“Laputa, the dream of mankind.” – The man who tries to seize its throne.
Laputa: Castle in the Sky (or Tenkū no Shiro Rapyuta) opens airborne in the dreamlike clouds. In the midst of a pirate raid on an airship, young Sheeta attempts to flee her captors and unfortunately tumbles off. But unbeknownst to her knocked-out consciousness, her magic crystal necklace, an heirloom, slows down her plummet into a gentle floating descent onto the Earth.
The girl from the sky lands in the arms of a boy of the earth, a precocious coal miner by the name of Pazu. He rejoices when he learns Sheeta’s crystal heirloom is the key to rediscovering a legendary island in the sky, a floating Atlantis that his late father had caught a glimpse of. An old miner gives the two kids fair warning: to behold the island would be magnificent, but “to the Earth, we must return” for Earth is their roots.
Miyazaki can’t keep his heroes and heroines anchored to the ground for long. In a Miyazaki picture, the trademarks of flight evoke the adrenaline of adventure. The motif debuted in Nausicaa: Valley of the Wind where flight is the modus for accelerating destination-to-destination and a means to skim over the signature painterly panorama of the animated landscape. In what’s officially the first Studio Ghibli feature, Castle in the Sky carries the torch of Nausicaa’s legacy where flight is an expression of the innovative and the nearing toward the heights of the goal. For film students who hear the screenplay instructor’s mantra of “give your hero a desire,” Laputa is the cornerstone of the visual embodiment of that desire, sailing on the clouds as both a materialized myth and the tangible endpoint of motives. The pirates covet its treasures. The villainous Muska lusts for its power. Pazu desires evidence for his late father’s travel testimony. Sheeta's definitive desire to protect the island springs up in the third act.
Despite the Studio Ghibli’s adamantly pro-ecological leitmotifs, Laputa demonstrates Miyazaki’s call for harmony between nature and the technological. The hovering territory of ground embodies a paradox: antiquated yet innovative. Old automations guard the nature and the heart of the island houses a great technology that enables the land to float literally above humanity, untethered by the laws of gravity, a pinnacle of human accomplishment. But why would anyone want to abandon these amenities? With the prevalence of steampunk aviation in his world, Miyazaki celebrates the audacious possibilities of the innovation of flight while also being wary of its forthcoming perils. By designing Laputa as majestic to the eye, instinctively, the goal of the quest should be to rescue the titanic island from the villain’s control and leave it unspoiled. But Miyazaki flings his expectational curve ball. The heroes don’t end up preserving the man-made foundations of the kingdom but the virtues of its departed citizens.
Because when things fly in a Miyazaki picture, things must come down. In a twist, Muska is also descended from the sky, bearing royal Laputan blood like Sheeta, and is determined to claim his “rightful” place as ruler and restore—corrupt—its former glory. As the villain drags Sheeta, into the bowels of her ancestral kingdom to a decrepit throne room, she’s struck by a revelation: the Laputans abdicated their home to leave behind the fear of corruption. The technology on Laputa is too mighty to be in the hands of “a king without compassion.” She opts to perform the Spell of Destruction that enacts its climatic catastrophic yet cleansing effect. Better that Sheeta’s ancestral home soar out of the tyrant’s grasp than be appropriated and corrupted into his base.
Even as Laputa crumbles brick by brick, it continues to exist in liminal spaces. As the shell of the man’s architecture disintegrates, fragments fall to the Earth. But no longer burdened by the man-made constructions, the crystal heart and its central tree rise higher beyond Earth’s atmosphere, beyond the current capacity of human reach, liberated into an untouchable relic. The rest of the island can only survive in Sheeta and Pazu’s memory.
The heroes are not seen returning to the ground. They remain airborne as they soar off, perhaps to a home on the ground or another adventure. Above them, the heart of the long lost land ascends higher into the cosmos of legend, a new wishing star in the sky, as if Miyazaki is signifying, not yet.