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The City Ascends: Laputa: Castle in the Sky as Critical Ecotopia

By Anthony Lioi

Our most important task at the present moment is to build castles in the sky.

–Lewis Mumford, The Story of Utopia (1922)

Utopia has been discredited; it is necessary to rehabilitate it. Utopia is never realized and yet it is indispensable to stimulate change.

–Henri Lefebvre, Conversation (1991)

I am an ecocritic, a critic of culture’s relationship to nature, and when I present my work on Hayao Miyazaki at academic conferences, Japanese scholars inevitably ask why I am the only American at the conference doing so. In the Japanese milieu, animated film is allied with other contemporary media, including comic books, or manga, television, mass-produced merchandise, and otaku fan culture. Japanese popular culture, Japan’s “gross national cool,” is not plagued by a split between high and low art, and Miyazaki is honored in the same breath as Akira Kurosawa and other auteurs (McGray, non-paginated.). Environmental destruction and restoration happen to be one of Miyazaki’s great themes. So, to recast my colleagues’ challenge in American terms, it is as if Walt Disney, Stan Lee, and Jack Kirby were a single person whose visionary art gained worldwide acclaim while no one noticed its persistent interest in princesses and super heroes. Miyazaki the environmental visionary is hiding in plain sight. This essay is written out of that perplex – it serves only to begin a larger inquiry into his Green vision. So, to begin, we should understand that Miyazaki’s environmental philosophy departs from both American capitalism and radical environmentalism, eschewing the traditions of industrial domination, colonial wilderness protection, and Luddite primitivism, such that new trajectories of environmental politics, unimaginable within an American context, are offered to his growing American audience. Miyazaki’s idea of harmony between first and second nature, the biosphere and the technosphere, in the absence of empire, is a profound contribution to the discussion of international environmental action against planetary dystopia. In this essay, I will trace Miyazaki’s critical ecotopian trajectory through Laputa: Castle in the Sky (Tenku no Shiro Rapyuta) (1986) and its implications for environmental ethics and politics.

In Laputa: Castle in the Sky, Miyazaki imagines a flying city in which nature and high technology live together in peace, a peace shattered by human violence. Though critics have made the connection between Laputa and Gulliver’s Travels, the immediate source for a science-island in the sky, few have connected Swift’s misanthropy with Miyazaki’s plot. While the Swiftean city parodies early modern scientists as literally above the cares of everyday life, Miyazaki’s version – a city that rains atomic fire from the sky – takes aim at the political will to dominate through technological superiority. Though Laputa was lost to history after its first inhabitants abandoned it, the protagonists rediscover the city as an ecological utopia, where first and second nature live in harmony until the return of humanity. In place of the American pastoral idea of the good land shattered by technology, Laputa critiques human dominion as violent, brutish, and short. In contrast with Luddite philosophies, which see technology itself as the agent of environmental apocalypse, Miyazaki asserts the benevolence of artificial intelligence in the absence of human violence. This violence is partially overcome by the actions of the heroes, who destroy the military capacity of the city, only to see it rise even farther above the earth as a sign that humans are not ready to inhabit the good Green place. Therefore, Laputa is a critical ecotopia that preserves the possibility of the utopian environment while taking contemporary culture to task as insufficiently ethical.

The Greek word ethos originally denoted a habitat for wild animals, a place where certain creatures made their homes (Erhard 2). Underneath the universalist idea of ethics promoted by world religions and Enlightenment philosophies lies the basic question of how one should live in the local environment, and this tension between habitat and world is a productive frame for understanding Laputa as an ecotopia, because the castle in the sky is a unique habitat of planetary significance. Ecotopia is a contraction of “ecological utopia,” denoting an ideal place that does not yet exist where humans live in just relationship with the environment. Though utopian thinking can be traced back to the Hebraic tradition of the Promised Land, the Christian idea of the Heavenly City in the book of Revelation, and the philosophical discourse of Plato’s Republic, the word utopia itself was coined by Thomas More to signify a good place, eu-topos, that was also no place, ou-topos (More xi-xxiv). Because the idea of utopia already contains a standard against which contemporary civilization is judged, it might seem that the idea of a “critical ecotopia” is redundant. My notion of the critical ecotopia is adapted from Ildney Cavalcanti’s idea of a critical utopia in the literature of science fiction. Cavalcanti outlines three principles that move beyond the baseline critique in the utopian tradition:

