young lass called Sheeta – or, to use her full name, Lusheeta Toel Ur Laputa. As her name suggests, she turns out to have more of a connection to Laputa than either she or Pazu could have guessed, but there’s far more to her than her identity as a Laputian descendant. {Interestingly, Sheeta’s name was apparently derived from the mathematical symbol θ, or the theta – not from the Ramayana, as many fans assume. The correct romanization of her name would have been “Shita”, but for obvious reasons Disney couldn’t go with that}. Sheeta’s character went through numerous changes and in earlier drafts she was actually going to be a daughter of the pirates, resembling Nausicaä more in design, but I love the angle they eventually settled on.

Like Pazu, Sheeta is an orphan – we’re given no more explanation than simply being told that her parents died, leaving her to manage a farm all by herself. As we later learn, she was abducted from her farm one day by “the men,” one of whom was Muska, a ruthless and greedy bloke who’s also on the trail of Laputa for his own secret reasons. Their target was not Sheeta herself, but an ancient crystal she possesses that was passed down to her by her family. After being smuggled onto an airship which is then attacked by pirates also after her crystal, it’s understandable that Sheeta begins to have misgivings about keeping it in her possession.

Pazu and Sheeta float together

Thank goodness she does hold onto it, though, as it turns out to have a protective power that only she is able to activate. Several times during the perilous chase in the first half of the film, the crystal outright saves her life, so it’s not long before she and her new friend Pazu begin to work out the connection to Laputa – but it isn’t until Muska translates her old family name for her that Sheeta realises, beyond any doubt, that she is a descendent of Laputian royalty.

What makes Sheeta so engaging, however, is not her identity as a hidden princess, something which countless Disney films would have had a field day with. Like many Ghibli heroines, her appeal lies in her positive attitude and inner strength, qualities she shares with Pazu and which consequently make them a good match for one another.

While she is more introverted than her boisterous friend, Sheeta is still more than capable of taking care of herself, something I love to see – just think of all the moments of badassery she has in this film! She may only be a young girl, but we still see her knock out a grown man with a bottle, knock out two grown men with a shovel, outright tackle another man to the ground for trying to shoot her friend, and even steal her crystal back from a deranged Muska with brute force before facing his gunshots with nary a flinch. As one pirate puts it in the dub, “That’s a strong little girl!”

Sheeta smacks Muska with a bottleSheeta smacks the pirates with a shovelSheeta smacks the henchman in the gutSheeta wrestles Muska for the crystal

Some fans have criticised Sheeta in comparison to other Ghibli heroines for being a “damsel in distress,” but I don’t think that’s entirely fair. She is, after all, still only a little girl rather than a grown woman, and yet she displays far more resilience than many other girls that age would in her situation. As we see in her interactions with Dola, she’s also not afraid to stand up for herself and what she believes in, often challenging Dola’s orders when she feels they’re unfair.

Like Pazu, her interest in Laputa is not material but psychological, as she yearns to explore her own connection to the ancient culture she is descended from, but she still puts Pazu’s life before any of that and ultimately relinquishes her claim over the city for the sake of mankind. It is this moral righteousness which Muska takes advantage of when he manipulates her into asking Pazu to leave, which she only does because she wants him to get to safety, away from her crystal. I suppose it could be argued that she doesn’t have many weaknesses beyond her naïveté, but then we only spend a few days with the character, so we don’t really get to see that many sides of her.

Pazu and Sheeta saying balus

Sheeta’s arc culminates with a massive decision, on which the fate of the world below may hang. When she and Pazu use the spell of destruction on Laputa, she is giving up an entire kingdom, but she has the maturity to accept that no one person is fit to wield such power and it is better off being relinquished. She is perhaps the only person in the world with a legitimate right to take control of the city, but after realising how corruptive its power can be, she makes the wise choice to sacrifice it in order to keep greedy creeps like Muska from misusing it. Her attitude appeals to the softer side of the hardened pirate captain, Dola, who sees a lot of herself in Sheeta and comes to admire the girl’s upstanding moral principles, even if she doesn’t necessarily embody them herself.

The thing about Sheeta is that she’s very human, displaying a great deal of empathy and sensitivity (even for robots) that makes it easy for even the youngest viewers to side with her. When the reawakened Laputian robot soldier is destroying Tedis Fort with his guns, her terror of his powers is still overcome by her concern for him once he’s been shot; she also grieves his death long afterwards, in stark contrast to Muska’s callous disregard for it once it’s been destroyed.

Sheeta rolling up her sleeves in galley

Sheeta has the same kind of plucky, “can-do” approach to the adventure as Pazu does, something which quickly earns her the respect of both him and the pirates. As she puts it once, “I grew up in the mountains; I can do this!” I know I’m a self-confessed Disney fanboy, but I can still see why girls like Sheeta make for better role models than the likes of, say, Aurora – when something needs to be done, she rolls up her sleeves and dives right in, never turning into a burden the way a character like this so easily could have.

One small scene which sums up her personality beautifully is when Dola stations her in the Tiger Moth’s galley, giving her one hour to turn the filthy, dish-laden cesspit into a working kitchen – some kids her age would have blanched at the task, but Sheeta rises to the challenge and successfully cleans the whole place by herself in the allotted time, validating Dola’s trust and endearing herself to the old seadog. Who would have guessed that a princess would make such a great pirate!

Sheeta emotional in the garden

At the end of her long journey to Laputa, Sheeta has been put through hell – kidnapped, chased and manipulated, she’s even had her pigtails shot off, yet through it all, she’s remained the same kind and compassionate person she always was. Actually, losing her pigtails is rather symbolic, as this happens right before she rejects Laputa’s power with the spell of destruction, thus freeing herself of the burden of the crystal once and for all.

Pazu and Sheeta in the kite at the end

Her crystal has been hung like a millstone around her neck for the entire story, making her a target of all sorts of cruelty and causing havoc wherever she goes. Similarly, her hair has frequently gotten in the way; it ruins her disguise and allows the pirates to spot her, and characters are constantly grabbing her by the pigtail to stop her running away. At the end, she finally stands free of both, sporting a new, more mature haircut to symbolise her growth into a young woman who is now free to choose her own path in life. With Pazu loyally by her side, they fly off into a new future together, filled with new adventures and new possibilities. Sheeta may be a princess, but she’s not about to wait around for someone to rescue her.

Dola talking on the phone

We come now to the third of our central characters, the gregarious matriarch of the pirate gang – Dola. Miyazaki initially toyed with depicting this character as a frail old biddy who would be carried about by her massive sons, but he ultimately made the decision to show her as tougher and more capable than they were, which really works to her advantage.

Dola (“Call me Captain!”) greatly enjoys what she does, making her very compelling to watch. She and her crew are the first characters we meet as we witness their late-night raid on the airship carrying Sheeta. This first scene showcases all the best aspects of her character at once – she’s a skilled pilot and a better fighter than most of her sons, carrying out her missions with swift efficiency in spite of their bumbling incompetence, but she also notably refrains from shooting any civilians, thus demonstrating a respect for innocent life that Muska so blatantly lacks.

