Welcome back to the Moon Rabbit podcast, where we explore the hidden layers of film storytelling. And today we’re entering the world of Tenku no Shiro Rapyuta, or Castle in the Sky, or — in countries where the complete title is allowed to be said — Laputa: Castle in the Sky; one of the early Miyazaki masterpieces that is a huge classic in Japan but often goes under the radar in the West.
In fact, Castle in the Sky is often waved away by Western film critics as simplistic and not nearly as polished as later Miyazaki films.
But you know what? That’s a huge misconception.
Just by picking a handful of story elements in this film to focus on, we ended up with a three episode mini-series for the Moon Rabbit podcast.
So if you already love Castle in the Sky and were looking for a deeper look at how all of its individual pieces of genius fit together, this episode is a must-listen.
And if you’ve seen this film but are on the fence about it, this will be a good entry point for you to see what the fuss is about.
In the first bit of our conversation, we’ll start out by focusing on:
- the origins of the film’s story
- how the film’s scouting trip to Wales and the South of England influenced the film’s landscape and characters
- and we’ll also talk about the film’s unique childhood lens — and how it changes depending on whether you’re watching with the English dub or the original Japanese voice acting.
Later, in the second episode we’ll be taking a look at Sheeta’s mythology and the gender tropes that Miyazaki flips over, and in the final episode we’ll get into Pazu’s father quest and the film’s crucial final act, including what the ending really means.
Needless to say there will be spoilers throughout for the film, so tread carefully.
And for these episodes, I’m back with independent film aficionado Flick Beckett, who’s video content co-ordinator for Picturehouse Cinemas and also the host of film review shows Flick’s Flicks and Inside Picturehouse. Flick specialises in indie and world cinema, and is always an absolute joy to talk to as she gets as super excited about Ghibli films as I do.
So it’s time to put on your goggles, secure your amulets, and fire up your engines.
I’m your host, Adam Dobay, and let’s Follow the Moon Rabbit to the mystical flying island of Rapyuta.
(An adult language warning if you can speak or understand Spanish: we’ll be saying one specific word a lot, that is in the film’s title as well as a named location in the film that contains a Spanish swear word. So if you don’t want anyone else around you to hear that one word, please put some headphones on for the duration of this episode.)
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And if you want to read while (or instead of) listening, here’s the episode’s full transcript!
Castle in the Sky’s real-world influences
How Gulliver’s Travels inspired Castle in the Sky
Adam Dobay: Hello, Flick!
Flick Beckett: Hi, Adam!
Adam: Welcome back.
Flick: Thank you. It’s lovely to be back.
Adam: It feels like it’s been 60 years since we last talked and not just a couple of months. But that’s the sense of time. So with that we can get into our actual topic for today, which is Laputa: Castle in the Sky. Last chance to put on headphones, because I’m going to say this word a lot. They actually change: sometimes it’s Laputa sometimes it’s Raputa. The characters call it Rapyuta in the Japanese. So if you don’t want to offend anyone in Spanish, you can just refer to it as Rapyuta. And then it’ll be a non- issue.
So it’s based on Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels’ Laputa. Yes, I think down to the size of the floating island. I looked it up – I forgot the numbers, but it was roughly the size. The idea definitely comes from there and Pazu even opens a book and I think either mentions Gulliver or mentions Swift or mentions someone. So the the literary connection is made.
And also, Swift’s tendency to use mythological spaces to explore political issues is something that is not as frequently mentioned about this film, but I think it really tracks because Swift’s original story is about these people who live up in the sky and are so — I think it was based on the Royal Society or something. So he was criticising all the eggheads.
Flick: And they’re very out of touch. And they have servants, and they don’t pay any attention to them, they’re very above all, sort of any kind of what they consider demeaning jobs. You know, I mean, I thought, yeah, it’s incredibly prescient.
Adam: Yeah, and both, Swift and Miyazaki, because Miyazaki then goes on to explore this subject and say, “Look, here, we have this thing. No one lives there anymore.” I was surprised I forgot that, that they don’t know that there’s no one there. Sheeta, one of Sheeta’s first sentences when they get to the island, is to say, “Where’s all the people?” And I’ve seen this film so much now that I completely forgot about this.
But it’s really important that we’re expecting a society to be there, but it’s gone. And we’re going to explore what’s on the island and why is exactly the things they’re that they’re there on the island and the latter half of this. But I find that really interesting that to make his point, Miyazaki has no one on the island, and then he has Sheeta and Pazu on the island. And then the others come in. And then and then things escalate really quickly from that point. So yeah, definitely, he takes a number of cues from Swift.
Miyazaki’s Welsh scouting trip
Adam: Something else I found something that I could never put together was I read, it’s widely known that Miyazaki and crew went to Wales to scout for this film, which you can see in the first act, it’s literally a Welsh mining village, except for the huge drop in altitude. I’ve never been to Wales, but I don’t think you have those huge cliff edges there. And they actually had two trips, and Miyazaki went on a trip in early 80s. And then preceding the film, which came out in 1986.
