The Symbolic Background of Laputa
“Castle in the Sky” is fun to watch as the plot progresses, but there are messages and symbols embedded throughout that deepen the experience if you try to solve them. I’ve written this article as a hint for all readers. I’d be glad if you could lend your ear as if listening to the story from Uncle Pom, wandering around the old mine where the levitation stones used to be found.
Why does Laputa float?
First, we have to talk about the Castle in the Sky, Laputa. Floating in the sky has always been a dream of humans, who live stuck to the ground. It is a longing for liberation from an inescapable prison, in a nutshell. Science fiction poet Ray Bradbury, whose heart somehow resonates with Hayao Miyazaki, writes in his masterpiece “The Martian Chronicles” — “The reason humans venture into space is to fulfill the long-cherished aspiration of terrestrial beings. It is a step for creatures that emerged from the underwater realm to escape the pressure of water and transition onto land, and now they seek to break free from the gravity of the terrestrial world and achieve complete freedom.” (paraphrased)
However, until Newton came along, we didn’t quite understand why we couldn’t venture into space. People thought that if we died and became spirits, we could free ourselves from the bonds of the terrestrial world and float in the sky. We also hoped that by using intelligence, our strongest tool, we could invent artificial wings or balloons and float in the sky, like the inventive genius Daedalus who made Icarus fly in the sky.
Then, Newton came up with the concept of gravity. The reason we terrestrial substances can’t float in space is that the large Earth is pulling us with an incredible force and doesn’t allow us to escape from it. Until then, humans believed that if they jumped off a cliff into the sky, they would fall down because there is no ground to support their body weight. On the other hand, according to Newton’s way of thinking, we might be able to keep floating in the sky just as we are when we jump off the cliff. It is the gravitational pull of the Earth that is obstructing it. The same principle applies as magnets attracting metal. However, no matter how powerful the magnet is, it cannot attract too large or distant metals. Perhaps gravity isn’t omnipotent even though it’s universal. We might be able to escape.
When such a mood was born, Europe became eager to expand outward and venture into the frontier. England, where Hayao Miyazaki set the imaginary stage for Castle in the Sky, was particularly strong in this tendency. Because of the small island country, and the bondage of religion was tighter than gravity, many brave people went to places like the New World, America. The representative of this era is the prodigious writer Jonathan Swift. His dystopian novel “Gulliver’s Travels” features the story of people who benefit from science alone and are confined to an aerial city called Laputa Island. Of course, Castle in the Sky borrows this Laputa Island, written about 300 years ago. In Swift’s novel, people who have too much scientific power dominate those who don’t, and the excessive wisdom deviates from the norm, eventually walking the path of self-destruction as “science idiots.” This setting is also present in the Miyazaki version, but the difference between Swift and the Castle in the Sky is that the former had a strong aversion to humanity and harbored a deep despair towards society.
And so, as such, the late nineteenth century, which served as the backdrop for “Castle in the Sky,” came around. It was precisely during the time of Pazu and Sheeta when a genius young boy emerged in the northern country of Russia. His name was Tsiolkovsky, who later was praised as a hero of Russian science. In this era, Tsiolkovsky conceived a new ‘ship’, a rocket, that could reach a world ‘floating freely from gravity’ even when airplanes had not yet flown. Of course, he entrusted its construction to future people like the Laputans, who had advanced science and technology far beyond the humans on the ground. However, this concept functioned as a prototype for a modern Utopia that aimed not only for Miyazaki’s Laputa but also for the exploration of space. That’s because space travel became a trend in Germany and France at the same time. Although his name is hard to pronounce and remember, it rather becomes a sign of respect for him. Tsiolkovsky saw gravity as the ‘enemy’ that hinders such human dreams. Let’s quote a little from the Earth escape fantasy “The Call of the Cosmos” that he wrote around 1898:
“If there is a cave-in in an underground mine where we dig for ores, we can be crushed. When we want to build a house, we cannot build it in the air, so you have to buy land. If we do not put tires on a car, it cannot run comfortably. If your body gets fat, we get short of breath when moving. We may drown and die in the sea, fall from a tower and die, or have to exert an exorbitant amount of energy to carry heavy luggage – all of these due to gravity. How sad it is that the only thing we are allowed to do about the sky, which is free from gravity, is to gaze at the infinite depths of space.”
