Barbican Film: Studio Ghibli’s ‘Laputa: Castle in the Sky’

As a 29 year old, who continually attempts to resist the day-to-day reality of having to be mature, Hayao Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli animé Laputa: Castle in the Sky (1986) provides the large dose of whimsical magic I so yearn for in order to stay sane – in fact the older I get the more I crave depictions of wonderfully out of this world characters and exotic places, but never, however, at the cost of story, emotion and veracity, as it is that aspect that keeps the more informed adult within me intrigued and engrossed from start to finish.

The story follows the plight of Sheeta and Pazu, both orphans, as they elude pirates and the government in a race to find a mystical floating island in the sky. On this magical journey they race through a delightful but dangerous, alternate universe where they encounter robots, floating pirate ships, castles and government agents, giving the film layer-upon-layer of thrilling adventure that is wondrous entertainment for audiences of any age – it taps into a childhood mentality without feeling immature.

Thematically and aesthetically, Laputa is truly encapsulating and displays a remarkable awareness of the social climate of its day, whilst offering a foreboding portrayal of a future that is in danger of losing its humanity through a growing obsession with technology. Animé expert Helen McCarthy summed up the important dynamic of this duality during her introduction to the film, describing how Miyazaki the writer beat Miyazaki the political animal, citing the significance of that balance as one of the films’ many triumphs.

It’s synthesized bridging of innocence and social consciousness, accompanied by beautifully crafted scenes and some of the most complimentary, emotive and empathic music ever used in a Ghibli film make Laputa: Castle in the Sky one of the most important and accomplished works ever created by the Japanese animation masters.

On the 2nd of August this year the film celebrates its 25th anniversary which is clearly a testament to its timeless appeal, as even today it is considered one of the studio’s finest hours and an animated masterpiece amongst fans of the genre and critics alike.

Having only seen the film for the first time last year, it was a real treat to see it again in all of its glory on the big screen – every moment and every nuance became an integral part and perfectly complimented the films’ finely tuned social conscience; and it is that striking of a balance between childlike magic and political awareness that astounds me and will no doubt implore me to watch the movie again sometime soon.

Interestingly, in his research for Laputa: Castle in the Sky, Hayao Miyazaki travelled to Wales, where he visited the mining communities and small towns that had become bound together in solidarity during the difficult period of mining strikes within the region. Helen McCarthy pointed out that it was the strength and solidarity of the miners that helped to shape the eventual narrative of the film.

I feel that the harmony and power portrayed by the movie works successfully to establish a unique commonality with the audience that lives on long after the movie ends. In fact, when I think back to the film, themes of friendship, loyalty and the importance of such allegiance in the face of adversity stand out in my mind, which makes a lot of sense when considering Miyazaki’s apparent nostalgic penchant for the hand crafted, historic and human-made; a sense of humanity is a constant under-current within the narrative of Laputa and is one of its finest traits.Laputa: Castle in the Sky is one of many great Studio Ghibli films but for me it sets itself apart and is the benchmark which all, and any future Ghibli films should be judged against.

Seeing it on the big screen at the Barbican reaffirmed that for me and it has led to a fascination with the politics it represents and the trends it started which I fully intend to research. To illustrate the importance of Laputa: Castle in the Sky, Helen McCarthy noted in her introduction that it captured one of the emerging trends in sci-fi at the time, ‘steampunk’, and pointed out that the first use of the term actually post-dates Miyazaki’s film, exhibiting yet another example of the films’ foresight and awareness.

Perhaps this is the ranting of a nostalgic 80s child but the fantastical imagination of a child is captured by Laputa and yet it still has a social conscience and serves as a trendsetter, which remarkably places no pressure on its wonderful story. For me, no CGI or 3D will manage to both channel the mind of a child and encapsulate the intelligence of an adult in the way that Miyazaki’s Laputa: Castle in the Sky manages to do.

Russell Cook