So we’re two, I think, two years after Nausicaa, which we last discussed and two years before Totoro. So this is the in-between film. And for the second trip, they went after the miners’ strike, which everyone in the UK will know and everyone else will have to Google because we’re definitely not going to go into the miners’ strike in this episode.
And what they saw there was all these mining villages that have been either abandoned or you know just the aftermath of the the strike that the workers lost in the end. So there was a lot of depression going on, but also a lot of solidarity going on because of the the miners were fighting together for the same cause for for all those years.
So apparently all that part about the the miners’ solidarity comes from this because that really struck a chord with Miyazaki, who was the leader of his union, when he worked at the TOEI animation studio. So he went in there as a young upstart and said, “Oh, this place doesn’t have a union. Well, I’m quite left leaning, so workers should have rights within the company.” And you know, he just started organising. So like, I can see how, how this really rattled his mind and went directly into the film.
Flick: Yes, absolutely. And when you first meet Pazu, and he’s getting his dinner for his boss, and he says, you know, finally the mines are open again. You know, and that really stayed with me, I thought, oh, gosh, that so they’ve been they’ve had a quiet patch. And now they’re up again, you know, and, and they’re able to find dignity through work, even though it’s hard work. And he’s only a child. So there’s allusions to child labour, from the time that the film would have been based in, you know, but that’s really interesting.
Now, there’s all the climate thing, you sort of go “Oh, yeah, they coal is not a great idea to be mining for.” But at the time, it was so utterly destructive to communities, across all of England, to just shut down these coal mines. Everything around these people’s lives was based around the mines, with no other options available, you know, no way of looking at it to do something else with these people. So there was a real stripping away of people’s dignity at that time, you know, and, and I just was very struck at the dignity of the mining village and the miners and Pazu himself.
Adam:Yeah, in the same scene that you mentioned, I noticed how I forgot about that the men come up, Pazu operates the the levers and the men come up, and they just say, “Nothing, we got nothing. We worked all day, we got nothing.”
So that’s like a tiny scene like 20 seconds. And you get that these people are not rich, these people are not, you know, they’re not going to get gold out of this. This is not a gold rush. This is not, this is something that is gruelling, physical, very hard work. And then it’s up to luck, whether you find something or not. And again, it’s a Miyazaki principle of the hard working, basically working class people to show that they just work day in and day out whether they get something out of it or not. Because that’s the life there.
Flick: Yes, yes. And I think he would have witnessed that without a doubt and when he visited, and one of the things that you know, that him saying other minds open, in a way would have been such a sort of wish for that time that, you know, we can go back to the mines and also, and that there was no rich mine owner.
Adam: Because. Yes, that’s true.
Flick: A lot of the mines and I think most of all the mines. I don’t know if I’m absolutely right, saying this work were nationalised. So they were owned by us, the people, you know, at that time, as well.
Adam: And weirdly, this whole thing is a weird film connection between this film and the 2014 film Pride. So if someone doesn’t know anything about the miners’ strike and doesn’t want to read like historical terms, but is interested, they should check out the film Pride, which is a wonderful true story. With you know, some modifications, they didn’t get into some of the nuances, but the main story is as it happened, with how during the miners’ strike, the LGBTQ communities came together in support of the miners, and they helped each other out. And it’s a lovely tale of actual solidarity that happened both ways.
When I saw my first Pride in the UK, I saw the miners marching and I was like, what, that’s weird. Like, yeah, you sometimes see the the police with the flags, and you see, you know, medical professionals and so on. Miners is that that seemed weird to me. Like I haven’t seen that connection before. And then I watch the film, and oh, so that this is an actual historical thing. It’s a great film, by the way, so I recommend everyone to watch it’s not very Miyazaki, but it is of this period.
Okay. So, this was the first thing we want to explore from the actual things they put in the background, because this is not yet the time which we will have in Totoro and, and from Fireflies onwards, which is “we are going to depict Japanese landscapes“. This is before that. And in Nausicaa, we had the post-apocalyptic landscape. And here we have an actual landscape, but it’s Western. So it’s exotic for the Japanese, exotic for me as well because I come from Hungary. So the English landscape is still kind of new to me even after all these years.
Mysteries of the film’s landscape
Flick: There is something really quite Biblical about the landscape though as well, which I I’m very struck by what an incredibly spiritual film this is. And yes, you do have your Welsh mining village, but you do have this just absolutely cavernous drop, which is unfathomably huge.
Adam: And you never see the bottom of it.
Flick: You never see the bottom of it, no. And the sides of the hills for a mining village, they actually had houses in the hidden sides of the hills. I don’t know if you noticed that. And that is actually very Syrian and Turkish. And yeah, it’s really, you know, I don’t even know if because I noticed that when I went to Turkey a few years ago they did they did these incredible carvings in the size of unbelievably steep cliffs.