Dola stands on her car

After just barely losing Sheeta, Dola manages to track her down to Slag Ravine after only a single night’s thorough searching, at which point she’s right back on the girl’s tail. She’s tactical and subtle when it suits her, but as soon as her sons blow their cover she dispenses with the element of surprise and takes charge of the chase herself, once again coming to within a whisker of snagging her prize before Sheeta slips through her fingers a second time.

Dola is a feisty and energetic character despite her age, always spoiling for a fight and ready with a sharp retort, but she has more finesse than her sons and it’s easy to see why she’s so good at her job. While she doesn’t shy away from a challenge, she’s also far from reckless, always calculating her odds and planning the best strategy for the situation at hand, an approach which has undoubtedly gotten her through plenty of scrapes before this.

Dola appraising Pazu

I think one of the main reasons fans love Dola so much is because of her hidden depths; there’s more to her than meets the eye, which soon becomes clear once she and Pazu have a little face-off at his home. From only the scant evidence of the gold coins Pazu was given by Muska, Dola quickly works out what’s happened and wastes no time in chastising Pazu for leaving Sheeta in the hands of the army. Having been around the block, so to speak, she recognises a bribe when she sees one, and Pazu is utterly disgusted with himself when he realises what he’s been tricked into doing.

Still, Dola hasn’t gotten where she is by being a poor judge of character, either, so when Pazu immediately begs to be given the chance to make amends and join them in their assault on the fort, she decides to take him along. Dola works fast, but Pazu is able to keep up, so they all set out for Tedis to rescue Sheeta… and her crystal.

Dola glad to see Pazu and Sheeta

After successfully getting the girl back, Dola’s “sensitive” side begins to be drawn out into the open through her interactions with the kids. Though she’d be the last to admit it, she does come to care about them and admires the way they turn their hands to the work she gives them without complaining; with Sheeta’s knowledge of the crystal and Pazu’s theories on Laputa, she even comes to rely on their advice, elevating them to the position of navigators in the final push to reach the city. Given the type of company she usually keeps, it’s no surprise to see how impressed she is at finally having some crewmembers with a little initiative!

Dola says a cloud
“I’m surrounded by idiots…”

While Dola’s position as a pirate does, admittedly, leave her in a morally grey area, her thirst for the treasures of Laputa is still outweighed by her concern for Pazu and Sheeta in the end, and although she loses most of the riches to the clouds, her relief at seeing them safe speaks volumes about what truly matters to her in the end. Dola’s arc actually reminded me a lot of John Silver’s in Treasure Planet; like her, he was another hammy rapscallion with a lust for treasure who was eventually softened by the friendship of a young protégée.

Silver was a highlight in his film just as Dola is a highlight of hers, and I applaud Miyazaki for creating such a fascinating and layered character in such a simplistic adventure story as this. Lord knows middle-aged women are rarely allowed a chance to shine in fiction, especially not in animation, so it’s a real treat to find one as enjoyable and entertaining as Dola every now and then.

Muska talking about Laputa in dungeon

Rounding out the core cast is our main antagonist, who is unusually clear-cut for a Ghibli villain. Colonel Muska has a longer, secret name much like Sheeta’s – Romuska Palo Ur Laputa – because he, too, has a distant connection to the ancient Laputian royalty. This knowledge forms the basis of his entire character, as it’s turned him into a kind of crazy blood purist who believes it is his divine right to seize control of Laputa and “restore it to life,” crushing anyone who gets in his way. Mark Hamill’s excellent performance in Disney’s dub really brings Muska to life; Hamill apparently based his act on David Hyde Pierce, who also happens to have been in Treasure Planet.

On the surface, Muska seems a bit one-dimensional by Ghibli standards, but this was a deliberate choice, as Miyazaki was harkening back to a particular style of classic adventure stories that he grew up with. Back then, the good guys and the bad guys were more sharply differentiated, and after all, who doesn’t love a good scenery-chewing villain?

Muska in a meeting with the General

However, Muska does not simply storm into the film screaming and hollering from the beginning. For much of his screen-time he’s actually quite mellow and pleasant, putting on a faux “affably evil” façade while showing the audience a more sinister side when his back’s turned. He’s clearly well-educated and has a suave, almost genteel manner in his dealings with his enemies, but his refined background has also made him snobbish and he has a tendency to sneer at everybody he interacts with (particularly General Muoro, who is admittedly not an easy man to like himself).

Muska talking to Sheeta in the dungeon

Muska’s main relationship in the film is with Sheeta, as their shared connection as Laputian descendants – as well as Sheeta’s precious crystal – makes her of interest to him. At first, he tries playing the good cop to the army’s bad cop, pretending to be on her side to try and get information on the city’s whereabouts out of her, but his attempts to appeal to her own interest in Laputa fail because she’s not nearly as materialistic and greedy as he is. Suspecting that Pazu might cause problems, he strong-arms her into asking him to leave so there won’t be any loose ends to tie up (I guess that was better than just killing him), but he’s at a loss as to how to get anything else out of the girl.

Muska and Sheeta looking at activated crystal

That’s when Muska has a stroke of luck. During her confinement at Tedis Fort, Sheeta absentmindedly recalls an old spell her grandmother taught her to use in times of distress, but by reciting it out loud, she accidentally awakens her crystal. This in turn awakens a dormant Laputian robot downstairs, which promptly starts destroying the fort in its attempts to protect her. In the ensuing fracas Sheeta loses the crystal and Muska finds it, still active, with its light now pointing the way to the city for all to see. The race is on.

Muska reading notes in the crystal room

It’s only once Muska and company have reached Laputa that his true colours begin to rise to the surface. As he frantically makes his way closer and closer to the heart of the ancient kingdom, his patience begins to wear thin and Mark Hamill’s inner ham comes bursting out, with Muska quickly spiralling into a kind of psychotic power trip as he wields the full might of Laputian technology for himself.

Muska watching Goliath burn

I know it seems wrong to say this, but it’s only after Muska begins to lose it that he becomes truly fun; the mask falls away to reveal an insanely cruel monster with a sociopathic tendency to lord it over all those he considers beneath him – which is basically everybody. The first time you watch the film (which Miyazaki was aiming at young kids, remember), it can be quite a jolt to see Muska sending an entire army plummeting to their deaths on a whim, bombing their ship to smithereens and shooting our heroine at point-blank range, but somehow the deranged laughter he emits while doing so makes it more bearable to watch. Nothing beats a villain who’s having fun!

Of course, in keeping with his black-and-white portrayal, Muska also falls victim to one of the darker fates in the Ghibli canon. Since there’s obviously no way he can be redeemed or reasoned with, Miyazaki gleefully does away with him, first by blinding him with the very power of the crystal he’s so eager to use, then finishing the job by sending him tumbling to his death amidst the debris of the collapsing city. If you look closely, you can just make out his falling body in certain frames… brrr.

