Once again I’m going to swim against the tide and say that I was not that much impressed by Laputa Castle in the Sky. For all its high reputation and its widespread influenxe, for all that it was the first Studio Ghimbli anime, and for all that it is the work of Hayao Miyazaki, I found it too limited as a story, somewhat archaic, frequently blurred in tone and ultimately lacking in conviction in what might have been a stunning and unexpected conclusion, that Miyazaki reneged on in order for a happy ending. This latter aspect emphasised to me what had been clear about the film for some time: it was a children’s adventure story, for children, without the adult/universal aspects of practically all his later work.
Miyazaki chose to begin in media res sand let his audience work out what was going on. An airship is attacked by air pirates. A little girl with a crystal pendant takes the opportunity to escape captivity, stealing back a crystal necklace, but falls from the ship from a great height. A light from the crysatal slows her flight, she floats down unconcious and lands, so to speak, in a grimy mining town where she’s aided by an active boy of her own age. She is Sheeta (voiced by Anna Paquin), he is Pazu (voiced by James van den Beek). Both are orphans.
So far, so good, yet whilst I usually appreciate this kind of approach, for once I felt oddly detached, wanting just a little bit more information about what was going on. This was possibly prescient: almost none of the information I wanted to establish a context for the opening – who, what, when, where, why – was actually given in the rest of the film.
That was part of the problem: it left the film ungrounded for me. Even the setting, in a fictional late Nineteenth century, fe lt unmoored. I had no real sense of why this wass happening, which added to the atmosphere of a children’s story. Pirates who wanted… well, was it something more than just treasure? A Government secret agent who wanted… what for his Government? All the explanations that would have established what the film was about were either ommitted or reduced to simplistic levels not more complex than a Malcolm Saville Lone Pine book.
The objective was a floating Castle in the Sky (the original Japanese title was simply that: English speaking territories added Laputa, from one of Swift’s lesser-known Gulliver’s Travels). At first it’s a legend, a myth that Puza wants to find: his late father saw it once but was accused of being a liar, but Puza will vindicate him. But to Colonel Muska (Mark Hamill) it’s a real thing he intends to find for his Government: Laputa’s power once ruled the Earth. To Sheeta… well, Sheeta’s an orphan with a crystal that’s significant but who only wants to be left alone.
Ultimately, it transpires that Sheeta is heir to the former Royal Family of Laputa (it’s always bloody kings and royals, I wish people would grow up) with power over the crystal thanks to spells taught her by her grandmother, including one of destruction that must never be used. Ultimately ultimately Muska also turns out to be a descendent of the Royal Family, whose true aim is to restore Laputa’s supreme power in his own hands, just like any cheap would-be dictator. The film was made in 1986, almost forty years ago, based on Miyazaki’s own manga serial, itself influenced by, of all improbable things, Welsh mining villages in the UK Miners’ strike of 1984. Perhaps this is why it felt so limited to me, that it did not extend beyond very basic fantasy power struggles?
What part do the pirates play in all this? Structurally, they’re integral. Puza is an orphan living in a poor working community. He seems to be aged 14 though in the original Japanese soundtrack he and Sheeta are voiced as pre-teens. Bright, passionate and mechanically agile as he is, he can’t go up against a massive Government operation involving intelligence agents and an Army detachment, not on his own, so the pirates are needed to provide a credible force to get him into the heart of things. But Miyazaki is wildly inconsistent in how he uses them. First, they’re sinister attackers, bent on violently assaulting the airship on which Sheeta is being transported. Then they’re implacable, destructive pursuers, wantonly destroying anything in their past. They’re evil and cruel on a par with the government men pursuing Sheeta, and come over as knowing exactly who and what she is and wanting her her the same reasons as Muska.
Then, as soon as Puza needs an ally, they become comical, lovable rogues. Grandmotherly Captain Dola (Cloris Leachman) switches from being an evil tyrant to a gruff but sentimental leader, her three sons are bumbling idiots and the pirates become comic figures for the rest of the film, much like Goscinny and Uderzo’s pirates in Asterix (they even get their ship ‘sunk’).
There’s another confusing element created by the decision to uplift Sheeta and Puza’s ages. Yes, they’re certainly no more than fourteen, but once their relationship is underway, it rings of being a love relationship, as purely as a silver coin thrown down on stone. There’s a chauvinistic element to it in that Sheeta is constantly being treated as the ‘girl’, no matter how much she acts competently and determinedly but despite that the whole feel is of a pair who’ve found each other. You find yourself expecting a kiss. No such thing is going to happen, but the lack of an outward expression of such feelings does undercut what little reality the film possesses.
A lot of this could be redeemed by the ending. Muska has taken over the deserted, idyllic but overgrown Laputa using the crystal and is going all megalomaniac about it. Sheeta gets the crystal away from him, instructs Puza to run and drop it in the ocean, put it beyond recovery, whilst she faces Muska and the certainty of her death, but death in a cause. Suddenly, the seriousness multiplies. Puza, however, has his own idea. He stands with Sheeta, the pair clasping the crystal. Together they will recite the spell of Destruction. It will save everything, at the cost of their sacrifice. It’s a truly dramatic moment. Together they speak. Muska is blinded and falls to his death. Laputa shatters. Only the pirates get away.
Oh, wait, no. Laputa may have shattered but not all of it. There’s this great central tree supporting the castle-like bit at the top and look, there, among the ruins, Puza and Sheeta are still arrive, for no better reason than that we want a happy ending, little kids that we are. All the good of that extraordinary ending undone.
So that’s Laputa Castle in the Sky for me. It has its good points, its well-made, it creates places as do later Ghibli films that look and feel real even as they are fantastic in themselves. But to me the story and its ending, not to mention its lack of an initial context, makes it juvenile in a way later films do not. It’s the difference between The Weirdstone of Bringamen and The Owl Service, except that, coming to Laputa as almost the last of the Ghibli films, I find it very much harder to adjust my expectations than when discovering Alan Garner in the late Sixties.
And with that, Film 23 enters another phase. This is the last of the collection of DVDs built up since last summer and added to along the way. From next week, the films I watch over the next several months are going to be films accessible on YouTube, films watchable for free and not even the minimal amounts some of these DVDs have cost me. Some of these are going to be films I’m not quite committed to so commenting on them will see me coming from a different direction. I’m looking forward to the change of atmosphere. Which one first?