Adam: I think they do it in Tibet as well. I have a slight memory of seeing, like Tibetan, you know, monk villages up in the, in the mountains, and it’s carved in there. So yeah, if you go if you go there, you really want to go there.
Flick: Yeah, yeah, there’s definitely something way more in the aesthetic he’s got going on there. Because it’s unfathomable. For me, it just feels so breathtaking and so universal, almost, that he’s got these huge, huge earthscapes for us to consider. I just think he’s touching on way more than just representing a Welsh village, even though he took his inspiration from there.
Adam: There’s always a mystery element in the Miyazaki film. And I think that the first wide shot you see of the village is when Pazu does the trumpet thing in the morning, which is the, I think, one of the most cited sequences.
And it’s great, because, again, they take their cues from live action cinema, what would you do, you would have your camera set down, and then follow the pigeons, which is what they do with animated pigeons, but there’s the flight of the pigeons that draws the camera, from the little cage, all the way around the valley, or we don’t know if it’s, it’s a valley, or a gorge or a canyon, we took, we don’t know, that’s where you get that amazing shot. And then later, there’s a call back to that when Pazu and Sheeta are coming back from prison, essentially, from the military complex. And then it’s still not decided if they go on with their journey. And Dola says, “Okay, this is your village, we’re gonna pop you down here, kids,” and then they convince her to, to go on.
And as they fly over the village, you can see massive craters. So I just noticed this. Not now, but but a couple of watches earlier, that there’s actual craters there that you don’t see when you first see the village. And, okay, why are their craters there? And then 15 minutes later, Muska turns on the island, and shows you the nuclear-esque bombing that it can do. So I think there’s a lot of like, world-building there by saying there’s been a war here. The reason you’re seeing those holes is that they were dropped in through the sky. And that is why mining is now reopening. The timeline doesn’t match. So it wouldn’t have been a Laputan bomb.
Flick: But could it be that I don’t know if you remember in the opening credits, because I found out they revealed quite a lot more about the film than I’d understood from my first viewing. And you have your main Laputa. And then you’ve got lots of like offshoot ships.
Adam: Yeah, yeah. Yeah. And then definitely, they would have used the technology for not just one thing. They had the main thing, and they would have used that for other stuff.
Flick: And then there’s a bit that I wasn’t sure if they all had a fight with the wind, and then they all crashed to earth. And then you see all the little people coming off the credits of just beautiful, just, they’re almost like Michelangelo cartoons. They’re just stunning. And I just wondered if that could from what you’re saying, could they have caused the crisis?
Adam: I don’t know if either the the villages are built around the craters, or the craters are there because there were more villages there, you know. But they do say, Muska does say that this all happened 700 years ago, when Laputa was abandoned. So it doesn’t match the timeline with the miner saying “we’ve just opened up”. When Muska says so there’s something recent, and there’s something ancient, but what I love about that credit sequence, which is a clear continuation of the Nausicaa credit sequence, which is I think it’s embroidered or not embroidered, what’s the word I’m looking for? The Nausicaa credit sequence with the…
Flick: Tapestry, isn’t it?
Adam: Thank you. Yeah, it’s the Michelangelo style, woodblock style. And it’s just, you know, just glimpses, like, as Sheeta says, well, who knows? Yeah, we’ve forgotten we don’t know. I know the magic words, but I have no idea what happened. And that’s kind of the whole feeling of it in it. And again, the mystery of it – that something happened long ago, and we have a myth about it. And people were up in the sky and they probably had hubris, and they all came crashing down. You know, moral of the story don’t have hubris. Muska didn’t read the story. So it kind of plays that out.
And you know Miyazaki goes into this in other films like in Howl’s Moving Castle, you have the war happening as we go through the film. And sometimes like in Nausicaa, or here, there might have been a war, or there might not have been a war we don’t know, in the original draft for Laputa it was a virus topically because people were unprotected up there. And that was the original plan that they then scrapped. It didn’t go into the story. But we do see, here’s the beautiful flying culture, and people flying on the things. And then it all comes crashing down and people live on the ground again.
That’s kind of one question of the film, should we be living in the sky? To which Sheeta says no, we have to live near the earth. That’s where humanity is supposed to be. And in that sense, Laputa is sort of the thing that you visit, which we will get into in the latter half of this. But it’s not somewhere to live. It’s an aspiration, but you can’t go and stay there you can visit but you have to come back down and maintain your connection to the earth.
Flick: Yes, there’s a lot in that, there’s a lot of spiritual connection with all of that, without a doubt, and that’s living in the dual and the non-dual life that we have, you know, that we have our spiritual selves and ourselves that we present to the world and connect to the world with, definitely.