  1. A critical utopia must contain an overtly dystopian element, such that the implicit critique in utopian discourse becomes explicit.
  2. A critical utopia demonstrates awareness of past utopias and utopian narratives in general.
  3. A critical utopia forms a “critical mass” of popular readers to implement its critique in society. (Cavalcanti 48)

Laputa exemplifies all three elements of a critical utopia in environmentalist terms. Because of its status as a beautiful otherworld that is a quiescent city of war, Laputa embodies the contradictory nature of modernity as a utopian political project that advances through a high technology of empire. The city is an ideal habitat for those inside it, and a bringer of destruction for those beneath. By virtue of the reference to Swift’s Laputa – La Puta, “The Whore” – Miyazaki demonstrates his consciousness of prior critiques of science as the New Philosophy of delusional progress. In Swift as Nemesis, Frank Boyle argues that

Swift’s representation of the emerging scientific world retains the most fundamental elements of the world from time immemorial: wealth and power will gravitate to knaves in a constellation where the vast majority are fools. The Royal Society in this context is the vehicle of scientific delusion…spreading to every town both the hope and despair inherent in the promise that the material word can be altered to permanently serve human needs and desires. (Boyle 41)

Five centuries after Swift, the environmentalist critique of the modern project holds that it is possible for science to alter the material world to serve human needs, but that this process has produced an ecological inversion by which the material basis of human life is being rapidly destroyed. In this sense, Swift anticipated both Dialectic of Enlightenment and Silent Spring. Miyazaki shares Swift’s sense that society’s flaws infect the modern project to the core and, like Gulliver’s TravelsLaputa is designed to carry that critique to a mass audience. Unlike the first Laputa, Miyazaki’s city contains the hope that ethical people can disrupt the destruction of the world by technoculture, and, moreover, that machine intelligence itself can teach human intelligence what a just relationship to nature might be like.

In “The Original Proposal for Castle in the Sky,” Miyazaki explains that “[t]he story is set in an era when machines are still exciting and enjoyable, and science does not necessarily make people unhappy” (Miyazaki 253). “I wrote it,” he says, “as science fiction written in the days of steam engines,” which looks back to Jules Verne and forward to steampunk (419). Indeed, Laputa begins with Dickensian joy as the story of an orphan boy from a mining town who catches a girl as she falls from the sky. Pazu and Sheeta share an archetypal, fairy-tale quality: he is the magical boy, whose way with animals and machines compensates for his loss of family, while she is the secret princess, an heir to a glowing blue gem that allows her to levitate, command a robot army, and locate the home of her ancestors, the castle in the sky. Many commentators have noted Miyazaki’s interest in strong female characters, and much American criticism has focused on his transformation of the shojo tradition of Japanese girl’s comics (Napier 151-168). While it is true that Miyazaki favors the strong female protagonist, it is less noted that he often pairs them with boys who like strong girls. Pazu and Sheeta are the first in a line that includes Ashitaka and Mononoke in Princess Mononoke, Haku and Chihiro in Spirited Away, and Howl and Sophie in Howl’s Moving Castle. All of these pairings involve a quest that needs to be completed and a secret that must be revealed, fulfilling American expectations of the way quest narratives behave. But American audiences also expect, in an adventure starring a boy and a girl, that the quest narrative should dovetail with a romance or marriage plot, such that the end of the adventure coincides with the creation of a couple. Miyazaki tends to disrupt such expectations – his male and female protagonists often are not allowed to stay together, or choose to separate – creating a lack of closure from an American perspective. A plot in which the quest is fulfilled but no union of souls is created is unsettling for American audiences trained by classic Disney movies, and where Disney has followed Miyazaki – as in Pocahontas – critical reaction has been mixed.1

Where Miyazaki has followed Disney and attempted a marriage plot – as in Howl’s Moving Castle – critics have found the ending unconvincing.2 American audiences expect the quest and the marriage plot to signify the restoration of proper world order, and see that telos as the true end of an animated children’s film. Miyazaki’s refusal to structure his films through an alliance of quest and marriage plot suggests that the restoration of proper world order either cannot happen or cannot happen yet in his stories. In Laputa, this disjunction between fulfilled quest and unfulfilled marriage plot does correlate with a failure to restore the best world order. At the end of the film, there is no marriage between human society and ecotopia; just as Pazu and Sheeta are too young to be married, humans as a species are not old enough to inhabit a utopian environment. To discover why this is the case, we have to delve into the iconography of city, machines, and nature that Pazu and Sheeta discover in Laputa.

