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Laputa: Skypirates Against The Patriarchy!

2012 February 1

Exciting news! My very favourite film, Laputa (aka Castle In The Sky) has just appeared on YouTube with its rare original English dub rather than the grotesque Disney version featuring James Van Der Beek. This is, of course, bad and wrong and you definitely shouldn’t go and watch it all.

Sheeta, with flying machine frame in background. Copyright Studio Ghibli 1986It’s the first Studio Ghibli film proper, and it’s a corker, containing two reasonably kickass female characters, a steam train chase, skypirates, magic crystals, airships, a mysterious floating city and some damn fine robots. It’s a sort of steampunk sci-fi ecofable. It even has a section set in what is clearly a parallel universe Welsh mining town, inspired by Hayao Miyazaki’s trip to Wales and interest in the miners’ strike in the early 1980s.

Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli can generally be relied upon for more interesting and resourceful heroines than your average Disney or Pixar fodder, even if they are a bit, er identically similar. But in Laputa you can read the whole film as a condemnation of patriarchal power. Seriously – the government, the military and the monarchy line up against a girl and her male friend (who represent the future, protecting one another and fighting alongside each other as equals) and a band of pirates captained by a truly formidable woman.

There is a bit of a science vs nature theme, but it’s not clear cut, as the pirates rely on technology as much as the military do. Technology and nature are shown to be in harmony in the great overgrown gardens of the ancient city of Laputa, tended for centuries by a solitary robot.

Anyway, back to the womens. Orphan Sheeta is the central character, and although she might at first seem more passive than the Ghibli girls to come in Spirited Away, My Neighbour Totoro and Howl’s Moving Castle, she is quietly courageous, getting in a fair bit of fighting, struggling, attacking, escaping and running away. In the dramatic first minutes of the film, for example, she acts boldly and bravely and strikes out against her captors:

It’s also worth bearing in mind that Laputa came out in 1986, and Sheeta represented a fairly significant departure from your average anime heroine at that point. As well as being smart, resourceful and brave, Sheeta is powerful. Interestingly, she inherits this power – in the form of the ‘levitation stone’, a secret true name and powerful magic spells – from her mother.

Although her counterpart, the headstrong Pazu, styles himself as her protector, and does do a bit of rescuing, the traditional gender roles are blurred. Rebecca Johnson highlights this in her essay Kawaii and kirei: Navigating the Identities of Women in ‘Laputa: Castle in the Sky’ by Hayao Miyazaki and ‘Ghost in the Shell’ by Mamoru Oshii:

Even the role reversal displayed between Sheeta and Pazu is prominent, questioning the notion of gender roles that men and women take. For example, Sheeta tries to protect Pazu after their initial capture by the army, denying that she needs help. In this instance, both characters are “damsels in distress” since they are both under the threat of the army. Instead of taking on a traditional role as a damsel, Sheeta takes on the male role of protector.

Pirate Dola looking cunning. Copyright Studio Ghibli 1986

There are also two scenes in which Pazu cooks for them both, which is a little thing, but it makes me happy. Go go normalizing atypical gender behaviours!

In the climactic scene they stand side by side, holding hands as equals, and act together as their (feminine) compassion compels them to an act of terrific (masculine) violence and destruction in which they sacrifice themselves for the greater good.

The other main female character, piratical matriarch Dola, is just wonderful. She’s a bit like Granny Weatherwax crossed with Desperate Dan. Here she is outsmarting, outfighting and outrunning her burly band of sons (she appears around five minutes in):

My favourite bit is the way she discards her skirt when things start to kick off. Rebecca Johnson sees Dola as a particularly radical character in the context of the dominant social ideals of Japanese womanhood. As she says:

Dola treats the world around her as personal territory without fear or hesitancy. Leading her family, a band of pirates, she is a take charge woman who shows her Japanese audience that women are more than capable of casting away the kawaii syndrome plaguing them…

The Japanese word for mother is “okasan” which literally means “the person at the back of the house”. However, it is safe to assume that Dola, as her sons’ captain, is far from being “the woman at the back of the house.” Really, Dola is defying the common stereotype of Japanese women because her success is not being measured in terms of the motherly and wifely capabilities by which many contemporary Japanese women are judged. The common Japanese phrase “women are weak but mothers are strong” is one-sided, and proved wrong by Dola. Her characterization and actions show that she is not only a strong mother but a smart and strong woman in her own regard too.

