Reviewed by Robert Hood
There is a distinctly steampunk — or perhaps more accurately retro, post-Industrial — aesthetic to Hayao Miyazaki’s typically luminous fantasy anime, Laputa: Castle in the Sky. Technological imagery combines with more fantastical elements to create the sort of magical ambiance quintessential to Miyazaki’s grandmaster status in the field of animation. Though science fiction in general appearance, replete with flying machines, robots and advanced, if ancient, technology, much of the film feels like magic. The combination makes for a wonderful two-hours of family entertainment — profound simplicity, darkness wrapped in auras of light.
After an opening scene in which a young girl (Sheeta) falls from a huge dirigible while trying to escape both a mysterious enemy and air-pirates, the action shifts to Pazu, an engineer’s apprentice at work in a vast mining construct, clearly well past its prime. He sees the young girl not so much falling as floating down from the sky, apparently carried to safety by the glowing pendant she wears around her neck. He catches her in his arms.
This encounter is the beginning of an adventurous journey that involves spectacular chase scenes, pseudo-fascist troops, air battles, puzzles to be solved — and a mythical flying castle that is what remains of an ancient civilisation whose power had been vast but has long since been lost to ground-dwelling humanity. Many seek the source of that power, however, and Pazu must not only help Sheeta escape them, but also unravel the mystery of who she is and how she is connected to Laputa.
Though the sinister pirates convincingly turn into eccentric comrades during the unravelling of the narrative, and the overall tone of the film is one of well-meaning optimism, there is a dark and melancholy undercurrent as well. It is this that creates the film’s complexity and gives an effective texture to the story. If nothing else, evidence of human civilisation here is in various stages of decay — from the mining township of Slag Ravine, which appears to be living under the shadow of economic decline, to Laputa itself, which is the last evidence of an advanced civilisation that has now all but disappeared. Parts of it are overgrown, crumbling, with only the natural reserves — kept up by a strange and strangely endearing robotic ecologist — surviving to the end. In that end the island in the sky becomes more or less a huge tree (the Tree of Life?), with the debris of greatness entangled in its roots — a significant symbol of the continuity of the natural world and the ephemeral nature of humanity’s creations, no matter how magnificent.
This new Blu-ray edition of Laputa: Castle in the Sky is absolutely beautiful, evidence, if any were needed, that traditional cel animation can stand up to scrutiny against CGI and in some areas perhaps even surpass it. Apparently 69,262 traditional “cels” and 381 colors were needed to give Laputa its radiant splendor, and there is no stinting on the quality of the animation itself. The luminosity of this transfer to Blu-ray has to be the best the film has ever looked and is more than worthy of this great work of animated cinema.
If you love Miyazaki’s work, you will need to upgrade to this edition, which you can watch with its original Japanese soundtrack or with an effective English dub. If you don’t love Miyazaki’s work… what’s your problem?
Laputa: Castle in the Sky is released on DVD and on Blu-ray by Madman Entertainment.