Laputa: Castle in the Sky (1986)

aka Tenkû no shiro Rapyuta

2020 #12
Hayao Miyazaki | 125 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | Japan / English | PG / PG

Laputa: Castle in the Sky

The names Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli go hand-in-hand (I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if quite a few people think they’re synonymous, i.e. that all Ghibli films are directed by Miyazaki), but his first two features (The Castle of Cagliostro and Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind) were produced before Ghibli’s formation. So it’s Laputa, his third film, that is actually Ghibli’s first — which makes it appropriate to look at today, as it’s also one of the first titles being made available under Netflix’s new deal with Ghibli.* (Though if you search Netflix for “Laputa”, you won’t find it.)

Acclaimed as one of the first major works in the steampunk subgenre, Laputa takes place in a Mitteleuropean alternate past — the architecture is inspired by Welsh mining villages; the uniforms and hardware by historical German military; there are steam-powered automobiles and flying machines; but there’s also magic-like stuff, so it’s not just tech-based. In this world we meet Sheeta (voiced in Disney’s English dub by Anna Paquin, retaining her New Zealand accent), a young girl wanted by both the military and sky pirates for a necklace she wears. When she falls from an aircraft, the necklace glows and lowers her gently to the ground — and into the life of Pazu (James “Dawson’s Creek” Van Der Beek), a young orphan who immediately resolves to help her. And so off they go on an adventure to find out just what’s so desirable about Sheeta’s necklace, and what it has to do with the legendary flying city of Laputa.

If you watched Miyazaki’s first three movies ignorant of the knowledge they came from the same writer-director, I’m sure you’d work it out for yourself. It’s an action-packed adventure laced with humour and morally grey characters, like Cagliostro, with a well-imagined fantasy world populated by flying machines and brave young heroines, like Nausicaä. But it’s no act of self-plagiarism — Miyazaki is too inventive for that. His world-building is first rate, sketching in the details of this alternate reality in between character building scenes and thrilling action sequences. If this were live-action, it would make an exemplary action/adventure blockbuster, so well paced and structured is it.

The castle in the sky

That’s why it immediately clicked with me as an instant favourite among both Miyazaki’s and Ghibli’s oeuvre. It’s unquestionably an adventure movie, so it lacks the heartfelt depths of something like My Neighbour Totoro, but it’s at least the equal of Cagliostro in terms of how wildly exciting the set pieces are. And it’s not as if it’s totally empty headed, touching on longstanding universal themes like the corruption of power, and with a minor-key ecological message too (another Miyazaki staple).

I always feel like I should watch anime in Japanese, and I often do, but when the English voice cast includes Mark Hamill, well, that’s good enough for me. He’s the villain, channeling a certain amount of his Joker (but not too much) into a government secret agent in pursuit of Sheeta and in search of Laputa. He’s just one of a memorable cast of characters — I mean, did I mention there were sky pirates? They’re as awesome as they sound, bringing both broad humour and fuelling several action scenes (you’d expect nothing less of frickin’ sky pirates, right?) One of the most memorable characters transcends the language barrier: a giant speechless robot, questionably friend or foe, who leaves a mark almost as great as the Iron Giant’s but in considerably less screen time. (Considering how much Pixar are renowned fans of Miyazaki, and that Brad Bird made Iron Giant over a decade after Laputa’s debut, I wouldn’t be surprised if there was at least a little cross-pollination.)

Like any good blockbuster, Laputa has it all: thrills, humour, emotion, wonder… It’s the complete package. Plus, that level of broad familiarity (it wouldn’t take too many steps to imagine this remade as a Hollywood blockbuster, although they’d inevitably mess it up somehow) probably makes it the perfect starting point for any newbies to anime or Ghibli.

5 out of 5

Laputa: Castle in the Sky is available on Netflix from today.

* If the news passed you by: Netflix have acquired the rights to 21 Studio Ghibli films (that is, their whole back catalogue of features except Grave of the Fireflies, which has separate rights issues, plus Nausicaä) for most of the world (the USA, Canada, and Japan are excluded). They’re being released in three batches of seven — the first lot today, the next on March 1st, and the final ones on April 1st. As well as Laputa, today’s selection includes My Neighbour Totoro, which I reviewed here, plus Kiki’s Delivery Service, Only Yesterday, Porco Rosso, Ocean Waves, and Tales from Earthsea. ^

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984)

aka Kaze no tani no Naushika

2018 #130
Hayao Miyazaki | 117 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | Japan / English | PG / PG

