I would argue the best steampunk stories regularly engage with social and political issues, and one of the greatest is Laputa: Castle in the Sky.
Released in 1986, Castle in the Sky (the slightly shorter title used for its US release) is set in a vaguely European, Edwardian milieu and has a fairly simple plot. A young girl named Sheeta is in possession of a stone necklace imbued with peculiar powers. Both the military, led by the skeevy secret agent Muska, and a ragtag family of airship pirates want to get their hands on Sheeta’s amulet, which is the key to finding the floating city of Laputa. While making an accidental escape from her pursuers, Sheeta falls—or rather, floats—down from an airship mid-flight and is caught by an industrious and optimistic orphan boy named Pazu. Sheeta and Pazu become friends and the two of them go on the run, but it isn’t long before they are caught and separated. There are more scuffles, various escapes and escapades, and a truly horrifying sequence of destruction before the two are reunited and finally find their way to Laputa, where Sheeta’s necklace originated. There, Sheeta must face the legacy of Laputa, which is intrinsically tied to her own.
The film is full of steampunk iconography, including airships, retro-futuristic robots, and steam-powered mining equipment; the opening scene of the film features an airship battle that could grace the cover of any steampunk anthology. But Miyazaki is never just about aesthetics without meaning; every piece of machinery reflects those who operate it. Dola’s pirate crew—scrappy and tough but also a warm and loving family—pilot their small, utilitarian ship with their laundry flying from lines strewn across the decks. Meanwhile, the military’s oppressive power is brought to visual life in the smooth, gravity-defying solidity of their enormous flying tank, The Goliath. Even the aging, complicated steam-powered mining equipment used in Pazu’s town offers insight into the state of the people that live and work on (and under) the ground. This refraction of people as seen through their ships and other tech is both a crucial piece of characterization that introduces us to these central players within the first few moments of the film, and a subtle commentary on the overarching themes of personal responsibility for the uses—and abuses—of technology throughout. This connection between technology and its users become much more overt when we encounter Laputa and learn more about its history.
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