3. Laputa: Castle in the Sky

The mining-town setting.

Laputa: Castle in the Sky is a 1986 Japanese animated film by director Hayao Miyazaki (the English version was released in the United States in 1989). This film, like The City of Lost Children, takes place in an ambiguous world in an unknown time period, but the characters’ clothing as well as the setting – a lower-class town built around an enormous, labyrinthine silver mine -hearkens to the industrial Victorian era. In terms of technology, this film is classically steampunk – the residents of the town live fairly simple lives, dwelling in homes without electricity and traveling mostly by steam-powered train, only the very occasional automobile passing through, but the upper-class characters possess a great deal of anachronistic technology as well. While these technologies are mostly in terms of transportation and are nowhere near as complex as those depicted in The City of Lost Children, the zeppelin-like airships, glider “kites” and “moth fighters” (one or two person fliers designed to look like insects) are distinctly advanced devices in this fictional world.

A government airship and "moth fighters".

This film’s plot revolves around a legend which explains the origin of this mining town. According to this legend, centuries ago their town’s ancestors became so obsessed with flight and so technologically advanced that they engineered a way to levitate entire cities in the sky. Unfortunately an unknown catastrophe eventually destroyed most of the cities and they crashed, forcing the survivors to live on the earth again – and this is how they came to live in their current location. One of these cities, Laputa, is said to have survived intact within the eye of a great storm, protected and concealed from view by a cover of clouds. The city is said to contain miraculous treasures and amazing technology, if anyone were ever able to find it. While most people have accepted that this city is a myth, Pazu, one of the film’s two protagonists, believes that his deceased father discovered Laputa many years ago and has vowed to find it for himself one day. One evening an unconscious girl named Sheeta floats down to the mine where Pazu works, appearing to have been levitated by the blue stone on her necklace. Sheeta is being pursued by a band of sky pirates and a group of government agents, the pirates seeking treasure, and the government after military power. It seems that Laputa is real after all – and that Sheeta’s necklace holds the key to finding it.

Pazu and his plane.

Besides the obvious visuals which plant this film in the steampunk genre, such as the mining-town setting, goggle-wearing sky pirates and zeppelin airships, this film functions as a part of the genre in a number of other ways. Tinkering is very prominent in this film, as many of the characters are quite poor and must build or repair their machines and vehicles themselves. Pazu is a notable tinkerer character, as he works as a mechanic in a silver mine and also builds and modifies a plane in his home, which he hopes will someday be able to take him to Laputa. Dola and her sons, the sky pirate family who chase Sheeta throughout the film, are also typical steampunk ‘tinkerer’ characters – they live on their ship and are therefore completely responsible for its maintenance and repair, patchworking it together with whatever unlikely materials they happen across. Dola’s husband is rarely even seen in the film, as he dwells in the engine room and is constantly covered head-to-toe in grime from working on the airship’s inner parts.

Pazu meets Sheeta.

However, this film does contain some magical elements which have been seen as complicating the film’s status as a steampunk work, since magic is not necessarily compatible with the science fiction genre that steampunk stems from. Sheeta’s necklace demonstrakes remarkable powers: it levitates her from great heights, activates a long-dormant robot artefact whens she repeats a phrase her grandmother taught her, and emits a beam which points her to the lost city. In the context of this film, though, I feel that the magical elements can be argued as actually serving to strengthen the steampunk themes, not detract from them, as the so-called “magic” in this film is considered a form of earth science rather than something supernatural. The “magic” is derived from a power source called aetherium, a long-forgotten, naturally-occuring element that human beings have lost the ability to mine. It is this element which fuelled the technological advancements of the town’s ancestors, provided the means by which to levitate Laputa, and which the film’s villain, General Mooska, seeks to use for its destructive potential.

A Laputa robot offers Sheeta a flower.

While this film is, visually speaking, nowhere near as dark and heavy as The City of Lost Children, it nevertheless engages in an exploration of technological anxieties from both the current and Victorian era. Unlike The City of Lost Children, which dwells mostly upon on social issues and human suffering, the huge, sprawling green landscapes depicted in this film echo the environmental concerns which were especially relevant in the late 1980s, when issues such as sustainability and acid rain caused by industrial processes were beginning to receive more global media coverage. When Sheeta and Pazu finally reach Laputa, they find that the entire city is deserted and has been taken over by plant and animal life. The only sign of Laputa’s fabled technology is a single robot, which approaches Pazu and Sheeta and removes their crashed kite from on top of a bird’s nest. The robot appears to have remained active for the sole purpose of caring for the flora and fauna of the city, since no human life remains and all the other robots have stopped working and become overgrown with plants. It appears that although Laputa survived the catastrophe, the people living there found their society failing, as they had lost touch with nature and could not survive without it. It is for this reason that they eventually left and came back to earth, leaving their robots to restore the city’s gardens.

Uncle Pom "talks" to the forgotten aetherium element.

These environmental concerns also have parallels in Victorian era England, as the industrial revolution was having drastic effects on agriculture. The innovation of agricultural machinery was vastly increasing food output while decreasing the amount of labourers required to produce it. While this had a positive effect on the English economy and meant that greater amounts of better-quality food were available to even the lowest-class people, these innovations did not come without their accompanying anxieties. Many agricultural workers were losing their jobs as the services they provided became redundant. As a result, large numbers of people had no choice but to move from rural areas to the cities to find employment in the new factories, often ending up in slums and working under very dangerous conditions. This move from the rural to urban was unpleasant for many and spawned fears about the incredible pace at which English society was moving away from the rural and toward the urban. These fears are reflected a great deal in this film, as the failure of Laputa to thrive is attributed solely to the fact that its people grew so technologically advanced that they lost touch with the earth where their power source came from. A mine-dwelling hermit character named Uncle Pom tells Pazu and Sheeta that if human beings would only take the time to reconnect with the earth, as he has, they would find that elements like aetherium would actually “speak” out to to them like they used to and provide guidance on what they should do. And in the end, the happiest characters in this film are those who live simple, rural lives, like Pazu with his pet doves and Sheeta on her farm, whereas the characters who seek power through technology – General Mooska especially – overreach themselves so terribly that they come to tragic ends.

 

Useful video clips:

Excellent fan-made trailer.

 

Interestingly, the opening and closing credits (with the text removed) contain strong steampunk visuals.

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