Anime Review: Laputa: Castle in the Sky (1986)

TL;DR – Sheeta owns a mystical amulet that contains the power to levitate. She is targeted by both government agents and air pirates seeking the power of the stone. With the help of a boy named Pazu, the pair go on an adventure to find the flying castle, Laputa, and the origins of Sheeta’s amulet.

Review (warning: spoilers)

Before there were big furry creatures and cat buses (Tonari no Totoro), before young witches tried to make their mark (Kiki’s Delivery Service) and pigs flew seaplanes (Porco Rosso), before forest gods and girls that rode on giant wolves (Princess Mononoke), there was Laputa: Castle in the Sky. Hayao Miyazaki’s masterpiece brought steampunk fantasy to the masses and spawned numerous steampunk anime and manga to follow including the likes of Fullmetal Alchemist and Miyazaki’s later work, Howl’s Moving Castle.

I have said in my previous anime reviews of Miyazaki’s work that the man is a storyteller of the highest calibre and has an attention to detail that creates worlds that are full of depth. In anime (and indeed animation) circles, Miyazaki’s ability to capture the little things on the screen while depicting multi-layered characters and fascinating story plots is second to none.

Laputa: Castle in the Sky follows young orphan Sheeta aboard an airship who has been captured by government agent Muska. The airship is attacked by pirates led by Dola, and Sheeta attempts to escape only to lose her footing scaling the outside of the ship and plunges to her death. Or so we think…

Instead, a glowing blue light bursts forth from an amulet around Sheeta’s neck slowing her descent. We are then introduced to Pazu, a boy who works in a mining town, who sees an unconscious Sheeta floating down from the skies. The animated physics of the characters grabbed me immediately and the scene where a confused Pazu opens his arms to “catch” Sheeta and as soon as she is in his arms the power of the amulet turns off is both funny and charming. Pazu’s legs buckle as Sheeta’s full weight has been released by the stone and he strains to lift and carry her to safety.

He takes her to his home to recover. His home, an odd construct of wood and stone with several floors connected by ladders, reminded me of a cross between a castle tower and a hobbit house. The scene where he wakes the next morning to release doves into the valley and play his trumpet to greet the new day is divine.

But their peace is short lived as Sheeta reveals to Pazu those seeking to hunt her down, a race between government agents and pirates to get a hold of Sheeta first. When action is triggered, it is thrilling and filled with complexities that boggles the mind when you think this was done all through traditional cell animation techniques back in the 1980s (way before CGI became common place). One such sequence is when Pazu and Sheeta are escaping on a train and being chased by the pirates and army. The explosions and collapsing of bridges where the train tracks run is nothing short of brilliant. Like something out of Looney Tunes Road Runner cartoon but with way more detail and care.

Through the twists and turns, Sheeta is eventually captured again by Muska while Pazu joins forces with Dola and her pirates. They manage to rescue Sheeta but at the cost of the amulet which falls into Muska’s hands. The climatic final act involving the discovery of Laputa (a giant floating castle that has at its centre a giant levitation crystal) and a series of sentinel robots that can be activated to defend the castle or wage war. This is Muska’s end game. He wants to take control of Laputa and its robot army and take over the world. It is only through Sheeta and Pazu’s actions that they prevent this from happening, and watching the disintegrating Laputa is horrifying, mesmerising and truly epic.

An adventure film that is essential viewing. One to be watched and re-watched.

10 out of 10

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