The Apple Orchards of Sussex
Adam: Yeah. One last bit of trivia before we actually get into the film that I just found today, so I wanted to mention it is I once read in an interview. I couldn’t find it, if I find it, I’ll pop it up in the blog post on followthemoonrabbit.com and reference it. I don’t know where I read it. It was next to “we went and visited Wales, to storyboard and we also went to visit ‘the apple orchards of Sussex'”. And when I first read that a couple years ago was like, I’ve been living in Sussex for quite a while and I’ve seen a number of places. I’ve never heard of ‘the apple orchards of Sussex’. Then I asked before you were one of them, about ‘the apple orchards of Sussex’, and no idea, and it’s been bugging me for years.
And today, I found the Wikipedia page for a woman called Eleanor Farjeon, who was apparently a children’s author (never heard of her before today), who lived in Sussex. She was born in London, then moved to Sussex. And she set her famous Martin Pippin series of books in Sussex and the first and most famous of them is called Martin Pippin in the Apple Orchard.
And Miyazaki apparently quoted Eleanor Farjeon as one of his big influences on his work. So of course that if they were coming to England and Wales to scout, they would go to Sussex and just just look at stuff.
And to be honest, I haven’t seen Castle in the Sky since I moved to Sussex. And now that I’m watching it, I’m like, that’s the South Downs. I know these hills. I know these exact hills. And I know the chalk cliffs. Those are the Seven Sisters cliffs that you can see in the background as they draw away from the countryside and go towards Laputa in the second half of the film, and I never I never noticed that before because I didn’t live here. And it’s so amazing.
And that’s another film connection because if you watch The Snowman, the Raymond Briggs original 1982 Snowman, that’s the same landscape as the middle bit of Laputa because Raymond Briggs also lived in Sussex so the entire Snowman sequence is set. The one thing that isn’t in Laputa is the Brighton Pier, which is only not not even I think the Pier and the Pavilion are in the… they fly over them in the Snowman. Yes, we were watching Laputa with Livia today and and when they were just rolling, I mean, flying over the rolling hills. She just started singing the ‘We’re walking in the air’, Yeah, that’s true. Exact same landscape.
Flick: Amazing. I’ll watch it again now.
Adam: Oh, no, we have to watch it again! [obvious sarcasm] Yeah, so people in Europe or anywhere in the world can now add the Sussex Downs National Park to their list of Miyazaki inspirational landscapes to visit. It’s cheaper in Europe to visit it then all the Japanese landscapes from here. Definitely. Well, not now. But some someday, someday when we have flying again.
Oh, if Miyazaki did a thing about this, that flying is unavailable, and then you can fly again. I want that story. Let’s crowdfund Ghibli. Okay, let’s do a little break. And then let’s get into the big myth-busting that we have to do about Castle in the Sky.
Mythbusting Castle in the Sky’s “simplicity”
Adam: Welcome back. And the big myth-busting I promised was something that’s a pet peeve for me is when people take Miyazaki films early ones, and call them simple, or even worse, simplistic, that really riles me up. And they do say that about Totoro, which I covered in my Totoro talk that’s up on YouTube and on the blog. But I’ve heard this recently about Castle in the Sky as well, that it’s a simplistic film. And that’s been just nagging at me, really. I think I found out what that is. And my theory is that when people say that a certain Miyazaki film is simplistic, they’re they’re conflating the film being simple, with a film that has a plot that is generally easy to follow.
And because the general plot of Laputa is easy to follow, you can tell it to someone in 10 minutes or less. But at the same time, is it simple? Is it a simple plot, once you consider all of the subplots and character things that and the dialogue and the world building?
Flick: It’s the ingenious nature of every single piece of equipment that he’s got in there. For and every frame is just a masterpiece. By looking at it with new eyes, we could spend the rest of our lives discussing this film, in a way.
Adam:Yes, yes. Very, very easily.
Flick: Yeah. Because there’s, I think, with all of his films, he’s so deeply connected. There’s so much philosophy, so much to uncover, you know, and, and none of it, there’s no fat on it. So there’s everything we discovered, like, everything.
Adam: And it’s a two hour children’s film. So that is also, I thought it was shorter. But it’s not.
There’s you know, it’s Japanese four-act structure, and it’s almost half an hour per act, really. And that’s how you get the two hours, that act four is a bit short at the end. But that’s that’s normal for Japan. But you have a very long set-up: half an hour. And you have the the second act, which normally, you know expands on the on the themes of the first act. That’s how you get to four acts in Japan.
And then the third act is the twist, which is when they board the pirate airship and you get like a re-establishment of the entire film. “We live on… we live as a pirate now!” And then it all comes together at the end and the themes are resolved. But it’s a hugely… like the web of things.
And I think also sometimes when people refer to it as like, “your films are simple”, what I call the same thing as raw. Because it is raw, Miyazaki always writes his scripts linearly, he always tells people never write a script, like I write a script, because that’s not a way to write the film script. And it really isn’t. But he’s a genius, so you can get away with it. And so he can do it. And in later films, it’s more refined. And there’s reasons to love that. But I also absolutely love the rawness of these early films.
