Flying, a dream for Miyazaki to paint and for the viewer to embrace. Persistent and unmarred in a body of work that spans an ocean of significance, the notion of flight is unassuming yet essential to Miyazaki’s work. The oneiric quality that distinguishes his work is often held by a meticulous but vacillating sense of an ethereal that is intrinsically grounded in the pragmatism of the mind. We, like Miyazaki, are perpetually pondering ourselves in relation to the vast sky, a symbol of the exuberant possibilities of life and a subject of yearning, but also a reminder of the constraint and insignificance of our existences. If the skies and aerial motions have played a number of roles in the works of Miyazaki, it is its association with freedom that remains the most significant; a motif that recurs amply in the tangled journey of Sheeta and Pazu, the protagonists of our story, towards the mythical flying castle and away from the clutches of abhorrent oppression.
“No matter how many weapons you have, no matter how great your technology might be, the world cannot live without love” – Lusheeta ‘Sheeta’ Toel Ul Laputa
Flight has been played for several different effects by Miyazaki through out his career in filmmaking, but in Laputa it takes on an allegorical quality different from Ghibli’s future outings on the subject. The film was made at a peculiar time in our history, a time where the threat of nuclear war still loomed at the horizon and men’s first step on the moon were still fresh in memories. A time of great progress and even greater uncertainty. Similarly, in the world of our story reigning powers relentlessly pursue technological grandeur and power, often at the expense of collateral damage.
In this instance, the elusive Laputa, the vestige of a civilization long gone, substitutes itself as the grail in the stead of nuclear power or space flight. It holds promise of great treasure and knowledge that warrant the interest of the military, the government and the main antagonist of the story, Colonel Muska. Beyond the verdant plains and steam constructs that populate the scenery of the film we are invited to contemplate the relationship that exists between civilisation and the nature around us. Like Sheeta, it too is often the subject of the exploitation and objectification by society; Miyazaki, draws a parallel between the emancipation of its heroine and naturalism.
As we are reminded by Uncle Pomme as when protagonists make their way through the caves beneath Pazu’s hometown, nature has a knack to hide its beauty in the most unexpected of places. A recurring theme throughout the Castle In The Sky is the validation of the intrinsic relationship that exists between the products of human science and nature. The lackluster decors of the mine that exacerbated the frustration of the miners’ are put in stark contrast to the secret glow of the stones revealed by Uncle Pomme. Pazu and Sheeta’s amazement reflects our own as we soon come to realise that the film asks us to look beyond the mere utilitarism that bounds our perception of the world around us; Miyazaki unequivocally asks us to believe and not forget the simpler life of those that lived by the land like the miner’s of our story; in contrast it is the military driven by reckless and dehumanised progress that he rebuffs; humans are part of a natural whole, Miyazaki posits.
“The crystal is extremely powerful, but with a power that rightfully belongs to the earth from which it came. To forget that and then try and use the crystal’s power for selfish reason, will bring great unhappiness” – Uncle Pomme
Turbulence overtakes the search for the flying monument; paths intersect, characters are thrown asunder and alliances are made. In Miyazaki’s story there is a clear narrative function to the different clusters to which our characters belong. While Colonel Muska’s military allies represent a criticism of the State and militarism, Dola’s flying pirates can be posited to represent a more fringe outlook for the time. They are agent of a beneficial chaos opposed to the stifling order of the military; though initially single-mindedly in pursuit of their own self-gratification, they ultimately become a benevolent force in the adventures of Sheeta and Pazu.
Dola’s own representation serves to subvert traditional gender roles; she is an overbearing presence amongst the male dominated pirate crew and in her relationship to her husband. Although pushed to the extremes of its representation, Miyazaki’s choice to portrait Dola in the way he does serves to contrast with Muska’s own dark designs for Sheeta. The latter embraces the patriarchal ideology interwoven with society and militarism; he’s willing to abuse and use Sheeta in pursuit of a selfish entitlement to an ancestral patrimony. On the other hand, the crude and harsh Dola is sympathetic to our protagonists’ situation, she is characterized by a human understanding and compassion that are sorely lacking in Muska who is driven only be self-serving motives; she is a role model for Sheeta to aspire to be.