Muska taunting Sheeta in throne room

Ultimately, what spells Muska’s doom is his inability to appreciate the beauty of nature over material possessions, a common theme in Miyazaki’s works. We see this most clearly in his reactions within the interior of Laputa; where Pazu and Sheeta found everything they wanted in the bountiful gardens up above, Muska is disgusted by the “dirty, ugly, disgusting things” he finds growing in the old throne room, angrily brushing aside plants as he attempts to resurrect the dead culture of the Laputians.

He also stands in stark contrast to Dola and her gang because of this crucial difference. While they both appear to be just as greedy as each other at first, we later see that it is only Laputa’s treasures Dola is after, as opposed to the power of rulership that Muska seeks. Dola never harms anyone unnecessarily in her efforts to reach her goal, so while she may be materialistic, she is never cruel.

Muska on the other hand clearly has a complex, no doubt about that, perhaps suffering some kind of neglect or persecution in his youth, as he seems determined to gain power just so that he can use it to hurt and dominate others. Sheeta’s dubbed line about how “the world cannot live without love” might not be strictly accurate, but it definitely applies to Muska even so – the guy wouldn’t know love if it snuck up and tied his shoelaces together.

General Muoro blast I really hate that man

Now for our supporting cast! To start with, let’s take a quick look at General Muoro, a military hot-head who is reluctantly working with Muska for much of the film in order to reach Laputa. The two of them plainly can’t stand one another, probably because the General is rather more ill-bred than the sophisticated Muska (despite his rank) and resents the man for making him feel small. Like many men in authority, Muoro also strongly dislikes being bossed about by a superior, making Muska’s presence even more intolerable to him. He has quite a temper problem and spends most of his scenes seething with perpetual anger, but even then, he’s still not as awful as Muska when push comes to shove.

Muoro and Muska giving opposite orders
This shot perfectly captures the differences between the two.

General Muoro quite neatly summarises Miyazaki’s feelings towards the military in general, with his corpulence and unpleasant demeanour inviting all sorts of unflattering comparisons. Compared to Muska, Muoro is made to look embarrassingly inept and pathetic, never managing to stay on top of things and always making mistakes which threaten to jeopardise the mission. From a comment he makes at Tedis Fort, it can also be assumed that he’s not above torturing a little girl if it will get him the information he needs. What a guy.

General Muoro about to shoot Muska

Despite all of this, though, Miyazaki still manages to make us feel a little sorry for him in the film’s third act as Muska steps up his villainy to monstrous proportions. For all their greed, Muoro and his men are shown to be merely misguided rather than truly evil, and we side with him when he whips out a pistol and tries to finally silence the smug Muska once and for all. Unfortunately, he cannot grasp the futuristic holographic technology of the Laputians and fails to realise that Muska is not really there, so with a final nasty flourish, Muska drops Muoro and all of his men into the sea far below, never to be seen again.

It’s actually kind of disturbing how quickly this moment goes by, all to the soundtrack of Muska’s maniacal laughter. Muoro may not have been the nicest fellow, but good grief… nobody deserves a death like that.

Charles fights Mr Duffi
Charles getting into a brawl.
Louis offers to help Sheeta
Louis acting awkward with Sheeta.
Henri frisking Pazu
Henri frisking Pazu.

Oh boy… so we’ve finally reached these clowns, have we? Yes, it’s time to talk about Dola’s sons, who have different names depending on the source you consult. The eldest, with a small thin moustache, is named either Louis or Lui and may have been the result of an affair Dola had in Spain, while the middle, heavily bearded brother is named either Charles or Shalulu (Shalulu?) and the freckled, redheaded youngest son is named either Henri or Anli. Apparently, Miyazaki named them all after French kings, but unluckily for Dola, they fail to live up to the grand expectations such names suggest.

The great thing about these three is how unlikely their personalities are compared to their brawny bodies. Miyazaki was evidently having a lot of fun with these buffoons, as they’re all total mommy’s boys who are completely under Dola’s thumb, mainly because they’re all so inept that they’re basically living in her shadow. I’d love to know more about how they were raised; in fact, you could probably make a great prequel film (or fanfiction) on the subject if you were so inclined.

Louis and Charles eating with Dola at Pazu's

Although Dola is capable of organising them into a pretty slick team when the need arises, their own petty infighting and childish spats often threaten to unravel her carefully laid plans (“Leave it to my little idiots to start a riot!”). She does love them in her own way, but it’s easy to see why she gets so frustrated with them – and why Sheeta and Pazu make such welcome additions to her crew.

Though they are presented as quite antagonistic in the earlier scenes, as the film progresses and the kids become part of their team, they begin to warm up to them and view them almost as peers (both socially and mentally, by the look of it). The boys add a spark of innocent fun to the proceedings and demonstrate the correct way to use comic relief in a more serious story, with their ramblings about their favourite desserts and gleeful shipping of Pazu and Sheeta.

{A small note on that part: I think this aspect of their presentation is affected by which dub you’re watching, as it seems to only be present in Disney’s dub. It is a tad weird to see a grown man with a full beard declaring his love for a little girl in pigtails, but in context it’s not as bad as it sounds – the boys are simply very sheltered and the moment is not meant in a sexual way}.

Louis offers a blanket to Pazu

Taken as individuals, there are some subtle differences to the sons’ personalities, although they’re not given much time to be fleshed out. Charles – or Shalulu – is clearly the “muscle,” as evidenced in that side-splitting scene where he enters a random shirt-busting contest with Pazu’s boss in Slag Ravine. Louis, meanwhile, is perhaps just a little bit more sensitive than his brothers, being the first to recognise Pazu’s devotion to Sheeta, offering the lad a blanket before sending him on watch, and clearly worrying about them when they don’t show up in time to escape Laputa. As for Henry, he is perhaps the least distinctive, although as the youngest his childish behaviour feels the most appropriate coming from him.

Pirate crew on flaptor train

In case you were wondering, the official word is that not all of Dola’s sizeable crew is made up of her sons… although a few of the others could be, as she seems to have gotten around in her younger days! I can’t even begin to tell you which is which, but apparently, the subordinates are named Ka, Ki, Ku, Ke and Ko – together with Dola, Motro, her sons and Pazu and Sheeta, that makes for a crew of around a dozen.

Motro being introduced

Speaking of Motro (whose name may actually be a butchered translation of “Motoro”), he is the final member of Dola’s pirate crew, acting as the Tiger Moth’s engineer as well as possibly being Dola’s husband and / or father to some of the boys. (Her personal life is so murky, someone really needs to get onto that fanfiction).

Also known as “the Old Engineer” in the cast lists, Motro was added to the film quite late to give Pazu a mentor figure to look up to onboard the Tiger Moth, as well as giving Dola someone her own age to socialise with. He was affectionately dubbed mogura oyaji by the crew (“old man mole”) due to his design, and many fans have noted his resemblance to Dr. Robotnik as well.

Motro playing chess with DolaMotro with Pazu honest pirate of us all

Motro’s presence in the film may only be small, but he’s an enjoyable addition. His sons (?) build him up to be a rather imposing presence before they introduce Pazu to him, but this turns out not to be true – he’s actually pretty laidback. It’s just that he doesn’t suffer fools gladly, to put it mildly, and given that he’s used to dealing with a bunch of “half-baked swashbuckling Casanova wannabes”, it’s understandable that the boys would find his patience wearing thin more often than not.