Flick: Yeah, I mean, I haven’t studied like you have, but I mean, for me, I don’t see a man learning his craft. You know, I just I just see the genius as you say, you know, like, and I just think there’s, there’s the pacing, the storytelling doesn’t let up for a second, you know, beyond that the messaging that’s going on with him, the revelation of everything that he believes, and I suppose one of the things that people might again, sort of think it’s simple, you know, because there is so much love and humour and children.
So people think that love and humour and children are simple, sort of almost negated all things can really now that unless you’re talking about the economy or something incredibly huge and important, you know.
Adam: Well, you could argue that this film talks about the economy as well.
Flick: That’s very true. Yeah. Yeah. It’s like, you know, is it serious, newsworthy, and therefore complex and interesting? Or, you know, whatever, you’re worthy of being not being called simple. Are you going to explore every facet of childhood and love and compassion and justice? And call that simple?
Adam: Yeah, that kind of makes sense what you’re saying in that Totoro is always said to be “Oh, it’s a simple film of children”. But that’s also a super-complicated film. And and maybe it is the children, the presence of small children that triggers it in a lot of people’s minds. Yeah. I mean, you need to just add a dog and you’re done.
Flick: Yeah. Yeah, this film is just a cartoon, you know, then yeah.
Adam: Oh! Yeah, ugh.
Flick: I think it often says a lot about people’s attitude towards childhood, if childhood for you, personally wasn’t a particularly magical time, you know, for that’s the same for lots of people, you can often just dismiss it, I don’t want to know, I don’t want to see it.
And it’s quite interesting for me to as an adult and a mother coming back and watching these films from a really different perspective, and learning so much from them, because I am a parent that wants to learn about childhood and, but also how disconnected I am from my ’70s upbringing. You know, and just thinking, gosh, yes, childhood is a part of my life that I’d really rather not go back to explore.
And it’s quite easy to dismiss these things as simple when actually they are the very making of us, and possibly why we’re in the great big pickle that we’re in now.
Experiencing childhood through symbolism
Adam: Yeah, and that was really interesting what you just said, because Totoro, as I always say, it was designed as a therapy film for the adults that grew up during the war. And I think that the same could be said of this as well. Like, if you’re the sort of person and I, I know a lot of people, myself included, who love and adore the Ghibli films, have not had that ideal childhood, and have a lot of negative experiences with it. This kind of, you know, helps replace that a bit, it helps, you know, get in touch with elements of childhood that I might not have experienced directly. But I can experience through symbolism, which I found really fascinating
Flick: It is and also, Miyazaki’s respect for children is so total. And you always knew that as a child, as well as I definitely am deserving of respect, and I’m not getting it here. So when you see, like two orphans, you know, like Pazu and Sheeta who are absolutely in charge of their own destinies, it’s enviable as it even as an adult to sort of see these two children utterly, unfettered by the adult world in some respects, but victims to it completely as well. But they are, they are able to be utterly in touch with who they are.
Adam: I think there’s a great point to what you just said, with the differentiation between their agency as children, because that changes throughout the film, I noticed that we start the film with an absolute loss of agency: Sheeta is currently captured by government agents on an airship, and is basically attacked and kidnapped by pirates.
And still, her first thing she does in the film is notice an opening, grab the bottle of wine, and hit the bad man in the head and climb out the window at like 10,000 feet altitude. Like she’s not taking that, right.
So this kind of returns with more agency/less agency throughout the film and the bottom point when they come out of the mine, and are captured, and then Sheeta and Pazu go off to, or, well are taken off into their own or individual plotlines before they meet up again. It’s horrifying, how Pazu is completely locked down. He can’t go anywhere. He’s unable to go through the little tunnel he finds which gets its payback later when he blows up part of the wall in Laputa, with the gun that he got from Dola, and then he can go through the tunnel, he can tunnel through himself. For me, there’s a lot of like birth symbolism and birth imagery in that that I want to talk about when we get to the symbolism part.
But in general, there’s this continuing change in how much these children can affect their environment. And the biggest example, in that for me is when Pazu gets out of the military complex gets his you know, pay off money. The three coins “Here you go kid”. Muska really likes to bribe people. He tries with clothing for Sheeta, and then he gives Pazu the three coins.
Flick: I think that’s one of the most disturbing scenes in film that I’ve seen in a long time. It’s so utterly not destructive of his dignity, but it’s just so disgusting. That that’s what that man thinks that boy would… I mean, I don’t think he cares whether he feels what he feels about it rather but for Pazu it’s so particularly horrific to be given that money.
