Written by Sarah Yoon
Though Miyazaki’s later works are character-driven roller coasters, his earlier stories rely on structure. The Castle of Cagliostro follows an action-adventure arc. Despite its complex characters, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind retains a high concept plot. And Laputa: Castle in the Sky is just as driven, pulling two kids into unthinkable danger and pushing them to take action.
The Highs and Lows of Story Concept
The difference between Miyazaki’s later works and Laputa is a simple storytelling shift. As specified in “Howl’s Moving Castle: Storytelling through Character and Concept,” the plot’s focus differs between the two concept types:
Low concept stories are often character based, which makes them more difficult to explain…Summarizing the story’s arc takes much more effort, which can lead to the difficulty of overly obscure themes or inaccessible stylistic choices. The complexity, however, allows for deeper characters and greater creative freedom.
Consider Sophie or Chihiro and you can see how they drive their own stories rather than being driven. The key difference between the two concepts starts at the core of plot construction; they simply have different priorities.
Roughly translated, high concept stories are often plot driven, because they rely on a key incident to direct the story…This style of story makes your work easy to pitch and accessible to wider audiences. However, unless you’re careful, high concept stories are prone to cliché characters and formulaic plot arcs.
High Concept in Action
As a high concept story, Laputa is very easily summed up: sky pirates battle the army over Sheeta’s crystal, which is the key to a lost world. With such a straightforward plot, Laputa easily avoids the low concept pitfalls. But how does it fare as a high concept story? When taking a story’s pulse, consider both plot formation and character complexity.
Laputa’s plot opens in medias res, with Sheeta at the mercy of two conflicting forces. The situation is immediately engaging as Muska’s powerful army and Dola’s pirate crew collide, making Sheeta fall from the airship into the clouds below. Even before the film reaches the five-minute mark, you can tell that the main character isn’t the story’s driving force. Her choices and her internal conflict are sidelined by the all-engaging race to steal her crystal. This focus keeps the energy high as each element of the mystery unfolds.
The characters in Laputa start at the mercy of the plot, reacting instead of taking action. When other forces sideline your protagonist and limit internal motivation, you’re in danger of creating a cliché character. Sheeta is the damsel in distress, a victim of her own story. So what happened to Miyazaki’s famed ability to create strong female protagonists?
Sheeta’s initial simplicity isn’t a deathblow. Though it takes half of the film for her to develop internal motivation, she is able to finally take control. Her character gains complexity as she decides on her own path and struggles with internal conflict. “I have to find the real truth about Laputa for myself,” she says. As final proof of her growth, Sheeta takes action when Muska goes power mad. With hands tied behind her back, she rushes into him and yells, “Run everyone!”
Sheeta grows into a rounded, driven, and courageous heroine, releasing her from the damsel in distress cliché. Though Laputa’s characters would benefit from some low-concept influence from the beginning, Sheeta’s growth rebalances the story’s elements in the end. The story dodges the high concept pitfalls, creating an engaging, entertaining, and beautiful film.
Check out more Month-A-Zaki goodness and listen to Critical Hit’s review of Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind and read “Miyazaki’s The Castle of Cagliostro and the Anti-Formula Career.”
Illustrations were graciously provided by Pui Che (“Laputa at last”: See more at DeviantArt or on his portfolio. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram) and Loonaki (“Castle in the Sky – Ghibli Series X”: Explore her work by visiting DeviantArt)