2016 Film Essays

Studio Ghibli Forever: An Initiation – ‘Laputa: Castle in the Sky’


“Studio Ghibli Forever: An Initiation” is a series in which Jordan Brooks, having no experience with the animation house, seeks to discover the basis for the worldwide phenomenon that is Ghibli. The international theatrical retrospective of some of Ghibli’s most beloved features serves as the perfect introduction to the studio giant, and will hopefully afford fans and newcomers alike a chance to see these monumental films as originally intended.

James Cameron can pack his bags and go home. Laputa: Castle in the Sky exists, and within the film is enough sublimely beautiful world building to render Avatar edgeless and feeble. From an opening scene punctuated with action that betrays its 1980’s roots (instances of sky piracy have waned in recent years), Laputa makes a detour from this exciting aerial battle to introduce the audience to the world into which they have just been dropped. With a credit sequence unfolding like the storyboard of Leonardo da Vinci’s dreams, corkscrew fliers give way to more complex gravity defying battleships until we bear witness the height of man’s desire to shed his earthly bounds — a floating feudal pasture encircling a magnificent castle (in the sky).


By the time Hayao Miyazaki returns us to his fairytale world — seemingly flung forward into the technologically crippled present– the fight is over and any memories of this bygone era are long gone. Populated by miners, farmers and some kind of shadowy government complete with an all-powerful army and covert intelligence branch (think CIA or MI6), the world of Laputa lives by medieval rules, but with the benefit of modern (and even untenably futuristic) machinery. Plowing through exposition as if to get it over with, Miyazaki and his team set the wheels in motion early in order to carry the rest of the film with as few interruptions as possible. The young Sheeta, who found herself at the heart of the pre-title battle, awakes in the home of the equally young Pazu, confused as to why she is alive. Already privy to the reason, we listen as Pazu recounts her falling delicately from the sky, held aloft and protected by a glowing necklace. The young orphans have little time to rest before both the pirates and the aggressive army come knocking on the door, demanding the return of both Sheeta and her gemstone.

Laputa: Castle in the Sky makes one feel as though any childhood lived in ignorance of it could have been at least slightly better given its inclusion. Much of the film lives in so deep a realm of fantasy and adventure that the impact on a young mind seems limitless. From dragonfly-winged two-man fliers to the grand scale of Laputa itself, the pathways for exploring one’s imagination are inexhaustible, and Miyazaki’s (oftentimes surface-deep) foundation for this fictional world provide a fertile ground in which dreams are free to thrive. The Pirate Queen/Mother, Dola’s goose-shaped ship, feels as though it was torn right from the pages of folklore and made “real” in front of our eyes — a pirate Mother Goose in all of her vulgar glory. Perhaps it was disheartening to the animators who poured over the details of their respective assignments that, for the sake of narrative brevity, their creations were shown only briefly, but that immense thought and care needs only a second to implant itself within the hearts and minds of viewers.

Rarely do such strong female characters exist in films aimed at children, and even rarer do they exist within such gender-neutral action narratives. Of course there are certainly some neglected segments (all the major relationships are heteronormative, and most characters are drawn with a very non-threatening beige), but for 1986, a princess that does most of her own rescuing, and a powerful pirate Mama that is as tough as she is crass, appear far more forward thinking than even the most modern of Western (think Hollywood not John Wayne) animated films. Sitting in the dark of the theatre, I was struck by how rarely a line like Dola’s “This is a job for a woman!” is followed by a heroic series of action, and I was secondarily struck by how much of a shame it is that something so narratively minor could feel so poignant and special.


Ghibli films exist in worlds unbound by reality and unfettered by convention; a world where castles can float and a teenage girl becoming her own hero is rendered commonplace. The magic of this animation house as seen from the eyes of an “adult” in the Internet age is that these female characters have been given a voice outside of the pressures of modern social justice, and they belong not because of some guild-ridden box checking, but because they just doLaputa: Castle in the Sky is not a film for little girls or little boys, nor does it place bravery, cunning or strength atop some archetypal hierarchy of morals. It is a film for little humans (and big humans) that places hopefulness, imagination and kindness above all else.

Jordan Brooks (@viewtoaqueue) is an increasingly-snobby cinefile based out of London, England. As a contributor to several online publications, including his own blog, he has succeeded in fulfilling his life long dream of imposing strong opinions on others.