The first image from the film in need of analysis is the image of the city itself, as the audience first sees it when Pazu and Sheeta break through the circle of protective clouds:

Figure 1: The City of Laputa.

We can see from this image that Miyazaki’s city departs from Swift’s original and from modern cities of the West in important ways. It is built around a massive central tree, surrounded by a ring of European-style architecture, ringed in turn by fields, lakes, and docks. The hemisphere below the largest ring is both the root-ball of the tree and the weapons system of the former Laputan Empire. Miyazaki has preserved the original sense of Laputa as a city of advanced technology, driven by science in the name of material progress and military advancement. There is no central tree in the original, however; Swift’s version contained no arboreal core to the flying island, and therefore no sense that its weapons could be encompassed by roots. It is a sign of Laputa’s cultural difference that the most advanced technology is forested, as if the Laputans recognize that their power is ultimately based in nature. As in Swift, Laputa is a symbol of modernity, but here it cannot be conflated with the West, which has structured its relationship with nature through a metaphysical dualism where nature is the dominated Other (Plumwood 47). This sense manifests sharply in the nineteenth-century Anglo-American idea that industrial technology disrupts bucolic peace, as Leo Marx describes in his analysis of Nathaniel Hawthorne in The Machine in the Garden:

[I]n the stock contrast between city and country each had been assumed to occupy a more or less fixed location in space: the country here, the city there. But in 1844 the sound of a train in the Concord woods implies a radical change in the conventional pattern. Now the great world is invading the land, transforming the sensory texture of rural life – the way it looks and sounds – and threatening, in fact, to impose a new and more complex dominion over it…the distinctive attribute of the new order is its technological power, a power that does not remain confined to the traditional boundaries of the city. (Marx 108)

From this perspective, it is the country that has invaded the city in Laputa; or, more radically, the most powerful city is the one most permeated by the might of the country. This makes Laputa seem archaic, a product of a Golden Age when nature and civilization were not opposed, but also futuristic, a flying city powered by a giant crystal made of the same material as Sheeta’s pendant. This “Levistone” is Janus-faced, just like the central tree: it is the source of the city’s ability to fly, and of its vast destructive capacity. It is cosmic power, or ki, at its most basic, capable of wonders and horrors depending on the wielder. It is the basis of utopia and dystopia, and these polities incarnate in two competing royal lines, represented by Sheeta and her rival, Muska, whose goal is to reassert Laputa’s identity as the ultimate empire.

In the absence of human inhabitants, however, Laputa has become something unprecedented: a place where artificial intelligence has become the companion and guardian of the environment. The incident that makes this clear occurs right after Pazu and Sheeta manage to land their glider on one of the outer rings of the city. A giant robot, of the type that liberated Sheeta from Muska’s clutches by force, approaches the glider as Pazu tries to ward it off, fearing an attack. Instead, the robot gently lifts the glider and puts it aside, revealing a bird’s nest underneath, which Miyazaki renders in close-up, so the point is not lost:

Figure 2: The Bird’s Nest on Laputa.

The robot is the guardian, not the destroyer, of the Laputan environment, which Pazu and Sheeta discover to be a lush combination of bucolic fields, deep lakes, temperate forest, and an architecture that evokes classical, medieval, and Renaissance Europe. As they follow the robot deeper into the city, Pazu and Sheeta experience the reverse of the normal transition from pastoral landscape to metropolis: the closer they get to the central tree, the more intense the intertwining of nature and culture becomes, until they stand in front of a monumental stone marker for the founders of Laputa that is embedded in the even more monumental tree trunk. It is here that the robot offers an astonished Sheeta a gesture of fealty in the form of a flower:

Figure 3: Princess Sheeta Receives a Gesture of Fealty.
Figure 4: Princess Sheeta Receives a Gesture of Fealty.

The juxtaposition of the delicate flower held in a giant metal hand, offered in deference to a diminutive human, reinforces the earlier image of overwhelming physical power preserving delicate beauty. Though this is surprising in the context of Anglophone science fiction, in which giant robots symbolize the destructive power of the post-atomic age, it is also surprising given the audience’s earlier encounters with the same style of robot inside Laputa itself. Here, for instance, is an image of a newly awakened robot breaking out of Muska’s stronghold:

Figure 5: A Robot Breaking Out of Muska’s Stronghold.

