In the west, the 1980s represent the nadir of quality animation. Prior to the Disney renaissance of the 90s, animated films were being made on the cheap and often had a rough, dingy look to them. In 1985 Disneys The Black Cauldron was infamously out-grossed by The Care Bears Movie at the box office. It was a dark time. And yet across the Pacific, 1985 marked the founding of Studio Ghibli arguably the worlds best traditional animation studio. The studios first feature, Laputa: Castle in the Sky, has just been released on Blu-ray for the first time. In stark contrast to the sort of animation available stateside at the time, Castle in the Sky is colourful and dynamic. The movement is fluid and backgrounds are rich with detail. The film marked Hayao Miyazakis third feature as director, but already present are visual motifs and themes that would becomes hallmarks of his style over the next twenty years. There is the same romantic view of a link between nature and spirituality as later explored in such films as Princess Mononoke and Ponyo. And Miyazaki sets this tale in a strange anachronistic, non-specific European setting, much like that in later films Howls Moving Castle and Kikis Delivery Service. There are gothic churches and castles, set alongside rural mining villages and picturesque cottages. Steam trains operate in the same world as Gatling guns and ancient robots. His films have their routes in anime, but they arent beholden to its conventions. In fact the films of Miyazaki, as the name Laputa (taken from Swifts Gullivers Travels) suggests, feel more strongly indebted to western literature and perhaps to the art-style of Hergé. Miyazakis fascination with Jules Verne-inspired flying machines is very much in evidence here too, with various airships soaring through the skies around an island lifted by giant propellers (the titular sky castle). Great detail is given to cogs and gears which are afforded considerable screen time, with the director displaying his fascination with the way machinery looks and sounds as its put to use. Incidentally, one ships mechanic here looks uncannily like the spindly, multi-limbed engineer later seen in Spirited Away. Yet there are signs that this is the work of a developing artist. Compared to his later work and even to 1984s mature pre-Ghibli Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind Castle in the Sky is less subtle and sophisticated from an animation standpoint. Character movements are a bit more exaggerated and cartoonish, whilst the films story is Miyazakis most conventional and least nuanced in terms of characterisation. For instance, this is the only Miyazaki film with a straightforward villain, with the evil Colonel Muska (voiced in the US dub by Mark Hamill) not ultimately redeemed. But it remains a fun and breezy yarn an action-packed adventure story with its share of excitement all set to a characteristically emotive score by Joe Hisaishi. Disney has gone through various ups and downs in the years since Castle in the Sky. Don Bluth, whose animated films once regularly topped the box office in the 80s, hasnt even made a film in over ten years. And yet Studio Ghibli and Miyazaki are still going strong, working to a consistent level of quality. Laputa: Castle in the Sky was just the beginning. But what a beginning.
All the features present on previous UK DVD releases are included on the new Blu-ray version, with a few nice additions. You can still view the entire film alongside the storyboards (picture-in-picture), as well as sampling many Japanese trailers and TV spots. The opening and ending credits are viewable without text too, which makes for surprisingly compelling viewing. More substantial are a decent little 12 minute contemporary Japanese documentary about the making of the film as well, along with a behind the microphone look at the American dub (with contributions from Mark Hamill, James Van Der Beek and Mandy Patinkin among others). New to the Blu-ray are a handful of short but interesting new interviews with Miyazaki and producer Toshio Suzuki, which look back on the film with a degree of perspective. Laputa: Castle in the Sky is available on Blu-ray now.
A regular film and video games contributor for What Culture, Robert also writes reviews and features for The Daily Telegraph, GamesIndustry.biz and The Big Picture Magazine as well as his own Beames on Film blog. He also has essays and reviews in a number of upcoming books by Intellect.