From the Leonardo-like engineering illustrations of the opening credit sequence to the hauntingly surreal final image on the edge of space, Hayao Miyazaki’s Laputa, or Castle in the Sky as it’s subtitled for English-speaking audiences, displays the filmmaker’s visionary brilliance as a shaper of worlds as compellingly as any film he has made. That opening credit sequence, with its woodcut-like depictions of fantastic technology representing an alternate 19th century — massive structures fusing windmills, derricks, gears, pulleys, steam engines, paddle wheels, propellers and such — reveals something of how Miyazaki’s invention works. He doesn’t begin with plot or characters, but with images, with premises, with possible worlds.
Like Leonardo da Vinci, who covered sketchbook leaves with plans for gliders and flying machines, Miyazaki’s fascination with flight comes out in this sequence, which hints at a historical progression from simpler machines to massive plants, to dirigible-like airships, to immense airborne structures, armadas and even flying islands and cities. Like Leonardo’s designs, they aren’t always practical, but this doesn’t detract from their coolness. Then, with Babel-like or Icarus-like comeuppance, Miyazaki’s pessimism and ecological concerns are roused as technology fails, men fall back to earth, and the simplicity of the earlier images is reasserted — all before the story really gets underway.
The director’s first wholly original film, Laputa: Castle in the Sky opens in medias res with a young heroine mysteriously escaping an aerial skirmish aboard a dirigible. Soon joined by scrappy young Pazu, a boy who works at a local mining plant, Sheeta attempts to evade opposing parties of airborne pirates and ruthless government forces. At stake is Sheeta’s pendant, a blue gemstone with mysterious power connected to Sheeta’s past and to the legend of Laputa, a lost city in the clouds (inspired by the flying island Laputa in Gulliver’s Travels). Laputa is a swashbuckling steampunk treasure hunt, part Star Wars, part Raiders of the Lost Ark — or rather, in keeping with the Victorian milieu, part Burroughs or Jules Verne, part Conan Doyle or Haggard.
The pirate leader, the Pippi Longstocking–plaited, snaggle-toothed battleax Dola, is one of Miyazaki’s most sparkling supporting characters, and one of his neatest semi-villain rehabilitations. Sly, scheming Colonel Muska, leader of the government forces, is one of Miyazaki’s few wholly unredeemed villains. Alas, the two young protagonists are somewhat bland, with Sheeta in particular an uncharacteristically passive, diffident heroine. (Uninspired voice casting on the Disney English dub doesn’t help: Anna Paquin and James Van Der Beek make Sheeta and Pazu older and less spunky than the original Japanese voices. But Mark Hamill is effective as Muska, and Cloris Leachman is a hoot as Dola. Predictably, the Disney dub punches up the comedy from the pirate gang, to good effect.)
Amid somewhat murky plot workings, a moral theme emerges of compassion over corrupting power, of humble closeness to the earth. Miyazaki’s penchant for animist allusiveness is at a minimum in this comparatively accessible film, making Laputa one of the director’s easiest films to recommend, especially to newcomers. As usual, Miyazaki festoons his work with odd, gratuitous flourishes of beauty. Pazu’s strange house, with its brickwork, roof-top trap door and tower with spiral treads, is a joy, as is his curious morning ritual of climbing to the roof to release the pigeons and trumpet the dawn. I get a kick out of the brick on the pulley that pulls Pazu’s door shut. Another brilliant touch: the crow’s nest on Dola’s ship that converts into a kite-like glider.
The crowning glory, though, is Laputa itself, a half-ruinous ghost city, with gardens still tended by decrepit robots, crumbling stonework, flooded shafts, and that one titanic tree that ages ago shattered the dome above with its branches, and whose roots reach into the deepest bowels of the city. If Miyazaki’s previous film, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, ideally showcases the epic scope of the director’s imagination on an evolutionary scale, Laputa does the same on a civilizational scale. Laputa is one of the great imaginary places of the movies.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.