Released in 1986, Hayao Miyazaki's Laputa: Castle in the Sky was the first official Studio Ghibli film, and amongst animation buffs it's considered one of the most iconic animated films of all time, up there with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs for the sheer quality, dedication of the director (Miyazaki apparently checked every animation cell by hand), and for the impact it had on the animation industry.
The story follows Pazu, a very young worker in a coal mining village. The village and architecture were based around Welsh mining villages that Miyazaki visited. In an interview in 1999, Miyazaki explained that he first visited Wales in 1984 and witnessed the miners' strike first hand. He explained:
"I was in Wales just after the miners' strike. I really admired the way the miners' unions fought to the very end for their jobs and communities, and I wanted to reflect the strength of those communities in my film."
Miyazaki also told The Guardian, "I admired those men, I admired the way they battled to save their way of life, just as the coal miners in Japan did. Many people of my generation see the miners as a symbol; a dying breed of fighting men. Now they are gone."
Pazu has plenty of fighting spirit. He's been determined to find the legendary land of Laputa ever since his late father had showed him a picture that he'd managed to take of it. Laputa, is actually the flying island described in the classic book Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift. The island is pretty much as described in Gulliver's Travels in this film. You could even call Castle in the Sky a spin-off of Gulliver's Travels, or certainly an homage. Below you can see Laputa as it appears in Castle in the Sky on the left, and a drawing of Laputa from Gulliver’s Travels on the right (illustrated by J. J. Grandville).
Pazu's world is turned upside down by a girl who literally falls from the sky – Sheeta, who has a mysterious past of her own, and a sinister pursuer Muska, who is one of the most iconic anime villains of all time, and also voiced by Mark Hamill in the dub.
Castle in the Sky was made on a tight budget. As such, the film was largely without a score, except for a few moments such as the film's beautiful main theme, Pazu's trumpet dawn chorus, and the famous robot showdown, which had a gloriously menacing synth-based soundtrack.
After a remastered version of the film was released with a new overdubbed orchestral score, people were actually very disappointed (myself included) to find the synths removed. The silence and then the harsh synths had actually managed to create a fantastic and unique atmosphere for Laputa.
These menacing synths were put to particularly good use with the film's iconic robot, who awakes to protect Sheeta, but through its attempts to save her ends up unleashing destruction and killing almost everybody in its path.
Yet when the robot is finally brought down, there's a real confusing sadness to its death. Later, when we meet more of these robots on the floating island of Laputa, they are peaceful and attentive to the nature of the island. As always with Miyazaki's work there's a powerful environmental, anti-war message with warnings of corruption through power.
Castle in the Sky's robot is actually one of the key tourist attractions of the Studio Ghibli museum in Japan, where people queue up to have their photograph taken with him. Another entry on Laputa's huge list of achievements is that it's still responsible for setting the record for the most tweets per second. In 2013, on 3rd August, an airing of Castle in the Sky in Japan caused such an influx of tweets at the moment of the film's climax that it broke records.
There's something special about Castle in the Sky. Just like Star Wars was to sci-fi, Laputa's influence and impact on anime is vast. Every time you see an anime villain push up his glasses, and momentarily a block of light flashes across them, that's Muska. The film’s reach even extends to places you wouldn't expect, such as Gorillaz music videos, and the finale of the Professor Layton series. It's even cited as repopularising the steampunk genre.
When we think of Studio Ghibli we always think of Spirited Away, but in Japan, and in the industry, Laputa: Castle in the Sky might just be even more iconic.
Written by Rhianna Evans