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What inspired Studio Ghibli’s first ever film?

To celebrate its 30th anniversary this month, we uncover the secret history behind the studio’s seminal masterpiece, Laputa: Castle in the Sky

Studio Ghibli is one of the best known and most respected animation studios in the world, with their beautiful and melancholic films ranking as some of the most beloved Japanese exports. Their first official output as a studio, Laputa: Castle in the Sky, was well-received in Japan and stands the test of time against even modern animation (although the film was later renamed in some countries to simply “Castle in the Sky” due to “La Puta” meaning “The Whore” in Spanish slang). Despite the film’s Japanese success, though, it’s often overshadowed by Ghibli films that became popular in the West, such as Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke. So, to celebrate the film’s 30th anniversary this month, we look back on one of the studio’s most misunderstood masterpieces.

THE SECRET WELSH CONNECTION

Castle in the Sky was inspired in part by Miyazaki’s visit to a Welsh mining town during the strikes of 1984. He became obsessed by what he saw there; primarily by the effects of the decline in industry, stating that he “admired the way they battled to save their way of life” as the Japanese miners also did. Despite its fantastical elements, the film is centred on one such town, The Slag Ravine, where a little boy, Pazu, works in the mines in order to survive. The monotony of his life is broken up by a girl named Sheeta falling from the sky, and they embark on an adventure, racing against pirates and foreign agents to find the legendary Laputa. The architecture of the town is largely inspired by Welsh towns, with British-style buildings and clothing. Miyazaki wanted to reflect the strength of the miners in Castle in the Sky, and returned in 1986 to prepare for the film. 

CASTLE IN THE SKY AND ENVIRONMENTALISM

Another key thread to Miyazaki’s pacifism and work is in his preoccupation with our human relationship to the environment; he has an idea of how we should harmonise with nature which is closely linked to the Japanese Shinto. Castle in the Sky very deliberately takes adult humans to task as unethical, greedy, and selfish. Laputa is both a paradise and a weapon of war, where benevolent robots live harmoniously with the environment, but man still cannot. It has become overrun with nature and we learn that the Earth can only bloom where man can’t touch it.

HAYAO MIYAZAKI AND WAR

Born in 1941 in Tokyo, Hayao Miyazaki’s father built rudders for fighter planes, and his family lived comfortably throughout World War II; although the firebombing raids on Utsunomiya deeply affected him. Miyazaki’s upbringing inspired both an obsession with planes and a pacifist agenda, both of which are clear in Castle in the Sky, with its flying machines and anti-war messages. Throughout his career Miyazaki has never shied away from confronting war, even publicly criticising Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe’s policies. 

In the first moments of the film we meet a white European military man who believes that a superior being has no choice but to burn those who aren’t like him, in a clear reflection of American wartime attitudes to the Japanese. He then unleashes Laputa’s ancient weapon on the ground to test it, and the result is almost identical to a nuclear explosion, creating a mushroom cloud in an intentional evocation of the atomic bomb.

MIYAZAKI’S CHILDREN

Despite his misanthropy and apparent cynicism about humanity, Miyazaki has an admirable optimism about children – they will inherit the earth, and they are the only ones who can save it. The child protagonists of Castle in the Sky are idealistic, and their victories are not secured through violent means against other people. Miyazaki is at heart a pacifist, and fighters are not respected or winners as in other media. The militarism of the other aircraft versus the childlike wonder of Pazu’s own little plane only serves to widen the disparity between adult greed, and the curiosity of children.

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