In 1984, Hayao Miyazaki, one of Japan’s greatest living animators took a journey to a Welsh mining village. There, he saw first hand the last days of a dying industry, and of the effect its collapse had on the village and its inhabitants.
At the time, Studio Ghibli, the animation house that would soon make Miyazaki famous all over the world, hadn’t yet been established. His first animated feature, Nausicaä Of The Valley Of The Wind, a post-apocalyptic sci-fi filled with extraordinary creatures, aircraft and architecture, had been a critical and financial success that same year, and Miyazaki was looking around for an idea that could serve as a worthy follow-up. His trip to Wales provided a huge wellspring of inspiration.
The resulting film, Laputa: Castle In The Sky, would be the first feature to appear under the Studio Ghibli banner, and its gentle, faintly melancholic tone would become a familiar trademark of much of the studio’s later output.
Miyazaki’s experiences in Wales are all over Castle In The Sky’s setting – a fantastical, alternate world mining community, where tiny terraced houses lie huddled among towering mountains, and its inhabitants eke out a living from the valley’s dwindling reserves.
In this impoverished town lives, Pazu, a brave, hardworking young boy about to cross the threshold into manhood. Following a long day working in the mines, Pazu’s dull existence is suddenly lit up by the appearance of Sheeta, a young girl who floats down from the sky in eerie silence.
Apparently saved by a magical stone hanging around her neck, Sheeta is the target of both a gang of roguish sky pirates, led by fearsome matriarch Dola, and the might of the military, led by the evil Colonel Muska. Both factions are after Sheeta’s magical stone, which they believe will lead them to Laputa, a legendary floating city that lurks high up in the clouds.
Drawing inspiration from Edwardian-era war machines and clothing, the architecture and vehicle designs of Castle In The Sky are genuinely stunning to behold. Miyazaki conjures up a world of vast, floating ironclad zeppelins, and tiny gliders that buzz around like dragonflies.
Castle In The Sky also boasts some of the most heart-breakingly beautiful robots, a breed of silent, enigmatic humanoid machines that are by turns endearing and devastatingly powerful.
Then there’s the flying island of the title, a place of startling mystery. Like the robots who tend its gardens, Laputa is both technically advanced and intertwined with nature. Inpsired by the Laputa of Jonathan Swift’s classic 18th century novel, Gulliver’s Travels, it’s an Eden-like paradise and a weapon of war, and Miyazaki cleverly ties the city into other legends, with its destructive power apparently responsible for disasters in the Biblical Old Testament and the Hindu epic, Ramayana.
(It’s unfortunate, by the way, that Miyazaki was unaware that Laputa is a vulgar Spanish term meaning “the whore”, a piece of information the animator only learned long after the film was finished.)
For anyone who hasn’t yet seen Castle In The Sky, I won’t spoil the film’s events in detail. Its plot is remarkably similar to that of the classic animated TV series, The Mysterious Cities Of Gold, in that it’s about two youngsters searching for a mythical kingdom, but there’s an atmosphere and grand sweep to Castle In The Sky that belongs to Miyazaki alone.
Watched in high definition, Castle In The Sky positively sings, with every frame filled with clean lines and vibrant colours. The film may have reached its quarter century, but it still looks as fresh as ever.
The first in an almost unbroken line of spectacular films from Studio Ghibli, Castle In The Sky remains, for me at least, its undying classic. A film that balances action and adventure with moments of introspection, and broad comedy with moments that are genuinely moving, it’s the most finely honed piece of storytelling in Miyazaki’s illustrious history.
His experiences in Wales left an impression on Miyazaki that’s in almost every frame of this film, and it’s perhaps no coincidence that Castle In The Sky is, itself, unforgettable.
Laputa: Castle In The Sky will be released on Blu-ray on 9 May, and can be pre-ordered from the Den Of Geek Store.