It is clear from the design of the robots that they represent the same Laputan technology in two different contexts, one in which violence has been done, and the other where harmony persists between machine and environment. The destructive capacity of the robots must be triggered by human brutality; otherwise, it appears that their default mode is caretaking. The parallel to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is overt: the “monster” is only violent when attacked, and otherwise lapses into deference, at least in the presence of Laputan royalty. When this artificial intelligence is accepted as a member of a community that includes natural and artificial creatures, it inhabits what appears to be, from a biblical perspective, a prelapsarian innocence.

The ability of the robot to cultivate rather than disrupt the Garden is reinforced by the iconic representation of its relationship with the plants and animals of Laputa. In the following image, the robot is seen from Pazu and Sheeta’s perspective, just after it has rescued the bird’s nest:

Figure 6: The Robot Surrounded by Fox-Squirrels.

Here again, Miyazaki offers an image of the robot as friend of nature. It is overgrown with greenery around the shoulders, as if moss has become a mantle, indicating a kind of mechanical fertility. The animals playing around its head are the same fox-squirrels that appeared as Nausicaä’s friends in the earlier Miyazaki production, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984). For viewers of this earlier film, the endorsement of the fox-squirrels is a powerful sign of the robot’s benevolence, since they are the companions of the princess-messiah who mediates between the human world and the post-nuclear landscape of the “Sea of Decay” as the sea restores itself. Any friend of Nausicaä is a friend of the environment, so Miyazaki’s intertextual wink at the audience is a sign that we are on the right track. There is even more evidence, however, that we are meant to fit the robot into a larger scheme of restored grace with the environment. The iconography of the robot draped with growing plants and surrounded by friendly animals evokes an unavoidable parallel from Western culture, Francis of Assisi, patron saint of ecology:

Figure 7: Contemporary Icon of Francis of Assisi.

Besides the friendly birds and the verdant forest background, there are other, more subtle visual parallels between robot and saint, including the gentle demeanor, the moss mantle that echoes the draped hood of a friar, the dark, somber eyes, and even the bald pate. Though it is too much to say that the robot is intended to be a Laputan Francis, Miyazaki’s familiarity with Italian culture makes it unlikely that the resemblance is accidental – his studio, Ghibli, is named after an Italian plane from World War II, and his landscapes often evoke Provence, Tuscany, and other Mediterranean locales. What the Francis parallel amounts to, in ecotopian terms, is a figure that reconciles culture to nature and to spirit after the collapse of empire. Francis – whose preaching to birds and beasts is one of the most popular medieval elements in contemporary Christianity and whose naming of other creatures as brothers and sisters is admired beyond the bounds of the Church – represents the possibility that the Western ideology of dominion over nature can be overcome with materials native to European culture itself.3 Seen in this light, the robot represents a restored relationship of technology to nature when the human impulse towards warfare and destruction is overcome. In a stunning reversal of creator and image, the robot represents what humanity can become when war is set aside as the end of civilization. It is not for nothing that a famous Franciscan prayer begins, “Make me an instrument of peace.”

However much the robots of Laputa could be instruments of peace in Sheeta’s hands, the dream of empire does not die easily, and under the influence of her rival, Muska, the robots awaken to become an imperial army. Muska kidnaps Sheeta, whose cooperation he needs because of her possession of the Levistone, and her superior knowledge of Laputan tradition. With the princess unwillingly at his side, Muska activates the weaponry of Laputa, reciting the ancient history of the city as Indra’s Arrow and destroyer of Sodom and Gomorrah. Wherever fiery destruction rains from the sky in classical epics and sacred texts, there Laputa has been, transforming the tranquil ecotopia, retroactively, into the hand of a militant sky-god. This euhemerist scheme unites tales of destruction from the dawn of written history – the Laputan script resembles Babylonian cuneiform, and its murals resemble Egyptian and Assyrian art – with the nuclear age. As a demonstration of Laputa’s power to the soldiers who had taken him for a pawn in their own plotting, Muska activates the lower hemisphere of the city, which extrudes power-rods emanating energies that combine into an atomic explosion on the sea below the city:

Figure 8: Laputa’s Atomic Weapon.
Figure 9: Laputa’s Atomic Weapon.