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind

I watched Princess Mononoke before Nausicaä, and also checked out the Blu-ray’s special features. Those include the film’s original Japanese trailers, which emphasise that it’s “13 years after Nausicaä”, which intrigued me, because director Hayao Miyazaki had made plenty of other films in between. But, having watched the earlier movie, the connection and similarities become clear: Nausicaä features an ecological message, a threat from nature that isn’t, industrial humans (with a female general) being the actual villains, innocent townsfolk that need saving, a princess who’s the only one who understands, and a boy from a different kingdom who helps her. They’re not identical, of course, but there’s a lot of overlap…

The animation is nice without being quite as mindblowingly good as later Ghibli productions — they certainly hit the ground running, but they would improve too. The full-length English dub was created in 2005 (the original US release was drastically cut and rewritten) and boasts a helluva cast: Uma Thurman, Patrick Stewart, Mark Hamill, Edward James Olmos, plus Alison Lohman as the lead and a young Shia LaBeouf. I don’t mean to disparage those actors who primarily ply their trade dubbing anime, but these starry Disney-funded dubs do add a certain extra oomph to the vocals.

Nausicaä was only Miyazaki’s second feature, but already shows a lot of the themes and concerns that would go on to characterise his later movies. I feel like maturity and/or experience make some of those later films better, but this is still a powerful demonstration of his talents.

4 out of 5

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind was viewed as part of my Blindspot 2018 project, which you can read more about here.

Princess Mononoke (1997)

aka Mononoke-hime

2018 #73
Hayao Miyazaki | 134 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | Japan / English | PG / PG-13

Princess Mononoke

When I was first becoming aware of anime in the late ’90s, Princess Mononoke was one of the titles that everyone seemed to talk about (alongside the likes of Akira, and TV series like Cowboy Bebop and Neon Genesis Evangelion). This may be in part due to it being the first Studio Ghibli film afforded a US release since Nausicaä (that was a bad experience for director Hayao Miyazaki — the film was cut by 25 minutes and the dialogue was drastically changed — hence the moratorium until Miramax persuaded him otherwise. Still, Miyazaki refused to sell the rights until Miramax agreed to make no cuts, which, considering Harvey Weinstein’s scissor-happy reputation, was a wise move). But it’s also because it’s a stunning film in its own right.

Set in medieval Japan, it’s a fantasy epic about the conflict between industrialising humans and the gods of the forest they’re destroying. Our hero is Ashitaka, a young prince who kills a demon but is infected by it. Travelling to find a cure, he encounters the aforementioned war and finds himself torn between the two sides. On one is Lady Eboshi, who razed the forest to produce iron in Irontown (imaginative naming), which has become a refuge for social outcasts. On the side of the gods is San, the titular princess (“mononoke” is not a name but an untranslated word, meaning an angry or vengeful spirit), a human girl raised by wolves who intends to kill Eboshi.

There’s more to it than that, because Miyazaki has imagined a very lyrical and meaningful story, about nature vs industry, and their possible coexistence. The theme isn’t exactly subtle in the film, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t well portrayed. He’s populated the narrative with interesting characters, too. There’s little easy right or wrong here, with those on all sides coming across as nuanced individuals, with complicated relationships. Naturally, it’s beautifully animated, both the natural splendour and the physicality of the world, including some superb action sequences. Some of the violence is exceptionally gory, though — I can’t believe this only got a PG (if it was live action it’d be a 15 easily, if not an 18).

Bloody princess

However, while I really enjoyed the earlier parts, it begins to go on a bit towards the end. The last hour-ish felt like it needed streamlining, with too much running back and forth all over the place. When introducing the film’s Western premiere at TIFF, Miyazaki concluded by saying “I hope you will enjoy all of the ridiculously long 2 hours and 13 minutes,” and I tend to agree with him — you can have too much of a good thing.

I always feel like I should watch anime in its original language with subtitles, and sometimes I do and sometimes I don’t. With Princess Mononoke, I was swayed towards the English dub because it was written by the great Neil Gaiman. There’s also a quality cast including the likes of Billy Crudup, Claire Danes, Minnie Driver, Billy Bob Thornton, Gillian Anderson, and Keith David. It’s definitely superior to an average dub, both in how it’s written (sounding more naturalistic than the “literal translation” feel some have) and performed (more understated and less histrionic than they can be). Out of curiosity I turned the subtitles on at one point, and they were completely different to what was being said in the dub. No wonder fans hate it when a disc only includes “dubtitles”.

Even if I have some reservations about the film’s pace and length, primarily in its second half, it’s a beautifully-produced film throughout, and the good stuff is so good that I can’t but give it full marks.

5 out of 5

Princess Mononoke was meant to be viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2015 project… just three years late.

Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)

aka Hauru no ugoku shiro

2016 #193
Hayao Miyazaki | 114 mins | DVD | 1.85:1 | Japan / English | U / PG

Howl's Moving Castle

Director Hayao Miyazaki’s first film after he won the Oscar for Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle is another fantasy adventure about a young girl encountering a magical world. Well, I’m bending that similarity a bit — the heroine is considerably older than the one in Spirited Away (a young woman rather than a girl) and she already lives in a world where magic exists (but she doesn’t seem to have encountered much of it).

Adapted from a novel by British author Diana Wynne Jones, Howl’s Moving Castle concerns Sophie Hatter (voiced in the English version by Emily Mortimer), who works in her family’s hat shop in a fictional Mitteleuropean country in a steampunk-y past (anime really gets away with launching you into these subgenre-mash-up worlds in a way no Western work ever dares, doesn’t it?) After a brief chance encounter with famed wizard Howl (Christian Bale), Sophie is attacked by the wicked Witch of the Waste (Lauren Bacall) and transformed into an old woman (now voiced by Jean Simmons). She goes hunting for Howl’s titular abode/transportation, wherein she meets sentient fire Calcifer (Billy Crystal), Howl’s young assistant Markl (Josh Hutcherson), and alongside them gets swept into a brewing war with a neighbouring country.

Frankly, the plot is a bit messy, flitting from one situation to another in a way that feels in need of some streamlining. The climax is particularly hurried, underpowered, and under-explained. For example, there’s a missing prince who suddenly turns up to resolve the whole war storyline — a prince who was only mentioned in passing in some background dialogue nearly two hours earlier.

Running up that hill, no problem

However, much of the film is enjoyable in a moment-to-moment sense. The affable characters are quite delightful to get to know even as they’re getting to know each other, and there are some magical sequences. Plus it’s all beautifully designed and animated, as you’d expect from Studio Ghibli, though we should never take such achievements for granted. The English dub is pretty good too, benefitting from Disney picking it up and getting a starry cast, and no doubt the direction of Pete “Monsters Inc / Up / Inside Out” Docter and Rick Dempsey. No disrespect to the professional voice actors who work in anime day-in day-out, but they often perform with a certain stylisation that isn’t always naturalistic.

Apparently Howl’s Moving Castle is Miyazaki’s favourite from his own work, probably because some of its themes (anti-war sentiment, a positive depiction of old age, the value of compassion) are close to his heart. While those are worthwhile topics, they sit alongside the aspects mentioned above as good parts that aren’t wrapped up into a whole that equals their sum. But even if it’s not Ghibli’s finest work, it’s still a likeable fantasy adventure.

4 out of 5

Howl’s Moving Castle was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2016 project, which you can read more about here.

Studio Ghibli’s first TV series, Ronja, The Robber’s Daughter, is available on Amazon Prime in the UK and USA (and presumably elsewhere too) from today.

Grave of the Fireflies (1988)

aka Hotaru no haka

2016 #67
Isao Takahata | 90 mins | DVD | 16:9 | Japan / Japanese | 12

Grave of the FirefliesOne of the most praised animated films of all time, this Studio Ghibli feature tackles grim subject matter: it’s the story of Seita and his little sister Setsuko, a pair of Japanese children who are orphaned and eventually left to fend for themselves in the closing months of World War 2. It begins with Seita dying of starvation and joining the spirit of his dead sister, so you know it’s not going to end well. A Disney movie this is not.

It’s kind of hard to avoid the praise Grave of the Fireflies has attracted, which is why it ended up on my Blindspot list this year. It’s the third highest-rated animation on IMDb (behind Spirited Away and The Lion King), which also places it in the top 25% of the Top 250, not to mention various other “best animated” and “great movie” lists. I mention all this because I fear the weight of expectation somewhat hampered the film for me. It’s by no means a bad film, but, despite the subject matter, it didn’t touch me to the same degree as, say, My Neighbour Totoro (which, coincidentally, it was initially released with).

So where did it go wrong for me? Perhaps my biggest issue was with Seita and the choices he made. I guess part of the point is that he is still a child and so unable to adequately care for himself and Setsuko, but I don’t get why he resorts to stealing, looting, and allowing them to starve when, as it eventually turns out, they still have 3,000 yen in the bank — enough to buy plenty of hearty food when it comes down to it. Why didn’t he turn to that money much sooner? Why did it take a doctor telling him his sister was malnourished and refusing to help before he thought, “you know what, I could always use that money we have saved up in the bank to feed us so I don’t have to steal and nonetheless be short of food”? When he does eventually withdraw that cash and buy some decent supplies, it’s a very literal case of doing too little too late.