For all her ferocity and ruthlessness, Dola does have a compassionate side and becomes deeply protective of the two orphans once they have proved themselves to her. Arcadean has an interesting analysis of Dola’s shifting gender identity, although I don’t completely agree with it.

Even now the film fills me with wonder, and the original score and use of silence (intolerable to Disney, apparently) is full of beauty. It left a lasting impression, and is probably responsible for my interest in anime and manga, and certainly for my profound love of robots. And I reckon you could do a lot worse on the role model front than Sheeta and Dola.

3 Responses leave one →
  1. February 5, 2012

    I disagree; the older dub of LAPUTA is the unwatchable horrible dub to me. One listen to it and I just couldn’t stand it; all the voices sounded off compared to that of Disney’s dub. Even with the latter’s faults, I found it to be a much better produced and all around better acted production. In this older dub, it sounded like the actors weren’t really trying at all. Even if the leads sounded younger, they still sounded quite flat and emotionless. James and Anna probably sounded a bit too old for their roles, but I think they both did a much better job. And I also disagree about the new score ruining the film; to me, it really brought a lot of life to the movie and gave it a much more epic feel. The extra lines were a bit distracting at times, but I can tolerate them if I can get a dub with Luke Skywalker as the villain. These guys in the original dub just didn’t cut it. And this is from someone who even likes the Japanese version too.

    It’s fine if you disagree, but I personally thought the Disney dub was a much better executed dub, even if it differs from the original Japanese version. But I really can’t stand this older dub; there are too many things awful about it—Muska’s uttering of “Now say bye bye” and the choppy stilted dialogue killed it for me.

  2. tahrey permalink
    August 11, 2013

    Sorry Jon… I have to go with Sarah. Having seen it originally as a tot with the old dub, and then several times in Japanese before Disney finally translated it, the new English version just feels “off” all over, despite the otherwise excellent voice acting.

    They don’t even get the damn names right. I don’t care what the official romanisation of their kanji names are – the original japanese voice track has a big beardy guy called Daffy and a pirate captain called Dora (good real-life welsh names, there; “Duffy” is more of a girl’s name, and “Dola” just doesn’t exist), a scruffy young miner called Patsu (very nearly a proper name; more so than “Pazu” with a soft “Jazz” z rather than a hard “Nazi” one), a heroine called Shita with a shorter “i” not a longer “ee” (look, it’s indian, ok? no-one laughs when an indian actress on the TV has that name… though it would appear she’s probably more likely scottish…), and a villain called Mooska. All of those got changed to greater or lesser extents; I can maybe understand the last two, but not the others. I mean, if you’ve listened to the japanese version before recording the english one, how can you get it back to front?

    Plus one of the great, powerful things about the sound tracks in SG films is how they do a proper, more grown up, live action job of employing dynamics to emphasise the action. Music isn’t overdone, dialogue isn’t mangled into an endless torrent of exposition and mindless chatter, and a quiet or silent section can be far more dramatic and effective than a noisy one. JP Laputa is a good example of this – the background noise diminishes in places whilst building up to a big bang, making it all the more surprising when it comes, music is used to add emphasis and build tension or a melancholic mood, and Patsu wakes up his village with approximately grade 4 tootling on a battered, unaccompanied trumpet blaring out into the silent, soft dawnlight.

    Somehow, the translated version of Kiki’s Delivery Service managed to preserve the feeling of the original film almost to a T, including all those things above. They pretty much took the japanese version, replaced each conversation with an as-direct-as-still-makes-sense english equivalent with no alteration of the tone or needless filler, and although they slightly spruced up the quality of the music and SFX, didn’t fiddle with the actual content other than translating the radio transmissions.

    Laputa swings entirely the other way; it’s like they took the one bit of the Princess Mononoke dub that wasn’t totally excellent (the part where all the iron town workers are swimming back across the lake) and thought – yes! THAT’S how we’ll do it!