Therefore, Tsiolkovsky came up with a way to advance into the weightless universe. It is to use centrifugal force to cancel out the gravity of the Earth. If you put water in a bucket, add rotation and swing it around as much as possible, the water will not fall even if it is turned upside down. If you could give enough speed to this bucket of water itself, could you escape from gravity? So, Tsiolkovsky decided to invent a ‘rocket’. Castle in the Sky is in line with this concept of Tsiolkovsky.
The Girl Who Fell from the Sky
Next, we must focus on Sheeta, the girl who fell from the sky. Here too, a significant symbolism and meaning are hidden. If the castle in the sky is an artificial heaven above the sky, what does the girl falling from there due to gravity symbolize?
When it comes to someone falling from the sky, it reminds me of a strange movie titled “The Man Who Fell to Earth” starring David Bowie, which was released in the 1970s when Japan was still young. The alien Bowie was terrifyingly beautiful and delicate like glasswork. It was a story of an alien who, due to his home planet being in crisis, carried a mission to seek help on Earth, but he was corrupted by the hedonistic lifestyle on Earth, as he was too delicate. Indeed, the fall implied the “corruption of an innocent celestial being”. About a decade later, I think Sheeta, created by Mr. Miyazaki, was another David Bowie.
However, many readers might argue, “No, that’s not true, isn’t Sheeta an innocent and noble princess of Laputa?” No, no, she has indeed fallen. However, unlike David Bowie who fell to Earth, Sheeta doesn’t forget herself (an immunity to not forget oneself) even while getting sullied by dirt (external forces). She has, in other words, become an “adult”. The reason will surely be understood if we recall the story of Adam and Eve, who can be called the original “fallen people”.
In other words, its good to thikn that the theme of this story is touching upon the precarious fate between floating in the air and falling. The myth of the expulsion from paradise in the Bible is the model for this. Adam and Eve, the ancestors of humanity, were living in a heavenly paradise where there was no death, pain, or sorrow. They came to know that such a paradise was a closed space, an extremely boring world that did not allow changes. This was the result of tasting the forbidden fruit, the “fruit of wisdom”, from the serpent in paradise, and also the joy of using their hidden ability, intelligence. The two who violated the prohibition of paradise by thinking and acting freely were expelled from there, had divine attributes like immortality and carefreeness taken away, and fell to the earth, being downgraded to mortal humans. This is called “falling”. However, the two who knew the “new joy” of freely using their wisdom can be said to have grown from children who knew nothing to adults who can taste pain and joy. Falling from heaven signifies graduation from a closed utopia like Laputa. Humans, who were once God’s robots, truly became independent there (on Earth).
The same applies to Sheeta. Sheeta does not return to Laputa, but instead chooses to live grounded on Earth herself. This is because she has become an adult who does not succumb to the burden of gravity. In fact, the one who understood this best was that pirate grandmother Dola. How did the old woman, who wore blue harem pants like bloomers and was so tough as to be annoying, become so strong? Dola also had an innocent girlhood – a floating period – but she jumped off from there, placed herself in the dirt of the vulgar world, was trained, and became a strong “mother”. That’s why Dola understands Sheeta’s future, who tries to help Pazu by lying and withdrawing herself (at the Tedus fortress). Seeing the girl’s brave behavior, the pirate grandma says, “That girl is just like me when I was young”. That is a line that can be said because she herself is a “fallen girl”. Then, Dola’s useless sons, who were completely smitten with Sheeta, compare their mother and Sheeta from the Flaptor and say an incredible line, “Can you believe it? That girl is going to become like mom”. This is the truth that humanity has been able survived on on the ground so far. A girl who has fallen from the sky is caught by the boy on the ground and becomes a mother.