The mushroom cloud produced by Laputa’s weapon echoes, in the second frame, the shape of Laputa’s central tree, a juxtaposition that contrasts the city’s ecotopian and dystopian potential. This is not the only time Miyazaki has contrasted a sheltering tree with the mushroom cloud – in My Neighbor Totoro (1988), the magical growth of a camphor tree suggests a kind of “green bomb” in which the explosion of canopy marks the resistance to the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; the restoration of the Shishigami in Princess Mononoke (1997) provokes a similar explosion. Critics often suggest that he is using the traditional Shinto reverence for trees to make an ecological statement. Lucy Wright, for example, insists that

Miyazaki is cinematically practicing the ancient form of Shinto, as it was before it was organised (i.e., appropriated) by the growing Yamato clan and Japanese civilisation. He is reaching back for this natural Shinto which emphasised an intuitive, non-dogmatic relationship with nature, an almost child-like state–pre-intellectual, magical, accepting. Shinto has been a part of Japanese culture for more than two millennia, and has provided a cultural framework for the integration of new ideas, while maintaining the essence of old ones. So, aspects of Shinto can be read as informing Miyazaki’s work in terms of their themes, concerns and messages. (Wright Para. 26)

Miyazaki vigorously rejects this possibility (Wright Para. 10), not because he rejects the kami – he says “the gods of the Japanese are deep in the mountains and far-off valleys” (Miyazaki 360) – but because the Meiji restoration created “State Shinto,” which associated the worship of the kami with obedience to the emperor (Kitagawa 201).

In Religion in Japanese History, Joseph Kitagawa traces the restoration of emperor in the Meiji period (post-1868) with an ideology of nationalized religion based on a Shinto stripped of its millennium-long association with Buddhism. Though the imperial house had long been seen as the scion of Amaterasu, the sun-goddess, the Meiji government instituted a Department of Shinto, registering each family with its local Shinto shrine, along with a national teaching program promulgating the following principles:

  1. Reverence for the kami.
  2. The importance of the Law of Heaven and the Way of Humanity.
  3. Loyalty to the throne and obedience to the authorities. (Kitagawa 201)

The Meiji regime thus created what sociologist Peter Berger calls a “sacred canopy,” in which the cosmic order is used to legitimate a particular way of life and form of government that supports the interests of the rulers (Berger 3-28). In this scheme, loyalty to the emperor is part and parcel of the way of the kami; conversely, resistance to the political order is transgression against the cosmic order. For a Leftist like Miyazaki, such logic would be anathema; hence his rejection of any association of his aesthetic or ideology with “Shinto.” In light of this history, we can see that the dystopian power of empire to break the ecotopian peace of Laputa is a critique not only of American atomic power and its devastation of Japan, but of the imperial Japanese use of nature and its spirits to justify empire. Earlier in the film, Sheeta reveals to Pazu that the royal family of Laputa abandoned the city because it wished to live in peace with the earth, but passed down the knowledge of Laputa to succeeding generations in hope that they would be wise enough to use it differently. In the face of Muska’s incursion as “King of Laputa” – much like Emperor Meiji’s seizure of the power of the gods – Sheeta does the only thing she can do to honor her ancestors. She utters the “spell of destruction” – an auto-destruct signal to the Laputan mainframe – that jettisons the lower hemisphere weaponry from the main body of the island.

At this point, an Anglo-American machine-in-the-garden logic would demand the destruction of the entire island because of its role as evil imperial technology; classic Disney logic would likewise insist on the total defeat of evil by good, as in Sleeping Beauty or Snow White. The triumph of the righteous prince and princess demands the end of the enemy as the climax of the quest narrative and the prelude to marriage. Something else happens at the end of Laputa. Though Muska is indeed destroyed, and Pazu and Sheeta’s friends are saved, Laputa survives the destruction of its weapons platform. What is revealed underneath the stone of the lower hemisphere is the root-ball of the tree, with the great Levistone shining at its center:

Figure 10: Laputa after the Destruction of the Atomic Weapon.

As the heroes escape, the city ascends rather than hiding again in a field of clouds. The destruction of the weapons platform demonstrates that violence is not the heart of the city, that the city survives the end of its imperial identity. This suggests that ecotopia can be separated from dystopia, that modernity can be healed of its colonial nature. Free of its burden, the city rises even higher above the earth with its tree and urban core intact. If humans were able to stay there, to inhabit Laputa in peace, there would be a purely utopian ending. However, the destruction of the weapon leaves no human behind. As she and Pazu fly away, Sheeta turns back to see the guardian robot and its animals resume their lives as if nothing has happened.

Figure 11: The Robot Goes about Its Business.

This is the last we see of the Laputan habitat before the city ascends out of sight. Ecotopia is preserved, but not for humanity. Rather than restoring the Laputan royal house to its former glory, Sheeta repeats the diaspora of the first Laputans to the ground, and appears happy to do so. Her friends regret the loss of the treasures Laputa contained, but are pleased to be reunited, and begin to plan the next adventure. Pazu, whose father claimed to have encountered Laputa years before, restores his family honor. They are all flying in the end – a classic Miyazaki emblem of joy – but they fly away from the city, and it flies away from them to assume an orbit above Japan, as we see in the closing credits. Ecotopia lives on, but not for us.