“Nothing but tree stumps and vines ! Stupid, ugly, dirty, disgusting things !” – Colonel Muska
Our deuteragonist Pazu too seems to be irremediably at the mercy of those outside constrictive forces, though different from those that afflict Sheeta. The ailment that shadows him is the incomprehension and dismissal that he suffers from those around as to his dream. He desperately dreams of taking flight in search of proof of his father’s tale of the mythical flying castle. A perseverance that permeates in his attempts to help Sheeta. Although initially crushed by Sheeta’s rejection due to Muska’s coercing, he ultimately rises above the odds in an effort to help his friend. Laputa often reminds us of the burden of legacy, but to Pazu, his legacy is one that inspires and pushes him to do the better him; as he approaches the flying castle it is the shadow of his father that guides him through the bashful winds.
Humanism is an overarching theme of our story; though Miyazaki may criticise established political and military systems that vitiate the human element, he also goes to lengths to enunciate his view that kindness is intrinsic to human being. The sentinels of Laputa, man-made machines that serve as guardians of extraordinary fire power, often display unyielding kindness to fauna and flora around them. They represent at an end qualities of kindness passed on by their human creators, and on another underlines the view that technology is ultimately indissociable from nature.
Similarly, the stone, an objectively mesmerizing and wondrous item, held by Sheeta serves a similar purpose; inferred to be in contrast a natural occurring object, it represents those aspects of nature that we have learned to channel in a call back to nuclear matter. The stone and the treasures to which it is key are the focal target of Muska and his allies; it drives a frenzied and reckless desire in those that seek it for its subjective and superficial value. Our heroine is faced with the inherited and unwilling burden of choosing how the azure gem will come to manifest its uncanny powers. Ghibli champions a harmony between man-mad creations and nature; often do we forget the integral part that nature plays in the order of things, through the kindness of the sentinels we are reminded that at its core scientific development too is a natural extension of nature.
“He’s got plenty of friends, the animals and the plants, he takes care of them” – Pazu
In its form, the Castle In The Sky prones the adage that the ultimate responsibility lies in the user and not the tool. The consequences of her actions are imprinted on Sheeta when she witnesses the fiery hell that devolves as she utters the formula passed down to her. In her Miyazaki reminds us of the weight and responsibility that is incumbent to those that hold power; war remains at the back of our minds as we are asked to meditate the frightening prospects of overwhelming destructive power. Laputa is a reminder of the bleaker outcomes that technology might lead us to in a dire parallel to the anxiety of the cold war. We are prisoners of our own making, at the mercy of the things we create and often forgetting that, like Sheeta, the key to their use lies with us; freedom is earned.
“I had to learn the bad ones so the good spells would have power” – Sheeta
Sheeta and Pazu find themselves prisoners of circumstances, at the mercy of overbearing politics, patriarchal entitlement and lingering patrimony. There is a feeling of helplessness to their situation, of being dreadfully at the mercy of forces beyond their control; a stark contrast to the overarching theme of flight that prevails in our story. In Miya zaki’s world, adventure through the skies in incongruous personal flying contraptions is but a mere matter of fact, yet despite that mobility, the sense of our characters being bound is not shaken off.
In its final act, Sheeta and Pazu choose to put the flying castle irremediably out of human reach, the final spell of closure revokes the object of lust in an idealist take on a world without the threat of nuclear annihilation. The disintegration of Laputa to its core is an allegory for Sheeta’s own breakthrough, an emancipation from the clutches of the system. Like the flying castle, she has shed the chains that have tied her down by opposing the restraining forces of Muska. Laputa, in a calm serenity, flies away to an unknown horizon, unburdened by the weight of its history; there is a convergence of feminist emancipation and naturalism. In that, Miyazaki shows to us an ideal; one where us too may one day free ourselves from our self-made chains of eternal war anxiety and reconcile with the view that we and the things we create are a whole with nature.