Adam: Yeah, I think it’s a transactional relationship. I think that’s what Muska has, he doesn’t have connections to other humans in this film, which makes me wonder about his childhood. Probably not really nice. I mean, really nice in the riches and privilege sort of way, but not really nice in the human connection sort of way. Because that looks like the only way he can communicate with other people is through giving them objects when he wants something, or taking something from them when he feels that he’s above the other person, which for him is most people.
Flick: Yeah. It’s everybody, I think, basically.
Adam: Yeah. And and in that scene, when when Pazu comes away and is completely defeated in the middle of the film, you have a lot of shots of just very small Pazu in a huge landscape, and just the towering of all the, you know, the turrets and the military walls. And he’s just so small. And then I think he goes through the village, which a different village, he’s, again, very, very small.
And then you get the mirror of that, when they go to Laputa. And they follow the nice robot I called the Zen monk robot, Shinto priest robot, the robot’s job is to take the flower and put it on the grave. And we don’t know whose grave it is. I love that. That seems so much. And then the children are there. And they remark that they do not understand what’s written on the gravestone, but it’s something is there, this is a shrine to something, there’s the huge tree there.
And then again, you have the same wide shot of the very small children with the huge landscape, but it’s such a different scale, in terms of their not being dominated by a military presence, but they’re in awe of the amazing, universal spiritual symbol that is in front of them. And it’s such a different feeling to watch these two scenes next to each other. And they like really complement each other in that sense.
Flick: Definitely the scale of emotion that the film reaches through this kind of like juxtaposition of almost the same image, but completely different. I mean, he reaches such emotional heights, you know, and I’d have to study him a lot more to know how he does that and how he gets there.
Adam: But you know what, it’s just really simple. It’s just setup and payoff. Yes. Does it brilliantly. It’s just basic screenwriting, you set something up. And then at the, I think it’s partly intuitive how he writes the script. So he knows what the time is to reveal something. Or when to “Oh, I set that up earlier. I must pay it off now”, you know, that sort of thing.
And that’s how in later films that we will get to, he does this so well, like in how he just weaves multiple plotlines, even in Mononoke he weaves multiple plot lines into each other, and has had the same payoff for them. And he “Oh, I set that up earlier, I didn’t remember how, this works”. You know, this, I think connects really well to when when we were preparing this episode, you said, you mentioned the ‘child lens’ that this film uses, and I think discussing what we just discussed is the best place to for you to elaborate on that.
Character age differences in the English dub vs. the Japanese original
Flick: Yeah. And it’s interesting, actually, because I watched the film a few months ago with my two children. So we watched the English language version. Which has James Van Der Beek from Dawson’s Creek.
Adam: During Dawson’s Creek, it’s a ’98 dub. So he was Dawson at the time he was Pazu, which to me is…
Flick: He would be about 17-18 wouldn’t he?
Adam: More than that, he was 21 at the time.
Flick: Oh my god. Okay. And who was the one who plays Sheeta?
Adam: Anna Paquin.
Flick: That’s right. Yes. Yeah, exactly.
Adam: And she was, she was 16. I looked it up today. So 21 and 16.
Flick: Yeah, so you get a very, I just took it that they were much more mature boy and girl, you know, that they were probably 15-16. And then in the Japanese version, they’re, obviously children, like, no more than 9-10 or 11.
Adam: Yeah, and I think 11 is, 11 or 12 is the official number. But yeah, yes, pre-puberty. So they’re not they’re not into the emotional and hormonal horror that is puberty, it’s just pure childhood.
Flick: Just pure childhood, even though they’ve obviously both been through an awful lot as you can get with Pazu immediately, you know, that he’s an orphan, you know that he’s a miner, you know, but you know, that he’s also incredibly proud of who he is and what he does is there’s nothing about him that’s experienced any humiliation or he may well have been through great trauma, but he’s definitely very in charge of himself.
And you get that with Sheeta as well to be even though she been kidnapped, you definitely get the sense that she, she knows what’s right and wrong, she’s absolutely going to be in charge of her escape from the airship.
Miyazaki’s pure childhood perspective
Flick: The perspective that I just think is so beautiful that Miyazaki chooses, and not just this film, but in so many of his films, it’s just such a full of grace. And there’s nothing on the lens, there’s no flies on the lens, it’s very clear and very pure.
And I think, again, possibly people think this is a simple thing to achieve. But it’s not, it’s really not, especially when you’re dealing with a story, or driving a storyline forward or whatever, to actually keep the essence of childhood incredibly clear.
And the passions of childhood, which are justice, friendship, love, family, and to not confuse them. Does that make sense? And so I think I mentioned to you when I was really struck by the fact that you found out that Sheeta was a princess. But that meant nothing to her. The thing that meant something to her was her connection with her grandmother. And the comfort that the her grandmother spoke to her. And with Pazu, he might have been had a very gruff boss, but the boss trusted him, you know, for a child to experience trust and to rise to that is one of the most important things that you can give a child, you know, and, and he delivered beautifully, you know.
