Tag Archives: Animation

Nausicaä and Laputa: Revisiting Miyazaki’s Early Masterpieces

When rediscovering the early films of Hayao Miyazaki’s career, it is important to constantly notice and appreciate just how assured and expertly crafted they are. Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984) and Laputa: Castle in the Sky (1986) are two of Miyazaki’s very earliest works as a director of animation, but what sweeping and glorious efforts they prove to be; less rough efforts of a director learning his trade, more an already accomplished miracle-worker of his craft. Although Nausicaä has slightly rougher animation then most Ghibli movies, and Miyazaki’s use of slow pans outwards are occasionally jarring, both of these early films are stunningly complete, strikingly accomplished for a director so early in his career. It is time to revisit them, to refresh our memories and remind ourselves that Miyazaki has barely given us time to watch him grow as a filmmaker; he has been in a constant state of near-perfection for almost thirty three years.

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind is unarguably the rawest of what we now consider to be the library of Studio Ghibli (although released before the formation of the studio, it is now considered to be the very first of that team’s work). The smooth animation that would be introduced only two years later in Laputa is not to be found in the rougher edges of Nausicaä, a factor which will date the film for some. However, the peaks of the animation in Nausicaä still soar, especially in its breathtaking moments of aerial combat. A particularly brilliant scene, where our heroine Nausicaä must escape from an enemy ship, is a thrilling and tense disguise routine, until the climatic moments where she is literally kicked off of the ship and into the swirling clouds behind her. There are more moments in this scene alone then I can describe with justice here, but it is a masterwork on what is possible with animation.

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Forget about what this film helped influence outside of Studio Ghibli, the ramifications of this film inside its very own company is very clear to see. Look no further then fifteen years later and the release of Princess Mononoke (1999), a similarly serious, poignant look at the human condition and the effect we have on the world around us. Western critics flocked to that film in droves, and it became the first Studio Ghibli film to make real inroads in countries outside of its own. Perhaps we should have been looking at Nausicaä instead; a film that on its own is a wonderful example of animation, but as a director’s second effort at his craft, is truly extraordinary.

Watching Laputa: Castle in the Sky is akin to discovering the moment where all the dreams and wonders of Studio Ghibli truly began. Although not quite as thoughtful and spiritual as Nausicaä, Miyazaki’s first official film within the newly formed studio feels like the beginning of the journey; the animation is smoother and crisper, the characters wilder and the action funny and thrilling in equal measure. Its musical score has undertones of the glorious memories of My Neighbour Totoro (made only two years later in 1988) and the action spins from deep underground to railway tracks and then finally to the aforementioned Castle in the Sky. There is a certain joy in Laputa that only springs up occasionally in Nausicaä, and has become a staple-mark of later Ghibli efforts. The improvement in animation quality came at just the right time, as the opening moments of our heroine, Sheeta, floating from the heavens into the arms of the young Pazu, simply wouldn’t work as well without the beautiful visuals, which simply shimmer off the screen.

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There is so much to learn from Laputa, so much to admire and enjoy. As in all the best Studio Ghibli films, the narrative has real emotion but doesn’t take itself too seriously. The love story of Pazu and Sheeta is genuinely beautiful (romance isn’t always Ghibli’s strongest suit) and the film wisely balances these moments out with slapstick and humour. An extended chase scene near the beginning of the film is interrupted by a pirate and a miner taking turns at punching each other, while the women visibly roll their eyes in the background. It subverts expectations, turning early villains into later heroes, and the narrative keeps rolling at the same pace, resembling the kind of caper that Hitchcock perfected in 1959’s North by Northwest. What a treat it is to revisit Laputa, as it teaches and shows us so much in regards to the later films of the studio and of Miyazaki’s career. It introduces us to the infectious tone and imagination of the famous works of Miyazaki; Spirited AwayMy Neighbour Totoro, Kiki’s Delivery Service and Howl’s Moving Castle can all be traced back to this moment, to name only a few. More so then before, Laputa shows us the roots and beginnings of one the greatest animation studios of all time.

With Hayao Miyazaki briefly coming out of retirement next year for a new feature film, it is undoubtedly true that the heights and wonders of Studio Ghibli are now behind us. What better time then to revisit the beginnings of this beautiful saga of animation history, to appreciate not that Studio Ghibli became what it is over a period of time, but that it began extraordinary and never stopped throughout its lengthy run. Take notice also, of the now rising-star of Japanese animation, Makoto Shinkai, who has been garnering steady attention as ‘the new Miyazaki’ for a number of years, cultivating in the hugely successful release of his rather extraordinary recent film Your Name (2016). Stand up and take notice now while you can, check out Shinkai’s earlier films, keep a close eye on him. If Miyazaki’s career is anything to go by, this is only the beginning.

