AKA RENKU NO SHIRO RAPYUTA
AVAILABLE ON DVD AND BLU RAY
RUNNING TIME: 130 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera
In a time which seems to be towards the end of the 1800s, a young girl called Sheeta is being held captive is being held captive by the government on an airship. Sheeta holds a sacred pendant which is the key to Laputa, a long lost civilization on an island in the sky. When the Dola gang, a group of air pirates who are after the pendant, attack the ship, Sheeta falls thousands of feet but is saved by the pendant which enables her to float and is then caught by Pazu, an orphan boy who survives by working in the mines. The two become fast friends, but both the Dola gang and the government, led by the nasty colonel Muskra, are after her….
My first introduction to the crazy world of anime was one morning towards the end of 1988, between Christmas Day and New Year’s Day, when I caught the showing of this cartoon movie called Laputa The Flying Island on ITV, and though it was already about a quarter of the way through, I was instantly engrossed by the inventiveness, the detail and this wonderful story which was beautifully childlike but also intelligent and unpredictable enough to seem quite adult too. A couple of years ago I caught a cinema showing of the incredible Akira and it made me a big fan of anime, though when more and more releases came out on video so quickly that there was no way I could buy even half of them, the market got saturated and I eventually lost interest. These days I have what could be best be described as a partial interest in the genre, but I do believe that at its best, Japanese animation can rival the best that the West can produce and I think that this is nowhere more evident than in the works of Hayao Miyazaki. With the eventual releases in the West of his later works such as Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away, Miyazaki did get the widespread acclaim he deserved and some measure of commercial success in the West with Disney dubbing and releasing his movies. For me though, Laputa: Castle In The Sky remains my favourite of his movies and one of the greatest animated films ever made. Every time I watch it, it ignites a real childlike sense of wonder and adventure and I’m totally engrossed.
Laputa was the first film made by Studio Ghibli, which was formed in 1985 by Miyazaki [whose Nausicaa Valley Of The Wind had just been released to great success] and Isao Takahata. It was loosely inspired by a portion of Jonathan Swifts’ Gulliver’s Travels, in which Gulliver travels to a flying island called Laputa where science and mathematics is pursued without practical results, and with perhaps a little help from Jules Verne too, Miyazaki used it as the springboard to create a fable containing many of the concerns that would feature in his work, such as environmentalism and pacifism. The design of Laputa itself was inspired by Paranella Park, a castle in North Queensland, Australia, and to this day music from the film is played during tours of the castle. Though another sizeable hit in Japan, it took its time in coming to the West. In 1989, a straightforward English dub, supposedly done for international flights to and from Japan, saw a video release in the UK and was the version I saw on TV. Then in 1998 Disney did their own dub, and this version was intended for a cinema release but didn’t see one until 2003, and that was only on DVD and video. Some have claimed that Disney deliberately sabotaged their Miyazaki releases, a claim which I think is going overboard, but it’s obvious they weren’t always entirely sure as to what to do with these films, which were very different from any American animated ones of the period.
Before going into more detail about Laputa, it’s worth discussing the different versions because two of them differ rapidly from each other and this review, which is primarily of the Japanese version. The 1989 dub was just an English dub, nothing more, and followed the Japanese script to the letter though with poor voice acting. The 1998 dub though, significantly changed the film to an extent which really upset some fans. Anna Paquin and James Van Der Beek seemed too old for the roles they were dubbing but more importantly the script was drastically changed, altering the meaning of some of the dialogue and even adding lines. Also, composer Joe Hishaishi was hired to redo his score. His music for the Japanese version was primarily synthesiser-based and left a great portion of the film unscored, but for the American version he used a full orchestra and was encouraged to score the majority of the film, because animated movies in American tended to have almost wall to wall music. The new score sounds great but there’s too much of it for my liking, and, combined with the altered and extra dialogue, gives the film a more frenetic feel. I really disliked the Disney version when I saw it, though luckily the DVD also had the Japanese version. The new DVD and Blu Ray release, in addition to the Japanese version, contains yet another version. The English dubbing is the same as the Disney one except that most of the added lines have been removed and the score now reverts back to the original one. My advice if you haven’t seen this movie – just watch the Japanese version and ignore all the others!
