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.
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.
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 Away, My 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.