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What Studio Ghibli Means To Me: A Tribute To Hayao Miyazaki

Very soon, The Wind Rises will be released, marking both Studio Ghibli’s 18th feature film and the inevitable end to Hayao Miyazaki’s career. The co-founder of animation company Studio Ghibli has become an icon in the word of modern animation, influencing and shaping the industry with a remarkable career spanning six decades, and his 11th film as a director for Studio Ghibli will be his last. The quality of The Wind Rises barely matters at this point; his career, with its countless films of pure genius and unrelenting wonder, has given us quality that begs to be watched for years and years, generations and generations. In my journey to be the film fanatic that I am today, Miyazaki’s work has had an immeasurable effect on me. My appreciation for both foreign cinema and animation would not be as strong as they are today without the influence of Hayao Miyazaki’s films, the worlds he conjures up for the audience. I got lost in the imagination of Hayao Miyazaki a long time ago, and I haven’t found the way out yet.

I remember watching my first Studio Ghibli film, back when I was twelve years old. It was the then mega-hit Spirited Away, a remarkable, confusing, hallucinogenic example of animation which captured both the animation and the heart. I’d never seen a Japanese film before, but the beautiful visuals and the engrossing tale made the need for subtitles unimportant. Hayao Miyazaki’s work reaches beyond language, transcending cultural boundaries to become almost universally acclaimed in a way which many foreign films can only dream of achieving. The pure magic of Miyazaki was deep in Spirited Away, and it grabbed me almost instantly with my first taste of his work. This extraordinary tale of a little girl who has to work in a bathhouse for spirits to save her parents is the typical ‘masterpiece’ of Miyazaki’s collection; the one film everybody seems to know, without knowing who made it or how they’ve only really experienced the tip of the iceberg. It’s akin to watching Steven Spielberg’s Jaws and not then going off to experience his other works, like E.T, Saving Private Ryan or Jurassic Park; a whole collection of masterpieces is just in your reach, if only you’d stretch a little further. Later on, I discovered Howl’s Moving Castle on television a year or so later, not at that moment realising the connection. Although considered by some as a weaker entry into Miyazaki’s legacy, I instantly fell in love with its incredible style, its bonkers storyline and the sheer imagination that stemmed right through the roots of the film. For me, it went beyond the charms of Disney, or the beauty of Pixar; it seemed to have more substance and more style than any other animated film I had ever seen. Studio Ghibli draw up worlds that you never want to leave, whether they be the mystic bathhouses of Spirited Away, the walking house of a wizard in Howl’s Moving Castle or, as I experienced next, the underwater haven of Ponyo. They may all be very different films, but the charm and the wonder that Studio Ghibli can create sticks hard and true from film to film.

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After the aquatic charms that Ponyo so sweetly provided, I searched out and experienced what is perhaps my favourite of all of Miyazaki’s work; My Neighbour Totoro. This story of young sisters who find forest spirits in the woods behind their house is a simply remarkable piece of work, a film that goes above and beyond the standards set for animation in film. It taught me that action, violence and even just general peril were not necessary pieces of the puzzle in terms of filmmaking, and Miyazaki deliberately stays clear of that. The characters develop, the mystery deepens, and you as the audience will simply enjoy the film through sharing company with these wonderful characters. The mystical forest creature, Totoro, has become the symbol of Studio Ghibli, and besides from that he also represents what is so brilliant about the studio itself. Totoro represents the innocence and the beauty of Miyazaki’s animation, the avoidance of general, boring Hollywood contrivances, proof that films can do remarkable things without resorting to conflict, explosions, big guns, and half-naked women. I would argue that My Neighbour Totoro is a vital part of anyone’s education on film, as it was in mine.

It is hard to pinpoint exactly what captivates me, what moves me and what inspires me when I watch one of Hayao Miyazaki’s movies, but it always does without fail, regardless of the film. They are quite simply perfect examples of cinema, sucking the audience into a fantastical world that holds the power to excite, sadden, amuse and scare. Studio Ghibli’s marvellous films introduced me to another world of cinema, left me breathless in ways few other pieces of cinema have, or ever will do. Miyazaki’s retirement marks the end of an era for animation, a glorious age that spans all the way from 1986 to 2014, an age where the wonder and imagination of his films have lit the world alight. Cinema is losing a master of his craft, a man who redefined in the western world the very concept of anime and foreign language film. He passes the torch on to his son, Goro Miyazaki, but it is hard to see the old magic ever getting rediscovered by the studio, even though the 2011 film From up on Poppy Hill was an encouraging example of what we can expect to come from Hayao’s protégée. Overall though, Miyazaki’s work has encouraged and influenced me to learn more about animation, taught me to appreciate foreign cinema, and showed me what can happen when you break the boundaries and limits set by Hollywood. His films are not only magical, breathtaking or jaw-dropping; they are also important. They are cinema at its very finest.