But then when you go into Muska’s world where it is all about transactions and money, and not that money is necessarily evil, but it’s used so badly. And this cynicism of the adults that somewhere like Laputa, which is basically a weapon is what he wanted to use it for, really, to dominate the world. And it’s not well, it wasn’t built as that. But it’s, its majesty is in all things that we see through an unfettered lens as a child, I’m not explaining it very well.
Adam: No, I think it’s a really good point.
Flick: Oh, good.
Laputa as Utopia
Flick: A child would walk onto laputa and go, “Oh, my God, butterflies, trees, grass, huge, lovely robot”, you know, whereas the the adult walks on and go “How can we sell this? What can we do with this?”
Adam: Yeah, that that is an amazing sequence. And I love how it’s set up as the kids get there first. So we get this huge, uninterrupted, maybe five minutes, it feels like five minutes, of just them exploring, and to them, and I think to us, that is what Laputa is. This place of meditation and of a wondrous working together of nature and technology, which is always always always Miyazaki’s big question of nature versus technology, which is his generation’s Japanese authors are all about that because of what happened in the war and before that, how do we reconcile nature and technology and this is how.
And I have a quote from Anthony Lioi, who is an associate professor of Liberal Arts at Julliard, who has a wonderful paper that’s up online. It’s called The City Ascends — Laputa Castle in the Sky As Critical Ecotopia. And it’s a wonderful paper. And he writes that “Miyazaki’s idea of harmony between first and second nature, the biosphere, and the technosphere, in the absence of Empire.” That is such a wonderful sentence.
Flick: Can you say it again? Sorry!
Adam: Yes. So, so, “Miyazaki’s idea of harmony between first and second nature, the biosphere, and the technosphere in the absence of Empire“. And I love it so much, because essentially what he’s saying is that utopia for Miyazaki in this film exists without human intrusion. That’s how you get utopia. Once society arrives there…. The children are okay.
And I just noticed today something and I’ve seen this till 25 times at least. But today, I noticed that when the children go through the dragon’s nest, and you have the dragon who in we’re in eastern mythology, so the dragon is the protector of a sacred space.
It’s gatekeeper mythology, essentially, but you have a lot of protective dragons in Buddhist temples who are there to lend their power. They’re associated with heaven, and they lend their protector power to the temple, which is what they’re doing here. They are surrounding the sacred space, and they are not letting just anyone through.
But then at one point when Pazu realises “This is the path of my father,” and we get that little glimpse of that Hamletian but not tragic, Daddy-ghost, the dragons line up and show the way, like basically like landing lights for for for aircraft, “Hey kids, you can go”. And when later when the army arrives, they can only arrive because the dragon’s nest is no longer there. And the reason it’s no longer there is because Muska had the amulet.
Flick: Yes. Yeah.
Adam: So this is a very interesting point for me. Because this says that it’s not just “Yes, if you’re royalty, you can sort of cheat the system” and go in whoever you’re bringing.
But that’s not the only way to get there. If you’re pure of heart, which these kids are, then they can get that. And I think that’s the real moral here of the island let these kids in, and they could experience what this place is.
Flick: Yes. And I think that that is the lens that is the most sort of beautiful intention is that as adults, and we know that we’re completely sort of ruined in lots of ways you get to experience that you get to actually sort of think yes, this, this is what this could be, you know, in the same way that you see the mining village. There doesn’t appear to be necessarily such a big fat cat in charge of the mining village and the same with the Laputa is, you get the general idea. And also with them, Sheeta’s home, you know, with the where she’s in charge of her flock of strange animals. I’m not quite sure what they are.
Adam: Yeah. They’re referred to as the yaks in the script. It’s a Miyazaki-type yak. It doesn’t have to correspond to any actual animal.
Flick: I love it. It’s just got such a benevolent face, whatever it is, but yeah, but yeah, so it’s kind of like you’ve got your industrial, you’ve got your agricultural, you’ve got your spiritual realms, that when you’re perceived through, like I said, the un-empirical is the way to say it?
Through lack of empire, then these are utopias, and it’s not actually that difficult, but for some reason, we’re not able to get there in our real lives in the world that we inhabit.
Adam: Wow. Yeah, I love that. I love that.
Flick: And this coronavirus is gonna, somehow, not sort things out, that’s a terrible way of looking at it. But it’s kind of like, you know — is this something like, for instance, in Nausicaa? You know, are we going through this incredibly toxic patch? You know, with…
Adam: Oh, yes.
Flick: With hope the outside at the other side, we can emerge? A little better, but who knows?
Next up on ‘Castle in the Sky: Explained’
That’s it for the first in our Laputa mini-series. Keep listening to learn about:
- how masculinity is portrayed in the film,
- the real complexity behind Muska,
- how Miyazaki flips all the Disney princess tropes,
- and finally, how Sheeta’s character has her roots in the ancient Hindu epic, the Ramayana.