Now we must turn to the consequences of Miyazaki’s critical ecotopia for an understanding of environmental crisis and a planetary ethic of the environment. Joseph Nye’s concept of “soft power” – by which a nation persuades others to do its bidding through what Antonio Gramsci called, in other circumstances, “hegemony,” or cultural suasion – has been controversial since it was first applied to the case of Japan.4 Critics ask exactly what Japan has been able to convince other nations to do using the power of its globalized popular culture. Following ethnographers of fan culture, especially Henry Jenkins, I suggest that the power of Miyazaki’s art is exercised in transnational media networks that bypass the level of nationalistic culture entirely. 5 The soft power exercised by Laputa in particular and anime in general is more about the shaping of the environmental imagination, the idea of an ethic of planetary care, among the global middle class, than it is about the behavior of nation-states as such. Given my analysis of Laputa as critical ecotopia, I want to discuss the manner in which its vision can shape the ethos of its viewers through visual rhetoric, critique of ideology, challenge to environmental philosophies, and spur to activism.

If viewers of Miyazaki’s films agree on one thing, it is that his work is profoundly beautiful in ways that transcend pastoral retreat or the admiration of landscape. As Karatani Kojin explains in Origins of Modern Japanese Literature , landscape, in the European sense of the distant, admired object, was only “discovered” in Japan in the 1890s, and Miyazaki’s films work against a separation between human subject and natural object (Karatani 19-22). They contain not only the beauty of the rice fields in Totoro, or farmland seen from above in Laputa, or the waterscapes of Spirited Away, but the alien elegance of the Sea of Decay in Nausicaä, the aerial wizard battles in Howl’s Moving Castle, and the loyalty of the lepers in Princess Mononoke. As Susan Napier points out, however easy it is to get lost in the bucolic charm of certain scenes, Miyazaki is not simply concerned with a nostalgic vision of the world we have lost in modernity, “but also, more importantly, what could be” (Napier 153). There is a critical ecotopian direction in Miyazaki’s aesthetic; beauty is used strategically to make us think about the world we would prefer to live in. Although “the exceptional beauty of his imagery creates an “Other” world of immense appeal,” it is not an otherworld for its own sake, but a critical tool that finds the present world insufficient (Napier 153). More specifically, it is beauty set against the urge to empire – Sophie’s reverie in the flowers is interrupted by a war machine in Howl’s Moving Castle – a finger accusing empire as the destroyer of peace. This is true not just of Laputa, but of almost every film since Nausicaä. American viewers are especially challenged to recognize this connection between aesthetics and politics because we have been trained to see popular culture, and animation especially, as the realm of children, or adults with arrested development. Anglophone ecocriticism – despite the influence of British cultural studies, which ought to know better – has been especially conservative in this respect: conservative about the objects of culture worthy of criticism even as it postures as politically progressive. As an internationally award-winning film maker, Miyazaki presents ecocriticism with the opportunity to relent in its prejudice against popular culture, to put down its defensive snobbery about non-literary media, and to address an artist whose environmental politics could not be more overt, and whose global reach raises questions about the rhetorical power of animation. In the wake of high theory, literary criticism has focused too much on the persuasion of logos, or rational discourse, to the detriment of pathos, or the appeal to the emotions. Laputa is a profoundly moving film, and generates questions like: Why is the beauty of ecotopia unavailable to us? Why did artificial intelligence develop an ethic of guardianship more effective than our own? What would we have to do to bring the castle in the sky closer to earth? What kind of culture must we build to disrupt the engines of empire? Unlike modes of critique that depend solely on argumentation, Laputa creates a longing in viewers to realize the peace between machines and environment that reigns within the city. Miyazaki’s powerful wish for ecotopia, and his condemnation of the empires that prevent it, reach millions of citizens in cultures that engage, or have recently engaged, in empire-building, including Japan and the other G8 countries. Teachers in these cultures should expose students to this film and involve them in discussions about the way its aesthetic raises political questions and shape political desires, so that students do not simply consume it as entertainment, but engage it as a tool for philosophical reflection and political action.