Once Pazu joins him in the engine room, Motro quickly takes a liking to the boy in the same way that Dola does to Sheeta, essentially replacing Mr. Duffi’s role in Pazu’s life as the two of them work to keep the Tiger Moth aloft. He’s shown to be a good judge of character, recognising Pazu’s talent and putting it to good use, but this also allows him to handle Dola’s prickly personality and he isn’t at all fazed by her outbursts, cheerfully noting her resemblance to Sheeta while beating her at chess.

Motro crying for his ship

We see in the third act that Motro’s ship is his pride and joy, so he doesn’t take its destruction at the hands of the army very well at all. If you watch closely, you’ll see that just as the Goliath is shooting the Tiger Moth out of the sky, Motro comes rushing up out of the engine room at the very last second, standing by his beloved machinery to the end. Later, after the escape from Laputa, he’s also the only one more concerned about the Tiger Moth than the kids, sobbing over its loss while Dola glares at him over her shoulder. He’s hysterical, and a bit of a favourite for me if I’m being honest.

Uncle Pom waving goodbye

That’s it for the inhabitants of the Tiger Moth – now how about those who live in Slag Ravine? Pazu’s fellow citizens are a hardy bunch, but before we explore his closer friends, we must take a look at this intriguing little bloke. Uncle Pom… who on earth is this guy? Miyazaki described him as a mixture of animator Yoshifumi Kondō plus his mentor Yasuji Mori, added together “and divided by two”. He appears to be very old and wise, telling the kids that etherium crystals of the sort Sheeta possesses haven’t been around since before his great-grandfather’s time, but he also gives them some important (if heavy-handed) advice about respecting the crystal’s power and not using it for “selfish reasons”.

Pazu and Sheeta meet him in the abandoned mining caverns beneath the town, shortly after escaping Dola’s gang and the military. It’s never made clear who exactly he is in relation to Pazu, but they do least seem to know one another, and he shares a peaceful moment with the two before they continue their journey in which he reveals some valuable information about Laputa.

Uncle Pom wide-eyed at crystal

Uncle Pom is so funny in his understated way, just showing up in a random tunnel talking to the rocks and muttering about goblins, and while he’s basically just there for exposition (which isn’t subtle at all) I still enjoy the heck out of him. His scene with Pazu and Sheeta is one of the film’s few quiet, reflective moments and it comes with some gorgeous imagery of the etherium rocks glittering all around them. The respite he offers may only be brief, but it’s very welcome to the two young travellers as they haven’t even had time to eat their breakfast yet. Sadly, no sooner have they left Pom’s mine than they wind up captured, so it’s a good thing they found him at all.

Mr Duffi close-up outside home

Of all the residents of Slag Ravine that we meet, the only ones with any real screen-time are Pazu’s boss, Mr. Duffi, and his family, Okami and Madge, who are his wife and daughter, respectively. Mr. Duffi was the product of Miyazaki’s trip to Wales and speaking as a UK resident, he thus feels distinctly recognisable. I may not be Welsh, but the traditional man of northern England is very similar to Duffi so I know the type well – stoic, hard-working and a man of few words, Duffi is almost like a parody of stereotypical masculinity, but given that this is 1986 and set somewhere around the 1900s, his character is not deconstructed in the way that a modern film might try to do.

To be fair, that wouldn’t feel right in this setting anyway, and I have no problem with the way he’s presented because it feels appropriate for this character’s background. Like many real miners in Wales during the eighties, Duffi is struggling to make ends meet in a society that heavily relies on the mines for basic income, because all the local ones are coming up empty and business is dangerously slow. He keeps a stiff upper lip about it and rarely lets his frustrations show, but it’s clear in his despondency at the end of another hard day that the situation has him worried.

Mr Duffi working with Pazu in mine

The angle may not be explored too thoroughly, but it’s important to remember that Duffi is now the closest thing to a father that Pazu has left. It’s possible he was friends with Pazu’s dad before his untimely demise and may even be the boy’s godfather, although more likely he simply saw the lad’s potential and took him in in exchange for him earning his keep at the mine. He’s a good (if gruff) mentor to the lad and coaches him through the difficult tasks, while also giving him free reign to try his hand at the more mundane ones to give him a better feel for them.

Later, when the pirates show up and show signs of wanting to hurt Pazu, Duffi steps up to defend him in his own quiet way, facing the brawny Charles and matching him pound for pound in a fight which he’s clearly enjoying – perhaps it’s a way for him to relieve some of the pressure! It’s good to know Pazu has someone like Duffi looking out for him and the man offers a sense of security that the orphaned lad must sorely need.

Okami close-up

His family, Okami and Madge, play only a minor part, but neither wastes a second of her screen-time. According to the art book, Okami is meant to be just twenty years old (!), but having lived such a hard life she already looks much older. She is almost as stocky and stoic as her husband and keeps a cool head under pressure, quickly sizing up the situation when the pirates arrive and hurrying the girls (and an indignant Pazu) to safety.

After pointing out that Pazu needs to protect Sheeta and sneaking them out the back, she then returns to the street in time to witness her husband diving into a brawl with Charles, which she watches with stony indifference like she sees it every day… and probably does. Even when her husband’s sheer musculature is enough to tear his shirt to shreds, her only reaction is to point out that she’s not about to mend it for him – leaving him looking rather awkward, as he probably can’t afford to replace it.

Later, we also see Okami again after Pazu has returned alone from Tedis Fort. She’s been keeping an eye out for the boy and is obviously relieved to see him get home safe, but little does she know that it won’t last for long, as the pirates are already holed up and waiting back at his place.

Madge chases a pig out of the house

Even little Madge, the couple’s daughter, is a bit of a scene-stealer. We see her behind her mother eagerly puffing out her chest and ready to join Pazu in the brawl alongside her father, before she’s quickly whisked to safety by her mum. Her forward, outgoing nature is further displayed later when we see her chasing a pig out of her house with a broom just as Pazu returns. I wouldn’t want to mess with her when she grows up! (Incidentally, she also looks like a sort of prototype of Ponyo with her messy red hair).

Train Operator close-up

We also meet an unnamed Train Operator during Pazu and Sheeta’s desperate flight from the pirates, who helps them aboard and offers to run them to the nearest police station. His attitude is a typical example of the friendly and cooperative community in Slag Ravine, with everybody ready to lend a hand wherever it’s needed without expecting anything in return. Just as he and the kids think they’ve escaped Dola’s gang, they then run into an armoured military train – the Train Operator calls out jovially to ask for their help, but as soon as it becomes apparent that they’re after Sheeta too, he’s quick to create a diversion with a little hot steam.

Robot soldier close-up

The two Laputian robots we spend time with during the film are the closest links the characters (and the audience) have with the lost culture of Laputa, and like many other Miyazaki characters, their unique designs have made them icons of Studio Ghibli in Japan and abroad.

