Following cues from Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, the first animated movie from Studio Ghibli back in 1986 was Castle in the Sky. While other Ghibli works tend to overshadow this film, it is arguable the finest anime movie ever made.
Set in an alternate version of the 19th century, Castle in the Sky deals with the search for a literal castle that is floating in the sky. Called Laputa, this floating city reigned supreme with a planet-wide empire dominating human pre-history.
Relics from Laputa drop from the sky and certain jewels seemed to be imbued with immense powers. In the case of these latter jewels, a character called Sheeta wears a similar gem around her neck.
From a mysterious government organization to airborne pirates, it seems that this blue jewel is the key to rediscovering Laputa.
Thrown into all of this is Pazu, a young miner that happens upon Sheeta at the start of the story. Pazu’s father spent his life searching for Laputa and Pazu wants to prove his father’s legacy to make up for all those that doubted him.
What follows is one of the most beautifully animated and immaculately paced stories in all of cinema. The mystery of Laputa and the power that kept their floating empire aloft is at the core of the story and supplies enough mystery to keep the narrative interesting.
Whereas the characters of Pazu and Sheeta make you empathize with their quest, coupled with the roguish charm of the pirates that take them in.
What makes Castle in the Sky so special is that its composition and craftsmanship is almost flawless. Not only is it visually pristine throughout, but it tells a fascinating and lean story with endearing characters.
On top of that, the movie has an amazing musical score by Joe Hisaishi. With a mixture of synth and orchestral instrumentation, it acts to underpin the technological clashes of the modern steam powered world and the ancient technology powering the bowels of Laputa.
In any case, if any of the above story and setting sound familiar that’s because writer and director Hayao Miyazaki already dealt with many similar themes in the excellent Future Boy Conan. In many ways, Conan and Lana are prototypes for Pazu and Sheeta, with the general theme of mistrusting ancient technology also being woven into the narrative fabric of both works.
Castle in the Sky is definitely a more compressed story compared to Future Boy Conan, but much of the pacing and plot structure are very similar.
The original musical score is also an interesting point in this Blu-ray and DVD release, as the English dub has an entirely different score, although still penned by Joe Hisaishi. This additional musical scoring also makes this set somewhat unique, as most anime retain the original Japanese music rather than having a whole new score created for the English language version.
As for the name change for the movie’s Western release, that’s likely because of the same reason Swift chose to use the name “Laputa” in Gulliver’s Travels for a similarly technologically powered floating city. In that the name “Laputa” has a somewhat unfortunate meaning in Spanish, and no doubt Disney wanted to avoid issues with the film’s release in the West.
Prior to that, Castle in the Sky used its Japanese name of Laputa for its release abroad, as I remember watching it on UK television when I was little. The English dub back then was also serviceable but not great, with the newer English dub being not that much of an improvement (with Hollywood stunt casting sadly being to blame here).
So if you are going to watch Castle in the Sky, I would strongly recommend you watch it in its original Japanese with subtitles. Not only because the Japanese voice acting is far superior, but also because the original musical score is so special.
Overall, Castle in the Sky is my favorite of all the Studio Ghibli works. It has the best story and pacing, as well as wonderful characters and beautiful music. It also holds up magnificently in a visual sense, putting many modern anime to shame. In short, if you were ever to only watch one anime, it should be this one.
Castle in the Sky is available on Blu-ray and DVD from the GKIDS store for $16.99.
Disclosure: GKIDS sent me a copy of this Blu-ray and DVD set for the purposes of this review.
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