Laputa presents an opportunity for Americans, especially American environmentalists, to move beyond the conflict between Pangloss and Ludd, technocracy and primitivism, which characterizes the discussion of such planetary problems as industrial pollution, waste management, energy production, and climate change. Howard P. Segal, a historian of technological utopianism in American culture, has this to say about the nineteenth and early twentieth-century hope that technology was the answer to American social ills: “The innumerable technological advances that have come into being since 1933…have neither produced nor led to equivalent social advances. Certainly, many have made the lives of Americans less burdensome and more comfortable, but they have not made people’s lives qualitatively happier, as had been predicted by technological utopians and non-utopian prophets alike” (Segal 129-130). Though American technological utopianism has declined throughout the twentieth century in terms of the hope for any one city or region, the notion that environmental problems can be solved through technological innovation has been remarkably persistent. In this sense, technological utopianism has deep roots in American environmentalism, and the fetishized nature of media attention to the next electric car, the compact fluorescent light bulb, or atmospheric engineering to counter global warming underlines the persistence of this way of thinking. Laputa, as a descendant of Gulliver’s Travels, insists that the fault lies not in our technology, but in ourselves. Real environmental progress requires cultural change, which is generally harder to engineer than a light bulb. As George H. W. Bush said in response to the 1992 Rio Summit on the environment, “The American way of life is not negotiable.” It is precisely this refusal to negotiate that forced the Laputans to the ground, and the island into orbit. Ecotopia remains out of reach because of undiscovered or neglected ethical technologies that would allow us to turn away from the domination of nature on the massive scale necessary to preserve planetary civilization. Part of our resistance is the sense that the alternative to the current form of modernity is the loss of modernity altogether, and many environmental apocalypses threaten, and even advocate, a massive die-back of our species to a population level that would allow everyone to resume a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. This simplistic contrast between destructive modernity and a Green primitivism prevents American environmentalism from advancing an argument about deep cultural change without evoking the fear of catastrophic loss.

To some extent, this impasse has been perpetuated by the shallow technological utopianism of mainstream environmental groups in conflict with the anarchist primitivism of radical environmentalism. Though ecotage groups have performed an admirable service as the Bad Cop to the mainstream Good Cop, their belief that technology is, in itself, a corrupting influence on human cultures, that even the Neolithic revolution is too much technology for the good of the earth, remains a stumbling block to the transformation of modernity. In Green Rage, a classic exposition of radical environmentalist philosophy, Christopher Manes explains:

Almost by definition technological progress is directed at converting the natural world into domesticated forms useful to humans: forests into board feet, iron into automobiles, plains into cornfields, wildlands into recreation areas. Deep Ecology, in contrast, stands for the proposition that the natural world should be allowed to remain wild for its own sake and, if we accept the notion of the Ecological Self, our own. Therefore, our attitude toward technology is at the heart of the question the environmental crisis raises: is our species, going to step back, reevaluate our role in the ecology, and cultivate some degree of environmental humility, or are going to continue the practice of environmental imperialism that threatens the existence of millions of life-forms, including our own?

Perhaps a technology that includes the interests of both human and ecological communities is possible, but one suspects it would look very much like the crafts that primal peoples pursue and not the high-tech dreams of anti-environmentalists. (Manes 153-254)

The conflation here of wildness with liberation and modernity with destruction is endemic in radical Green philosophies; indeed, the term “radical” is usually defined by the degree of Luddism present, making such movements the dystopian counterpart of technological utopianism. This dualism remains to be deconstructed, and Laputa offers important clues about the way forward. Clearly, the idea of a futuristic city whose radix, or root, is a giant tree is simply unimaginable within the bounds of dualistic thinking. The very image of such a place is shocking within American environmentalism and its uncritical utopianism and dystopianism. Furthermore, a guardian robot who saves birds’ nests and tends the abundant garden of the future is anathema to both poles of the argument. Technological utopians still consider nature to be the foil, not the companion, of artificial intelligence; much of the discourse of climate change is still infected with the idea of the planet as object of control. At the same time, Deep Ecology has no way to imagine technology as companion; the idea that a robot could be a better friend to the Laputan environment is a contradiction in terms. Technology is what separates humans from communion with the wild, what makes us more unnatural and unethical. If Miyazaki shares the critique of empire with Green anarchism, he questions the assumption that technology is imperialist by nature. By asserting the independence of technology from the flaws in human character, Laputa implies that ecotopia is linked to a spiritual metamorphosis that will lead to cultural transformation. The robot is as much an icon as St. Francis, in the literal sense: an image that, when contemplated, leads to spiritual progress. In his willingness to entertain the idea of an alliance between technosphere and biosphere beyond the flaws in human character, Miyazaki is, unexpectedly, an ally of Donna Haraway’s cyborg philosophy, though he might be surprised to know it. 6