Both robots are deeply loyal to their programming, fulfilling their purposes no matter what obstacles – physical or otherwise – they may encounter. The soldier robot at Tedis Fort has been there for quite some time and gave Muska the first solid proof he needed that Laputa really existed. Once Sheeta arrives and accidentally awakens him with her crystal, he recognises her blood status and devotes his final moments to defending her from the army, much to her despair. It’s honestly quite heart-breaking to see her clutching desperately at his massive fingers while he slowly sinks into a molten pile of rubble, still attempting to salute her.

Gardener robot close-up

Later, on Laputa, she and Pazu then meet another, gentler robot who works as a sort of gardener, although as the last of his kind, his duties far exceed his abilities and the place has become wonderfully overgrown. Even centuries after the last Laputians have died, this lone robot (who reminds me greatly of WALL-E) still dutifully takes flowers to their graves as a token of worship and continues to carry out his stewarding role as best he can. Pazu and Sheeta are moved by his devotion to the creatures of Laputa and his existence demonstrates the potential beauty of the place which Muska, blinded by his greed, cannot see.

Robot army pursuing soldiers

Of course, we cannot forget that these are robots that are beholden to their programming. Lest we get too attached to these “artificial lifeforms,” Miyazaki makes it clear that they’re only benevolent to Sheeta because of her status as a Laputian descendant; once the similarly “noble” Muska harnesses their powers, they become unstoppable killing machines that make short work of the hulking Goliath, massacring hundreds of relatively innocent soldiers in seconds. At the end of the day, Miyazaki shows us that you should never place too much trust in technology, as it can so easily be used destructively in the wrong hands.

Pazu's father close-up

To close this section, let’s spend just a moment on the only two of the kids’ relatives that we get to see. Pazu’s father, as mentioned above, was an adventurous chap who was out looking for Laputa before Pazu was even born. In later years, his passion for proving the legend true got the better of him and it’s implied that he died while searching for it, leaving his young son to find his way in life alone, but he and his son were obviously close and Pazu still idolises his dad’s memory. His mother, never even mentioned, was perhaps a victim of childbirth, a notorious killer in those times.

Miyazaki’s word on the subject was that the parents were absent because they “would never say anything very helpful anyway.” Wow… fair enough! At least Pazu’s father does provide his son with the motivation to help Sheeta find Laputa, years later; having inherited his dad’s love of flying machines, Pazu is able to fulfil the quest that killed him, but it’s not quite the triumphant moment his father would have expected.

Sheeta's grandmother close-up

In keeping with the theme of learning from our elders, Sheeta’s grandmother also imparted a valuable lesson to her granddaughter before her passing which ultimately saves the day. By passing down the knowledge of the spell of destruction, she ensured that Sheeta would always have some power to turn to when she was feeling helpless, but she also unwittingly gave her the keys to thwarting Muska, as Sheeta would eventually use the same spell to keep Laputa’s powers out of his grasp.

Animation

Castle in the Sky was animated by Ghibli for their publisher, Tokuma Shoten (who had already published Nausicaä beforehand) and was distributed in Japan by Toei Kabushiki Kaisha. Leading the team on this film were Yoshinori Kanada as head key animator and Tsukasa Tannai as overall animation director, with the work beginning in early 1985 and continuing through the rest of the year. Running to just over two hours, Castle in the Sky is unusually long by animation standards, containing anywhere from 69,000 to 75,000 individual cels and a colour palette ranging through 381 different shades.

Sheeta's crystal saves her in prologueEtherium rock close-up

In these pre-digital days, the special effects employed in hand-drawn animated films could get amazingly complex. For instance, the scene in which Sheeta falls from the airship in the prologue and is saved by her crystal’s power required eleven layers of cels, three types of lighting, a bit of xerography and even a little Christmas tinsel placed strategically beneath the layers to get just the right shimmer. Elsewhere, a deceptively simple shot of smoke rising lazily from Pazu’s chimney necessitated double mask superimposition, while the glittering etherium cavern of Uncle Pom used lith film with double exposures and mixed colour overlap to create the right effect. The use of double exposures was also applied to achieve the holographic effect at Laputa – it was all about layering, piling up great stacks of cels to create depth like an old multiplane camera would.

I’m sure the animators themselves were greatly relieved when the advent of computers rendered all this technical manoeuvring unnecessary, but for the enthusiast, classics like these are a real treat to watch from a modern perspective, giving us a glimpse of what the medium was really capable of back when it was done entirely by hand.

Flaptors flying past burning churchLaputa collapse close-up

In terms of individual scenes, the highlights include the battle at Tedis Fort in which the Laputian robot singlehandedly destroys the place while protecting Sheeta, and the collapse of Laputa in the climax. Both involve a great deal of individual elements and carefully choreographed movement, showing off the animator’s skills to their best advantage.

One minor criticism I would make, however, is that the character designs are perhaps a little less inventive than those of later Ghibli films. It may just be a quirk of the anime style, but Sheeta has basically the same face as Satsuki, Kiki and Nausicaä, and Pazu too has a fairly generic look. This early in Ghibli’s history, the animators had perhaps not yet found their feet when it came to character design, but the choice may also have been deliberate to emphasise their “everyman” qualities. As I said above, this isn’t really a character-driven film; it’s all about the settings, which are much more visually interesting than most of the cast (although Dola is a colourful exception).

Make your shirt explode
“And every last inch of me’s covered with HAIR!”

Oh, and I can’t forget to mention the “make your shirt explode” scene – it’s perhaps the funniest in all of Ghibli, a total farce of masculine posturing taken to a ridiculous extreme that never fails to crack me up. I always love to see gags which are sold largely on the animation itself rather than the writing and this is definitely one of the best.

Plot

When the film was still in development, the title went through a number of changes as Miyazaki tried to decide which element of the story he wanted to emphasise. Most of these early titles began with “Young Pazu / The Boy Pazu”, with suggestions for the remainder including “… and the Mystery of the Etherium / Levitation Crystal,” “… and the Prisoner / Captive of the Castle in the Sky,” “… and the Flying Treasure Island / Kingdom / Empire.” Maybe it’s just me, but they all seem quite clunky, so I’m glad the “Young Pazu” bit was eventually dropped.

Of course, the final title still generated some controversy due to it unwittingly containing a Spanish expletive – La puta translates roughly to “the wh*re” – but foreign distributors got around this by simple dropping Laputa from the title. This is why my American readers might only know this film as Castle in the Sky, since the original title could have been taken the wrong way by your large Hispanic population. (I know it’s childish, but I can’t help sniggering at the Spanish reading of the title – what kind of seedy kingdom were these Laputians running?)

Laputa_-_Grandville
1838 illustration for Gulliver’s Travels, J.J. Grandville

As it turned out, the notoriously self-critical Miyazaki wasn’t all that impressed with the final story of the film, with comments from various interviews on the subject suggesting that he found it rather fluffy and half-baked, but for all that, he didn’t dislike the film because of this. It may just be the perfectionist in him talking since he seemed to feel that the story could have been improved had they had a longer schedule, but part of his problem might have been a fear that modern audiences would be too jaded to enjoy a classic adventure like this, with practically every corner of the world long explored by the eighties.