That’s all in the next episode, so see you there, bye!
Now it’s your turn!
I tried to put a lot of new stuff in this episode about the film that I suspect even ardent Ghibli fans wouldn’t know. (I didn’t know a lot of them before I went off to research for this.)
Did it work?
Did you learn something about this film you didn’t know before?
Let me know in the comments below.
And if you haven’t yet, don’t forget to sign up for the Studio Ghibli Secrets Guide for a deep look into the storytelling and the mythologies behind the Ghibli films.
nice chats, Laputa is one of my favourite films, I first saw it on a Japanese VHS a friends Dad who used to live in JP brought back to the UK.
Things I would add it is very likely Swift called the island governed by science Laputa “the whore” on purpose, as you say Swift was known for his sharp satire. Swift was also deeply critical of the emerging sciences during the enlightenment and was ostensibly defensive of the “absolute truths” provided by the church as the foundation of British and European society. In contrast to the church and it’s teachings science provided no fixed absolutes “going” where ever evidence took the enquirer. At the time it was common to make the critique of science and pure reason that it could lead one anywhere based on new evidence (unlike religion) like a whore who sleeps with any partner. This is probably why the island floats around anywhere and why it is called Laputa. In addition to this it is also probably a biblical reference to the Whore of Babylon and Babylon in general as a “an unholy city” but also possibly with references to Rome and it’s control of an ungodly empire (drawing a satirical illusion to the British empire of the time). Whether or not Miyazaki picked up on these very specific linguistic and western literary references I am unsure, I am however certain that he must have read Gulliver’s Travels and found deep resonances between the themes of ethics and religion vs science and what constitutes progress and the themes in his work around humanities relationship to our context / nature (is this an artificial duality) and what constitutes progress and the natural.
Secondly one of the only real world locations Gulliver visits is Japan.
I also find the most compelling thing in all his work is the interface between his cultural background of Japanese animism and his early Socialism / Marxism. Often humans and technology begin at odds with nature but eventually (a theme developed most deeply in the Nausicaa graphic novel but present in an early form in Laputa) are revealed to be part of totality and an equilibrium must be found.
I am also always reminded of Laputa when I read Richard Brautigan’s poem All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace which can be read as both utopian or bitingly satirical (or both) and came out of the same literary processing of the effects of the cold war as The Incredible Tide.
“I like to think (and
the sooner the better!)
of a cybernetic meadow
where mammals and computers
live together in mutually
like pure water
touching clear sky.
I like to think
(right now, please!)
of a cybernetic forest
filled with pines and electronics
where deer stroll peacefully
as if they were flowers
with spinning blossoms.
I like to think
(it has to be!)
of a cybernetic ecology
where we are free of our labors
and joined back to nature,
returned to our mammal
brothers and sisters,
and all watched over
by machines of loving grace.”
Adam Dobay says
Hi Chris, what an amazing comment! Thanks for your insights into Swift, back when I last read Gulliver (and that was a long time ago) the island’s untetheredness as a metaphor for it going wherever science takes it was something I never thought about — and the naming makes that much more sense in this context (though that bit of the metaphor didn’t age well).
In Miyazaki’s film, working backwards from Sheeta’s proclamation that life is something that has to live on the surface of the earth speaks to me of the emphasis on the detachment of Laputans from life and humanity — which led to its development as a military superpower in this universe. Muska is the personification of this hubris, and we see in practice his philosophy of advancing only oneself through any means and by sacrificing whomever else in the process.
This very well might be a continuation of the Swiftian idea, although with a shift to an equilibrium. To be fair, Miyazaki has 250 years going on Swift, so he has a look at a very different permeation of science and technology. And, however much criticism Miyazaki puts in his works, he does always promote some sort of equilibrium. It seems from his work and from his writing style (where he starts off with a problem or an idea and works his way through it linearly instead of having an ending in mind) that he is working through issues and viewpoints clashing in a way that will have a natural end state for all of these. Some things are always rearranged in the end (more severely in some works like the Nausicaä manga, Mononoke Hime and even The Wind Rises), but never with the satirical bite of a Swift, a Philip K. Dick or even the Brautigan poem you quoted.
Thanks for your amazing points! I enjoyed reading them. 🙂
You mention the craters around the mining village as something of a mystery in that they match what you see Laputa as capable of doing, but the timeline doesn’t match.
On my second viewing, knowing the full history of Laputa, I interpreted this as a mine dating back to Laputa’s reign physically, that has been re-inhabited by modern peoples. The miners are seeking minerals similar to those that supported Laputa originally and humanity is slowly moving towards Laputa’s dangerous technologies once more. It is a cyclic reference and reinforces the key understanding of Laputa that its removal from the world was so dangerous that it had to be abandoned entirely in favor of the pastoralism we see at least one Laputa descendent originating from.