Another thing is that the film is often cited as a powerful anti-war movie, because it depicts the ravaging effects on innocents. However, director Isao Takahata insists it isn’t, saying it’s about “the brother and sister living a failed life due to isolation from society”. I’m inclined to believe him, because, from what we actually see on screen, these two kids are the only ones to be so badly affected! Okay, we do see people have died, and we’re told that food is running out… but there’s a gaggle of kids who seem to be having a fun day out when they stumble across the siblings’ makeshift shelter; or, right at the end, people who merrily arrive home and pop their music on. The film doesn’t try to claim that only these two kids suffered, but — aside from a few other destitutes at the start, and the bodies we see after the first bombing (later bombings don’t make any casualties explicit) — we don’t really see anyone else suffering. I’m not arguing that Takahata is saying no one else suffered, nor that these observations make it pro-war (I mean, any children dying, even if others are surviving, is not a good thing), but I didn’t get an anti-war message that was as powerful or as overwhelming as other viewers seem to have.

I’m an advocate of animation as a form (which must sound like a ridiculous position to have to take in some countries, but in the West “quality animation” begins and ends with Disney musicals and Pixar’s kid-friendly comedy adventures), but I think the fact this particular story is being told with moving drawings is detrimental. I’ve seen online reviews that say it makes the film more bearable because it creates a kind of disconnect from the real world — and, really, this story shouldn’t be “bearable”. That’s not to say you can’t feel an emotional connection to animated characters, but, as a medium, animation regularly deals in fantastical subjects, so with material this gruelling it does make it seem less real.

Despite these issues, Grave of the Fireflies does still pack a punch, but I wasn’t as bowled over as I’d expected to be.

4 out of 5

Grave of the Fireflies was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2016 project, which you can read more about here.

My Neighbour Totoro (1988)

aka Tonari no Totoro

2011 #41
1988 | Hayao Miyazaki | 83 mins | TV | U / G

My Neighbour TotoroOnce, a few years ago, SFX published an anime special (it was their first, I think) with a rundown of the Best Ever Anime Films. You’d expect it to be topped by something regularly cited and, considering the source magazine, science-fiction/fantasy-y — Akira, probably; or perhaps Ghost in the Shell; or maybe Oscar-winner Spirited Away. But it was actually My Neighbour Totoro that rose victorious on that occasion, an unexpected choice you could tell the magazine felt the need to justify even in the article accompanying the list. But they weren’t wrong — this is a deserving champion.

Totoro tells a charming story, where very little of significance seems to happen, yet is never dull or overly stately. It works to build a lot of character and affection for them, so that by the climax, when something definitely does happen, all the work that’s gone into the characters really pays off. It doesn’t whack you round the head with its impressiveness, in the way those other films I mentioned might, but instead sneaks up on you with the realisation that it’s a beautiful work.

The fantasy element is quite light, perhaps surprisingly considering the titular character is a giant teddy-bear-like creature. There are sequences of pure fancy, but it doesn’t saturate the film; it’s as much a gentle drama about two young girls in a new home waiting for their mother. It’s a little like Pan’s Labyrinth in this respect (or, rather, Pan’s Labyrinth is a little like this). Light fantasyIt’s not scary in the slightest (well, maybe in the slightest, for some kids, but note the U and G ratings), but in terms of how it balances real-life dramas with the fantasy element. Only in both the real and fantasy worlds it’s a lot nicer, friendlier and cheerier than del Toro’s acclaimed fantasy-horror. To put it more succinctly, they share a similar structure and balance, but a completely different tone.

The story and characters are supported by the huge talents at Ghibli. It’s exquisitely animated, from the detailed painted backgrounds, to the well-observed character animation, down to little touches like flies around a nighttime light — things that have no need to be there but bring the frame alive. Jô Hisaishi’s music is equally beautiful. The music regularly plays more than its usual role in storytelling too, accompanying otherwise silent (bar sound effects) scenes perfectly. “Accompanying” is the wrong word — it’s not just accompaniment; it’s integral to the mood and the action. Normally such use of music is heavy-handed — “feel sad NOW”, “feel scared NOW” — but Hisaishi’s work is never that crass. It’s not omnipresent either, just appropriate; and it’s always adding something, without it necessarily being obvious what that something is.

CatbusThe English-friendly version has advantages too: I love any subtitles which use semicolons. It’s not inundated with them, but there was at least one. Semicolons are so underused. I love a good semicolon.

My Neighbour Totoro is a very nice film — and not in a mediocre way. That’s not to say there’s no drama — see the climax — but there’s no enforced peril, no nasty characters. They’re not needed. It’s quite refreshing. Is it the best anime film ever? I’m not qualified to say. But it must be a contender.

5 out of 5

My Neighbour Totoro placed 7th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2011, which can be read in full here.