The film opens seemingly in mid story, with Sheeta being held on the Goliath airship for reasons we don’t know why yet, and the sky pirates attacking. Talk about a frenetic opening, but once Sheeta lands on the ground and meets Pazu, the pace slows and for a while Laputa is a touching depiction of a friendship between two children. I’ve read criticisms of Laputa’s stop/start pace, and that much of it is too slow, but I disagree completely. Even though children these days seem to be constantly subjected to films that are paced really frenetically, they need to be shown more leisurely paced films too, I think it’s good for them, and to me this movie’s pacing is perfect. The story takes its time to move, but progresses beautifully, building up more and more a feeling of awe and mystery, and along the way, almost as an aside, we are treated to some incredible action scenes. Firstly we have a chase on a train track where the children, aboard a train, are pursued by the Dola gang on their own odd transport and, after a while, the military too. This sequence is like something out of an Indiana Jones movie, with the editing being especially striking. Then later on we have an amazing set piece where a seemingly dead robot, which apparently fell from Laputa hundreds of years ago, comes to life and starts destroying the army castle its in, yet seems to avoid killing actual people. At one point, it briefly spouts wings, in a perfect example of the freewheeling invention that characterises Miyazaki’s movies. There’s destruction everywhere, then the robot saves Sheeta from certain death before it is destroyed, and before it falls it holds out its hand to Sheeta, who holds it for a moment. A simple, almost Godzilla-esque destruction sequence goes through a myriad of emotions including fear, excitement and wonder before ending in pathos.
The second half sees the protagonists finally searching for Laputa and we are treated to an incredible set piece set in and amidst stormy clouds, which seems to go on forever but continually reaches new heights of excitement, until we finally land on Laputa itself. The reveal of what Sheeta and Pazu see is a truly great moment. Initially there are clouds everywhere, but they gradually part to reveal grass, empty buildings, etc – yet the tone is not one of grandeur, which is what one might expect. No, it’s one of great sadness. Laputa was once a great civilisation, but it died, leaving nature to take over, and the images of few surviving robots, who seem to tend to it like gardeners [I was reminded, on this viewing, of Silent Running], shuffling about is very moving. Miyazaki brings in his favoured environmental theme, and though I’m not a huge fan of this kind of thing in movies, partly because I think it’s often put in cynically, I always ‘buy it’ in Miyazaki’s films because it’s so heartfelt, the man really believes in it. There’s a sublime moment when, just after the children have landed on Laputa, a robot picks up their glider, revealing a bird’s nest underneath, and moves it to a place where it’s not able to harm any life. Of course there’s a final action climax before we’re left with an ending which does resolve most matters happily, but which still leaves us with a bittersweet feel.
The painstakingly crafted animation is fantastic throughout, with the thing that impressed me most this time round being the detail you can see out of the window during train rides, with even figures moving. Now this sounds like a silly little detail, but not even Disney in their Golden Age would have had this. The overall setting is obviously towards the end of the 1800’s, but there are things like elaborate flying machines [allowing Miyazaki to indulge his fascination with all things aerial] which obviously didn’t exist. It’s a perfect fantasy world, both real and fantastical, and everything, from the often bizarre aerial crafts, to the slightly German-like uniforms, weapons and machines of the army, seems to have been properly thought through. The detail is astonishing, and because of this, we believe it all for the duration of the movie. The script and general story is also wonderful, it really has the feel of a legend, and mixes in countless elements from children’s stories and fairytales, such as a princess, pirates, a quest, a magic kingdom etc. whilst still seeming very original. Like many of those stories, it contains messages, even morals, which can teach us things, without this aspect becoming laboured. Despite this, there’s still a fair bit of humour, much of it deriving from Dola’s sons, who provide much slapstick and silliness and fulfill the role played by the comical sidekicks in Disney cartoons.
Joe Hishaishi’s score might be largely synthesised [in this version] but it has some terrific themes, especially when describing and depicting Laputa, where the music is often really beautiful. There are many scenes though which benefit from no, or hardly any, sound at all, a really interesting thing to do, and this is something that was largely lost in the Disney version, which plastered music over almost everything. A good example is the first landing on Laputa, which is so much more atmospheric and haunting when all you hear is a quiet wind. There is so much else that is terrific about Laputa; for example I haven’t properly described Laputa itself, which is one of the great places in fantasy movies, totally unique yet created to reflect truths in our world and what we are doing to it. This is not just a great animated film, it’s a great film full stop. It immerses us in a brilliantly conceived fantasy world, takes us on an incredible adventure and leaves us entirely satisfied while also giving us food for thought. Its ideas, its concepts, virtually all of its ingredients, from the smallest little detail to the most spectacular occurrence, all contribute to something which is worthy of great literature and has the weight of genuine myth. Even if I’d never seen Laputa again since that morning in 1989, I know that I would have never been able to forget it.