    So the use of shifting audio dynamics is almost totally lost (most of the soundtrack is just noisy, and that gets fatiguing after a while, like listening to pop radio, and the loud bits don’t stand out amongst all the other medium-loud-to-loud ones), music becomes pretty much just another background sound as if you’re in a lift (including over the first few moments), and the characters just… don’t… stop… bloody…talking. Almost any point where someone is present, but you can’t see their face (or even their mouth), it seems they’ve taken the opportunity to shoehorn some novel dialogue in there. Originally until the first pirate guy opened the window and shouted back that he’d found Shita, there were about three words spoken, two of them in alarm by the airship crew, and another by Muska telling her to get down without any emotion or concern in his voice. In the Disney version, you could write a book from that bit of script alone, and Muska comes across almost as a nice guy who doesn’t want her hurt in any way, rather than an officious toff. They’re actually -changing the characterisation- (ok, it’s only mild, rather than an outright “magic roundabout” job, but still) with their dub… and people have the nerve to call the old one a “macekere”.

    Oh, and then we have the trumpet scene, which has become orchestral for no reason whatsoever. Yes, I know Hisaishi was involved. No, I still don’t care, and I wonder if he’d have bothered if Disney hadn’t come along saying “WE NEED NEW MUSIC FOR THIS FILM YOU SCORED 16 YEARS AGO, HERE’S A PILE OF MONEY, YOU HAVE FOUR WEEKS”.

    Thankfully they did at least leave the classic, near-iconic main opening and end themes alone, but that probably required the more change-resistant part of the localisation crew defending those parts with makeshift weapons McGuyvered together out of office supplies.

    I don’t even know if I’ve managed to watch to the end of it yet. I probably have, but since erased the memory of it from my mind. Hamill makes for an excellent cartoon baddie, but he has to have the script to go with, otherwise you’re just squandering the talent.

    On which note, I must away. It’s too bad that the Youtube version has already been taken down, but I’m just more than happy to learn that this version is still out there *somewhere*… and, indeed, if I have enough money to troll around eBay with, it might even be purchaseable on an old Japan-only DVD

    Doing so may also confer the benefit of a cleaner transfer, because my PAL one has quite plainly been converted from an NTSC one by some kind of primitive analogue means. The motion seems kind of mushy in places, and if you pause the disc, you can see why… a great many of the frames are blends between two originals, as it changed a 23.976fps original to 25.000fps without any speedup. That method works OK when you’re converting 59.94 field-per-second interlaced TV shows to 50.00-field, but less so with movies, and certainly very badly with animated ones. On top of that, they’ve then applied a crazy amount of pre-sharpening (which has also been inflicted on other SG releases like Earthsea – I had to watch that with my soft/sharp control turned ALL the way to the left to get rid of the additional white outlining on every black line).

    It’s downright shocking that a company so rich and advanced as Disney would do that when even I, several years before they made the DVD, was able to do a fully digital, frame-for-frame standards conversion between NTSC and PAL video CDs (4% speedup or slowdown for both picture and audio, with pixel aspect ratio and some colour tone correction, plus basic deblocking, but no oversharpening at all) using an obsolescent, hacked-together desktop PC and a bunch of freeware windows applications. I think, really, it’s indicative of their attitude towards the movie on the whole. They have to put it out there in some form to avoid fan backlash, and may as well bring in decent talent to voice it (after all, time in the vocal booth for a readymade film with no musical numbers is pretty cheap vs a largely musical one that’s still halfway through production, and certainly vs live action), but probably don’t want it doing too well even so. They will receive relatively little in redistribution fees on each sale vs sales of their own original IP, the contemporary examples of which Laputa paints in a particularly bad light… it was still a few more years until they got back on track with The Little Mermaid after an infamous 1980s lull, after all…

  3. tahrey permalink
    August 11, 2013

    I should probably also state for the record that my newer computer’s network name, following the older Nausicaa (and even older, defunct Totoro) is “Lucita”. As in Toelle Ul Laputa.

    That’s a real name, similar to Lucille.
    Lusheeta is not.

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