It’s worth remembering that he didn’t have a great deal of material to work with when adapting the tale, for although the film was loosely based on Jonathan Swift’s famous 1726 novel Gulliver’s Travels, Gulliver himself only spent a small portion of that story in Laputa himself (amusingly, Swift spoke several languages and probably knew full well what la puta meant). The only real similarity is the setting of a floating city, which was taken from the original, although critic Anthony Lioi has pointed out that the kingdom’s technology being harnessed for political gain is also a theme taken from Swift’s book.

Floating cities in prologue

Apparently, the first draft of the film’s story included a full history of Laputa which was inspired by Aristotle’s 350 BCE work On the Heavens (attributed to Plato in some source material), which further ties Miyazaki’s film to Swift’s novel as Gulliver has a conversation with said philosopher’s ghost during his stay in Laputa (it makes sense in context). In Miyazaki’s lore, Laputa was devastated by a strange and aggressive disease around 500 BCE, but it was rumoured that some escaped and retreated to live among the other people below, thus explaining where Sheeta and Muska came from. However, Muska says in the film that the place has been without a king for seven hundred years, so if we take the setting to be around 1900, that would place the desertion of Laputa closer to 1200… but then, who’s counting?

Laputian language

The Laputian language seen briefly in the film is represented by cuneiform script, invented by the Sumerians as one of the earliest writing systems. This further hints at Laputa’s ancient heritage and ties it in to other, similar sites like Atlantis (incidentally, when Disney adapted that legend for the screen over a decade later, they drew much inspiration from this film, although they went to the trouble of inventing a whole new language for their lost civilisation).

Thematically, the film has more in common with Swift’s novel than you might think, with both works exploring ideas of might versus right, the individual versus society and the limits of human understanding, but the overriding themes are Miyazaki staples. Chief among them is the celebration of nature and its contrast with the use (and abuse) of technology, as well as the evils of the military and their plundering of cultural sites, and the value of friendship over material gain.

Gullivers_Travels_Beyond_the_Moon_(1965)

Finally, if you were wondering where this Japanese director got the idea of adapting a British story like this in the first place, you might be interested to learn that one of the early projects on which Miyazaki got his start as an inbetweener was a 1965 Toei feature called Gulliver’s Travels Beyond the Moon. His work on the ending of that film was notable enough to bring him to the studio’s attention and he progressed to key animation in his next projects, so he undoubtedly felt he owed Swift’s story a lot.

Cinematography

The art direction of the film was shared by Nizô Yamamoto and Toshirô Nozaki who, according to Miyazaki, inspired each other to greater artistic heights than either could have achieved individually, bringing out the best in each other and elevating their work to a spectacular standard. Whatever reservations the director may have had about the story, he was very pleased with the artwork of the finished piece.

Miyazaki described the setting as “vaguely European,” but Slag Ravine, at least, was distinctly Welsh thanks to the director’s visit to that country before production began. His earlier forays into European settings in his television work had tended to be more alpine, with lots of Swiss, German and Italian elements, but somehow, he and his artists still managed to make this dusty old mining town look so pretty and inviting. Something about the lighting and the shape language of the place gives it a sort of warm, cosy vibe that makes you want to visit, even though such places in reality were hardly ideal places to live. (Also, I wonder if anybody told him that “slag”, while it can refer to the stony waste of the smelting of ore, is also a British slang term meaning much the same thing as la puta? Gee, the poor guy just couldn’t escape the euphemisms in this film).

1051px-Paronela_Park_NQ-10_(4962985339)
Paronella Park, in Queensland

Castle in the Sky scenery #25

960px-Chazhashi_village_-_panoramio
Chazhashi village in Georgia

Valley of Gondoa home

Svaneti,_georgia
The Svaneti region of Georgia

Valley of Gondoa

Wales wasn’t the only part of the world that inspired the visuals, however. Laputa itself, grand centrepiece that it was, drew inspiration for its jungle-covered architecture from Paronella Park, a Spanish castle built (of all places) in Far North Queensland by José Paronella near Mena Creek. The park was going through a hard time during production, having changed hands several times and then being hit by Cyclone Winifred in early 1986. Thankfully, it has gone on to be restored as a popular tourist attraction and now even uses the theme music from the film during its night tours.

Sheeta’s home in the valley of Gondoa, meanwhile, looks very much like Georgia’s mountainous Svaneti region, with the distinctive tower-houses being a dead giveaway. The design harkens back to Miyazaki’s earlier, alpine-flavoured works and thus ties the story into his wider filmography.

Louis leads Pazu along the outside of the ship

Although much of the film is set in the sky, Miyazaki deliberately chose to keep the action at lower altitudes (for the most part) to allow for more interaction with the weather, which he felt was essential for keeping the characters connected to the world below. It’s telling that only after Laputa has been freed of the cumbersome weight of its manmade features does it begin to rise higher into the stratosphere, while its technology generates a protective storm around it when it’s at lower altitudes to prevent plunderers from finding it.

The open-air design of the Tiger Moth also adhered to this character focus, favouring the acting over the aerodynamics (seriously, a ship like this would be a death trap in reality!). It contrasts with the hulking mass of the Goliath, which is a self-contained and nearly unbroken wall of fabric which reveals little about its occupants, giving the military an appropriately “faceless” presence to offset the pirates’ more open presentation.

Goliath close-upArmy shooting the pirates

The weaponry and mechanical aspects of Laputa feature a mixture of mainly British and German designs; Miyazaki is a noted fan of German weaponry, which has featured extensively in his manga works like The Return of Hans and Otto Carius, both about WWII tank crews. The soldiers’ uniforms, medals and grenades (which look like the famous “potato masher”, the Stielhandgranate) are modelled after German designs, but the Goliath is the most obvious example, greatly resembling the German zeppelin airships. Muska and his cronies, on the other hand, tend to favour more British weaponry, such as the Lee-Enfield SMLE Mk. III rifle and the Webley top-break revolver (both appropriate to the period), while the inhabitants of Slag Ravine dress in a distinctly British style.

Flaptors departing Pazu's

Apparently, figuring out how to make the pirates’ flaptors fly was one of the first priorities of the production, with head animator Yoshinori Kanada tasked with producing an animation test of them early in 1985. Miyazaki found that he had to rein in his fantastical concepts for the various flying machines of this world in order to keep things believable, although while he knew this was necessary, he later admitted that he found the airships in the film to be “rather boring.” With the exception of Laputa’s technologies, the general aesthetic of the film is a good example of the retrofuturistic style of steampunk, making the film a favourite among fans of that subgenre.

Goliath docked beneath Laputa

Laputa itself is the highlight of the cinematography, which is fairly straightforward up until the fabled city is reached. It was depicted rather like a layer cake, with each layer representing the quarters of a separate class of people, all rising up to the castle of the nobility at the top. As the story drafts progressed, the idea of making the island a kind of military base was brought in, so the huge black semisphere was added beneath the island to house the kingdom’s weaponry.