Now, when I watched “Castle in the Sky Laputa” again, I came across the lines I introduced above and realized, “So, this is the essence of Miyazaki’s anime”. A few years ago, I was blessed with a chance to talk to Mr. Miyazaki, and he told me, “Children, you see, they all become boring adults”. At that time, I was taken aback but didn’t understand the true meaning. But, the answer was in Laputa.
Indeed, Sheeta eventually becoming Dola, that is “falling”, but it’s also about standing firmly on the ground. That’s why the scene where Pazu slowly catches the falling Sheeta is portrayed so divinely.
Minerals, Indra’s Arrow, The World Tree
I’ve only conveyed two messages and already ran out of space. There are still five or six more things I need to talk about, but I’ll try to sum them up at the end. First, the levitation stones buried in Slug Valley. Stones crystallize underground. There’s a legend that water crystallizes underground forming stones and minerals. The only thing that can withstand the weight of gravity deep underground is pure water, which is capable of taking any form. While water can turn into stone underground, it can become a gas when evaporated and float in the air again. The levitation stone suggests a life force that can go underground or in the sky, depending on how it is used. Also, the old man Pom, who meets Sheeta and Pazu in the abandoned mine, mentions “little demons” (when he approached Pazu and Sheeta). In Japanese, he said, “ko-oni” (little demons), but what he meant was “Kobolds”. They were fairies living in underground mines in German folklore, also said to be miners, protecting minerals such as gold. Sheeta and Pazu are similar. There’s a metal element called “Cobalt”, which is derived from “Kobold”.
Next, the incredible weapon installed in the castle in the sky. It’s a big deal. It’s called “Arrow of Indra” in the work. This could be a keyword that implies the structure of the story. This is because Mr. Miyazaki seems to have a great interest in the ancient Indian epic “Ramayana”. In this story, Prince Rama wages a great war to retrieve “Princess Sita” who was kidnapped. In it, Indra, the sky god, shoots a powerful arrow, essentially a thunderbolt. Therefore, since Laputa is also a castle in the sky, it can perform the same kind of thunderbolt attack as Indra. Furthermore, the story of Laputa itself, Pazu’s efforts to reclaim the noble-blooded “Sheeta”, can be read in parallel with the Ramayana. The necessity of Sheeta being a descendant of the Laputa King was backed up by the “Ramayana”. These hidden keywords are one of the driving forces behind the depth of Miyazaki’s anime stories.
And, of course, we must not forget the magnificent tree. In the end, Laputa finds its protection in the embrace of a tree. This idea of a tree safeguarding a world is not new. In the groundbreaking film “Avatar,” there was the Mother Tree, a symbol of protection for the planet. In Norse mythology, it is known as the “World Tree” or “Yggdrasil,” believed to be the axis around which our world revolves. Even Treebeard from “The Lord of the Rings” fits into this archetype. Legend has it that a squirrel resides in the World Tree, serving as a network connecting the realms. Did not the squirrel Teto also inhabit the great tree that guarded the castle in the sky? The World Tree represents the meeting point of sky and earth, the center of our existence.
This center, often referred to as the “middle land,” is where the ruling palace of the world is said to be situated. It is the origin of why our neighboring China is known as the “Middle Kingdom,” why Japan was once called Ashihara no Nakatsukuni (葦原の中津国), and why the realm in “The Lord of the Rings” is known as Middle-earth. All these concepts trace their roots back to the notion of a “middle kingdom” that permeates cultures worldwide, with the World Tree standing as its symbol.
If it were not a tree, it could have been a snake or a dragon. They all embody the same symbolism of stability, regeneration, and prosperity. For now, my words come to an end. It would bring me great joy if I have managed to convey even a fraction of the profound charm of “Castle in the Sky Laputa.” Although, if the original creator and director, Hayao Miyazaki, were to read this, he might burst into laughter and say, “That’s nowhere near the mark.”
Aramata Hiroshi, born in Tokyo in 1947. He graduated from Keio University. He continues his vigorous writing activities that cross genres such as translation, novels, natural history, and mysticism. His representative works include the mega best-seller “Teito Monogatari” and “World Encyclopedia” etc.