The difference between Haraway and Miyazaki, as proponents of unexpected alliances between humans, machines, and other creatures, is that Haraway writes for an audience of thousands, primarily in the Anglophone world, while Miyazaki creates for a planetary audience of millions. Though environmental thinkers have called for a radical transformation of politics and economy, few have proposed vectors powerful enough to sustain a transcultural bridge to enable that change. Mass-mediated, globalized popular culture, long caricatured by First World intellectuals as the brain-rotting prelude to the fall of civilization, is one of the only cultural forms that rivals corporate capitalism and the world religions in reach and persuasive power. Though Miyazaki is not the only creator of manga and anime to address environmental themes – the makers of StarblazersPokémonEscaflowneSerial Experiments LainAkira, and many others do as well – his prestige as a living master of the form outranks other candidates. If one were serious about using anime to move the global middle class to think and live differently, his work would be a logical point of departure. For this reason, we must return to the end of Laputa, when the city ascends, taking ecotopia with it, and reconsider an earlier claim that its world is not for us. In fact, because the city takes up a watchful position above Japan in the end credits, the audience is prompted to contemplate its possible return, the idea that the city is not for us yet, because we are not sufficiently advanced, ethically, as a species. There is a proleptic aspect to Laputa as ecotopia; the city is a foretaste of something greater to come, the carrier of an eschatological promise. Prolepsis is a prominent feature of utopia as a genre, but the combination of transformed community and blessed dwelling place resonates with many of the grand traditions of imperial peoples, including Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, but also, in somewhat different forms, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Confucianism, not to speak of prophetic traditions in indigenous religions, such as the Ghost Dance of the Great Plains nations and the Fifth World prophecies of the Pueblo. This general compatibility of ecotopian thinking with larger traditions of world-transformation leads to the questions of the requirements posed by Laputa itself. The film asks its global audience to consider the following: that empire is an inherently destructive form of civilization; that sustainable civilizations must renounce warfare as a way of life; that the renunciation of war permits an alliance of first and second nature, artificial intelligence and other creatures; that artificial intelligence in community with other creatures may be more rather than less harmonious than humanity by itself; and that urban cultures engaged in such an alliance are not the antithesis of nature, but may be based on the powers of stone, wind, and forest. Sheeta’s decision to risk the destruction of her heritage in the face of empire is a sign that such an ethical turn is possible. Her youth, and the unresolved marriage plot with Pazu, need not be taken as an indication of the proper audience for the film; rather, they represent the condition of the audience relative to the ethical turn. Laputa is not a Neverland in which children are invited to stay children forever, but a challenge to follow its children into adulthood, a condition in which empires repent, take responsibility for planetary flourishing, and invite ecotopia to come down to earth.7


[1] See the reviews at . Accessed August 11, 2009.
[2] See especially the yellow reviews at Accessed July 29, 2009.
[3] In his classic analysis of the origins of Western environmental crisis, the historian Lynn White, Jr., holds up Francis as “the greatest spiritual revolutionary in Western history” and the “patron saint for ecologists” because of his doctrine of the equality of creatures. See Lynn White, Jr., “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis.” The Ecocriticism Reader: Landmarks in Literary Ecology. Edited by Cheryll Glotfelty and Harold Fromm. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1996. 1-13. In 1979, John Paul II granted White’s wish and declared Francis the patron saint of ecology.
[4] See Joseph S. Nye, Jr., Bound To Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power. New York: Basic Books, 1990. 188-201
[5] See Henry Jenkins, The Wow Climax: Tracing the Emotional Impact of Popular Culture. New York: NYU Press, 2006 and Henry Jenkins, Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture. New York: Routledge, 1992.
[6] See Donna J. Haraway, Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge, 1996.
[7]  The ideas in this essay were developed at a panel on anime hosted by the annual meeting of the Modern Language Association; a panel on anime at the Society for Utopian Studies; and at a forum of the Cool Japan Project sponsored by Harvard and MIT. I would like to thank Ian Condry of the Cool Japan Project and Peter Paik of the Society for Utopian Studies for their invitations to present; Phillip Wegner, for his invitation to work on this issue of ImageTexT; and Kristen Abbey, Rick Anderson, and Chris Pizzino, for their many insights into the nature of anime.


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Posted in Volume 5, Issue 2: Anime and Utopia