The gradual build-up to the island’s reveal is expertly done (and benefits hugely from the additional score work, in my opinion), with Pazu and Sheeta finally bursting through the last clouds of the surrounding storm and gliding quietly over Laputa’s trees in their little kite… it always makes me tingle. Then, after an unceremonious crash-landing, they awaken to see the mists blown away, and the full splendour of Laputa shines forth for all to see. Everything about the gardens is astonishingly beautiful, putting Laputa up there as one of Miyazaki’s most beautiful settings.

The director later told of how he had to be careful not to show the island floating right out into space at the end, because he felt the children would be worried about what happened to the birds and fox-squirrels living on it. (He wasn’t wrong, either). At one point in production, as they attempted to solve the problem, someone actually asked him what colour oxygen would be!

Soundtrack

Composer Joe Hisaishi is widely known around the world today for his Ghibli scores, becoming the John Williams to Miyazaki’s Spielberg, so to speak, with their frequent collaborations. However, in 1986, this was only their second time working together; they had first met when Hisaishi was brought in to compose the music for Nausicaä a few years earlier, and the director apparently liked it enough to ask him back for this next venture. Hisaishi was thus hired in February of 1986, although it was producer Isao Takahata who actually handled the music, since Miyazaki had little knowledge of the process and trusted the two of them to deliver what he needed.

Hisaishi worked with the Suginami Children’s Choir for the vocal arrangements, and singer Azumi Inoue was brought in to perform the song Carrying You for the soundtrack (it has a nice melody, but has never been a particular favourite of mine). I tried to find out exactly who performed Pazu’s charming trumpet solo in the film, but there are only three uncredited musicians listed in the film credits and I’m not clear whether any of them were responsible.

Pazu plays his trumpet

The score for Castle in the Sky has an interesting coda to its story, as it turns out, because when Disney came to record the second English dub of the film in the late nineties, Hisaishi was also brought back to rework and extend his original 60-minute electronic-orchestral score into a full 90-minute symphonic orchestral one, supposedly to make the film more “palatable” to American audiences. Hm. The sound mix also had a major overhaul, too.

Whatever the reasons for the changes, though, they were well-received across the board, even by Hisaishi and Miyazaki (the director had approved the changes himself, so this isn’t a case of cultural mutilation or anything). Hisaishi’s work has always been minimalistic, but the original score for Castle in the Sky (which I haven’t heard, personally) was said to be rather bare, with long stretches of total silence. Although both director and composer preferred the new version of their work, many fans and critics have still called into question the necessity of changing it in the first place.

Goddess blowing clouds in prologue

Still, the score as it is in the home media releases of today is as enjoyable as any other by Hisaishi, filled with his characteristically dreamy piano melodies and romantic strings, although I suspect many of the best parts (particularly the arrival at Laputa) are later additions from the new dub, since they align more with his later work than the rather sparser, simpler score elsewhere in the film. In the more cartoonish scenes, Hisaishi’s score feels a bit more generically action-oriented and doesn’t always stand out, but the melancholy central theme that plays over several key moments more than makes up for that – you’ll be humming it for days afterwards.

Pazu screams Sheeta
“SHEEEDUHHHH!”

Regarding the voice acting, I must admit once again that I am a degenerate heathen who generally watches foreign language films in dubbed form, wherever possible – this is not because of laziness or any deficiency in reading ability, believe me, but merely personal preference. I find keeping track of dialogue in subtitles distracting; I’ll do it if I have no choice (or if the dub is atrocious), but Disney’s English dubs are largely considered to be of sufficient quality that watching them is not an insult to the original. The most frequent criticism of this particular film’s Disney dub is that it adds a lot of background chatter to moments that were silent in the original cut, giving certain scenes a new kind of “frenetic” energy that not everybody appreciated.

But enough quibbling over little details – how are the specific performances? Well, the first thing that must be said is that Cloris Leachman and Mark Hamill absolutely knock it out of the park in their roles as Dola and Muska, respectively. The two of them are terrific, particularly Leachman, both hamming it up with gusto while also bringing the requisite gravity and sensitivity to their quieter moments. It’s clear they both had a blast recording these parts and I can’t get enough of their scenes in the film. Dola is probably one of the most quotable characters in all of Ghibli!

Pazu and Sheeta, played by James Van Der Beek and Anna Paquin, are both made to sound rather older than they look, more like teenagers than children, but if you’ve ever heard even a snippet of the original English dub from the eighties then you’ll know they are a vast improvement. I especially liked that they let Paquin keep her natural Kiwi accent, as it added to the sense of Sheeta being from a faraway land. Both of them manage to get across a strong sense of chemistry that adds a lot to Pazu and Sheeta’s friendship, and while they sometimes struggle to cram in all the words required by the translation (“My-friends-are-all-miners-I-wouldn’t-worry-about-them-if-I-were-you-come-on-Sheeta-let’s-go!”) they generally do a good job filling their parts with the passion of the chase.

Charles declares love for Sheeta

I only really had a problem with one particular line which I could tell hadn’t been very well translated in the dub. It’s that strange moment aboard the Tiger Moth where the huge, bearded Charles bursts into the galley with a little flower in hand and announces to Sheeta, bold as brass, “I’m in love with you!” It’s played for laughs (especially as half the crew are already in there trying to butter her up), but the age gap between these characters makes the scene feel slightly… off. It’s no wonder; in the Japanese version, Sheeta is presented more as a mother figure to the pirates rather than as a potential suitor, so it’s definitely a flaw unique to the American version (they just can’t stand a girl not having a love interest, can they?)

Also, just something I noticed that made me laugh – every character in the film seems to scream Sheeta’s name in an absurdly exaggerated fashion at least once. Muska, Dola, Pazu, Louis… everywhere she goes, she’s dogged by cries of “SHEETAAAA!” “SHEEDUHHHHH!”

Final Verdict

Castle in the Sky made a prestigious debut for the studio, winning the Animage Anime Grand Prix in 1986 and having a strong effect on Japanese pop culture – dubbed the “Laputa effect”, it was comparable to a “modern-day monomyth for Japanese genre films and media.” Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, as they say, so it’s no surprise that a number of later pieces of media took inspiration from Miyazaki’s classic film.

These included the anime series Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water (1990) and No Game No Life (2014), with manga author Katsura Hoshino even crediting the film for sparking her interest in animation, which later led to her career in manga. Game designer Hironobu Sakaguchi also cited the film as one of the inspirations behind his Final Fantasy games, the first of which hit the market in 1987, but the film has further inspired the likes of the Mega Man Legends series, Zack & Wiki, roleplaying games like the Lunar series, Valkyrie Profile (1999), Skies of Arcadia (2000) and Steambot Chronicles (2005), even having an influence on the popular first-person shooter BioShock Infinite (2013). Then there are the musical interpretations, with jazz-funk band Haitus Kaiyote dedicating a whole song to Laputa whose lyrics directly reference the film.

In addition to this, Disney fans will be well aware of the effect Ghibli’s works have had on various Disney productions over the years, this film included. John Lasseter picked up a laserdisc copy of Castle in the Sky in the late eighties and raised his sons on it, later developing a habit of putting Ghibli films on for to inspire his artists whenever they hit a block. Castle in the Sky’s rescue sequence at Tedis Fort directly inspired Flik’s rescue of Dot in A Bug’s Life (1998), while the aesthetics of the city itself and the basic plot of treasure hunters seeking to plunder it were used in the development of Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001). Later Pixar efforts such as WALL-E (2008) and Up (2009) also owe a debt to the film.

Due to the film’s age, it actually had an earlier English dubbing created for it back in the eighties, long before the Disney-Tokuma deal was struck in 1996 allowing Disney distribution rights to most of Ghibli’s back catalogue. {As of 2017, said rights now belong to GKIDS}. The original dub was produced on the request of Tokuma Shoten by Magnum Video Tape and Dubbing for use on international Japan Airlines flights, but it was also briefly screened in the US by Streamline Pictures. Carl Macek, then head of Streamline, was said to be disappointed with the Magnum dub, deeming it “adequate but clumsy” – and having heard a few snippets on YouTube, I would have to agree. Thus, Tokuma gave Streamline permission to create their own dubs of future Ghibli releases, including My Neighbour Totoro and Kiki’s Delivery Service, which were generally better received.

Years later in 1998, Disney were now in a position that allowed them to create a brand new, higher-quality English dub of Castle in the Sky for western audiences, but the planned 1999 release for this was delayed after Princess Mononoke (1997) underperformed upon its release in the US. In the end, it took Spirited Away’s 2003 Academy Award win to push the release through to completion, at which point it arrived on both DVD and video.

In the meantime, it had played a number of sold-out screenings at the occasional film festival and had already gained a solid reputation among fans. By that time, the film had also long since made back its money in Japanese DVD sales, which led some fans to speculate that the whole reason for the Disney-Tokuma deal was so the media giant could sabotage the Ghibli films’ success in the US (but frankly that sounds ridiculous, considering what a big fan John Lasseter and others were).

More recently, a new DVD release arrived in 2010, followed by a Blu-ray debut in 2012 and then a GKIDS re-release in both formats in 2017, with the latter including both the original soundtrack and the expanded Disney dub, along with correctly translated subtitles (there had been numerous errors in previous editions).

I was interested to learn during research that in May of 2011, Castle in the Sky received a special screening in the Welsh town of Aberystwyth as part of a charity fund to support victims of the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami in Japan (it was the Japanese version no less, with English subtitles), which was presumably organised by local fans. What a great way of showing solidarity with the nation during its time of hardship, through art inspired by Wales! Love it. Also, on August 3, 2013, a Japanese screening of the film set a new Twitter record (which seems to be still standing as of this writing) for most tweets in one second, when a staggering 143,199 fans tweeted the spell of destruction (“balse”) at the same moment as Pazu and Sheeta say it in the film.

Pazu and Sheeta saying balus

In summary, all I can say is that this is one of the most spectacularly enthralling cinematic adventures I’ve ever seen, one which never loses its lustre no matter how many times you revisit it. The sense of scale and atmosphere Miyazaki accomplishes with his visuals here is incredible, but what really sells it are the warm, charismatic relationships between our four core characters. Pazu and Sheeta are so earnest and supportive of one another; it’s always a joy to accompany them on a trip to Laputa after a hard day. Hisaishi’s soothing score sweeps you up into the clouds in an instant and Dola, of course, also never fails to make me smile. This film wears its heart on its sleeve and it’s hard not to get caught up in the innocent mischief of it all.

… So then, why did I struggle so tremendously to get this review started? It’s been one of my worst bouts of procrastination to date, which is saying something – the review was originally due to go up weeks ago, but I kept putting it off and wasting time despite my genuine love for the film.

I think the problem may be that it is, at its heart, a very simple story with deliberately one-dimensional characters who are meant as audience stand-ins, so there just isn’t much to sink your teeth into as a reviewer. It’s one of those films that’s great fun to watch, but rather difficult to talk about or analyse, because it doesn’t have a great deal of nuance – again, to be clear, that’s not a criticism, merely an observation. Pazu and Sheeta may be likeable, but they don’t go through as much development as your Chihiros or your Sophies, so it’s rather tricky to discuss them without falling into the trap of just recounting the whole plot. When all is said and done, the best way to experience this one is to just go and see it, so what are you waiting for? Strap yourself in and prepare for one of the all-time greatest films of the eighties.

Thank you so much for reading, and for being patient with me as I clawed my way through this one. I wasn’t expecting it to be such a struggle! The next film on my list is My Neighbour Totoro, which will be our final foray into the eighties and the twentieth century in general for a good while, but this time I won’t make any promises about a date. My schedule is already caput given the massive delay to Laputa, but it’ll definitely be going up sometime next month, that I can guarantee. I’ll be following that with a review of the eternally underrated Howl’s Moving Castle, but I’m taking a trip to New York at the end of November (my first visit to the states!) so that will likely be going up in December.

After that, we have another Ghibli-related treasure called The Red Turtle to explore, followed by my first reader request, the 2016 sensation that was Your Name. From there, I have a couple more personal favourites from DreamWorks and other studios to tackle, but beyond those the new year will be distinctly Pixar-flavoured, since I’ve been neglecting their catalogue for long enough. Until next time, take care and staaay animated!

My Rating – 5/5

References
I consulted my own books to research for this review, as well as some standard web sources:
Starting Point: 1979-1996 by Hayao Miyazaki (2008); translated edition by Beth Cary and Frederik L. Schodt (2009)
The Art of Castle in the Sky by Hayao Miyazaki (2016); translated edition by Jocelyne Allen (2016)
By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=56678942 – credit for poster
https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6484433 – credit for Gulliver’s Travels Beyond the Moon poster
By Jean Ignace Isidore Gérard Grandville – Original source: http://skladba.blogspot.com/2007/07/1803-1847.htmlTransferred from cs.wikipedia; transferred to Commons by User:Sevela.p using CommonsHelper., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8368514 – credit for Grandville illustration
By Sheba_Also 43,000 photos – https://www.flickr.com/photos/shebalso/4962985339/, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=73356919 – credit for Paronella Park image
By T.DeptOriginal uploader was Polscience at en.wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4846798 – credit for Svaneti image
By Alen Ištoković, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=54352200 – credit for Chazhashi village image
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_works_by_Hayao_Miyazaki – an overview of Miyazaki’s career
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paronella_Park – the Wiki page for Paronella Park
https://www.sparknotes.com/lit/gulliver/themes/ – a brief discussion of the themes in Swift’s novel
https://gaggingonsexism.wordpress.com/2011/08/04/whats-in-the-hair-a-look-at-the-symbolism-of-hair-in-hayao-miyazakis-work/ – an interesting little article about why Ghibli girls always end up with that distinctive shaggy haircut…
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iEmYNgus2os – short interviews with the Disney cast
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Castle_in_the_Sky – Wiki page
https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0092067/ – IMDB profile

6 Replies to “Film Review: Laputa: Castle in the Sky / Tenkū no Shiro Rapyuta (1986)”

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