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With every ounce of its magical existence Laputa: Castle in the Sky turns me from a critically thinking adult into a mess of a wide-eyed child I hesitated to even review its long awaited Blu-ray release at all. I feared my response to seeing the film in HD for the first time would amount to nothing but a series of oos and ahs. I’ll do my best to not sound somewhat profession. The story concerns Pazu (Mayumi Tanaka in Japanese, James Van Der Beek in English), the apprentice of the engineer who maintains a mine's elevator machinery. One night Pazu witnesses an unconscious, pigtailed girl floating down from the sky, and runs to catch her. Named Sheeta (Keiko Yokozawa in Japanese, Anna Paquin in English), the girl holds a magical levitation-stone pendant that may hold the key to a mysterious, mythical sky-castle known as Laputa. Soon air pirates led by the boisterous Captain Dola (Kotoe Hatsui in Japanese, Cloris Leachman in English), and an army led by a shady government agent named Colonel Muska (Minori Terada in Japanese, Mark Hamill in English) invade Pazu’s village looking for Sheeta, and the two new friends are forced to flee.

 Castle in the Sky
Miyazaki has become such a ingrained part of modern filmmaking the immeasurable  importance of Castle in the Sky might be lost on even the most loyal anime fans. Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akria gets and deserves credit for blasting the roof off of the anime format throughout America, but Castle in the Sky pre-dates it by two years. Though it didn’t reach western audiences (it didn’t have its ‘proper’ Disney re-release until 2003 following the disappointing US box office of Princess Mononoke), it represents the beginning of a series of films, most of which were directed by Miyazaki himself, that would change the film industry from the inside out thanks to now heavy-hitter fans like John Lasseter, Guillermo del Toro, and James Cameron. Now, some people are trying to stop me here, and remind me that Miyazaki had already directed one film from his own screenplay in 1984 – Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind – and they’re somewhat correct in assuming that film should be considered ‘ground zero’ for the popular and constant adopted modern Miyazaki style. There are huge stylistically and thematically relevant seeds planted in Nausicaä, and it was far from a box office flop, but Nausicaä is an incomplete fraction of a story, and merely the shadow of Miyazaki’s original manga series (which may be the best thing Miyazaki has ever written). Castle in the Sky is a fully formed masterpiece that defies the laws of mid-‘80s film animation, and in my eyes the most important film Studio Ghibli ever put out.

Castle in the Sky has everything required of Joseph Campbell's monomyth, and Miyazaki frames the familiar tropes in a truly original cinematic universe. There’s little logical reason, outside of the fact that it was originally limited to a Japanese audience, that this film should be any less as galvanizing and enduring pop culture tale than Star Wars. From a pure adventure story standpoint I’d even argue Miyazaki’s script is tighter and better constructed than Lucas’. Despite the familiarity of the tropes there is an established sense of utter unpredictability throughout the story. Miyazaki doesn’t ever give his audience any information they don’t need, which allows the story to unravel ins such a perfectly compelling manner each unexpected twists suddenly seems inevitable. The epic scope of the story, and eclectic use of locations doesn’t allow for much in the way of down time, even over the unusual-for-animation running length of just over two hours. By the third act the stakes firmly established as incredibly high, turning every act of violence from whimsical to agonizing, and leaving the audience with the distinct impression that death and injury are no longer outside the realms of possibility. In allowing his drama to build over the course of the story, Miyazaki’s successfully changes up tone, and truly earns his heart stopping extended climax. He also begins to establish signature narrative practices here including a mixed familial/romantic relationship between his mostly equal time male and female team protagonists, antagonists that become allies, and heavy environmental themes (the later two of which were already established in the Nausicaä manga).

Even as a drooling fan I have to admit that the animation shows its age and budgetary restrictions. The animators overuse cartoon shorthand, like action lines, and whenever he’s taken away from his more inventive action Miyazaki tends to default to bland, lopped-camera framing. Still, the bulk of the film is more dynamic than anything you’d see on Japanese television at the time, and the sheer scale of the busy scenes stands up effectively to the lower-level stuff American studios were putting out in 1986. I’m not the biggest fan of the human character designs here, which feel trapped somewhere between Nausicaä and My Neighbor Totoro, but the architectural and production design are streets ahead of similar period output. To this day the automaton remains one of Miyazaki’s most enduring, and oft-mimicked creations. For the most part the more cartoony characters blend well with their more complex surrounds, leaving little reason to complain with the overall tone and texture of the animation.

 Castle in the Sky

Video


Castle in the Sky is more than 25 years old, and didn’t benefit from a budget the size Ghibli used for future films, so my expectations were properly tempered in preparation for this new 1080p Blu-ray release. Overall the film certain shows its age, but Disney has also clearly put some real love and care into remastering their elements. Many viewers are going to immediately notice the relatively heavy grain levels. I want to make it as clear as possible that I consider this a positive in the transfer’s favour, not a shortcoming. This grain is all over the film, but it appears natural to me, and is proof positive that Disney didn’t try to DNR away the fabric of the picture. Not that they tend to do that with their own animated releases either, it’s just an ongoing fear for those of us that care about film preservation. There are some other print based artefacts that concern me a bit, including most a series of white flecks, and some particularly dusty looking cells. The cell animation is simpler than its modern equivalent, especially during medium and wide shots, where characters have a tendency to turn into blobs. This makes for a larger gulf in detail between the cells and the more intricately painted backgrounds. The cells are also hand painted with no computer assistance, which leads them to be a bit more inconsistent in tone and colour quality. The HD video allows for more vibrant hues than those of the various DVD copies I’ve owned over my lifetime, and outside the impurity inherit in the film gain, the colours are consistent, and sharply cut against each other. The backgrounds look fantastic throughout, especially at their most complexly detailed, where previously mushy elements lost in the shortcomings of standard definition.

This disc does appear to use alternate video for the English and Japanese language tracks. I only really noticed the difference in title sequences, but here there is a small difference in picture quality, with the Japanese langue video appearing a bit darker overall.

 Castle in the Sky

Audio


Castle in the Sky wasn’t dubbed into English until well after its original release, in 1999, when Disney originally intended on releasing it in US theaters (it eventually made its way to the original Disney DVD release in 2003). From what I can tell, despite a decent high-B to low-A cast, this dub was not supervised by the Pixar people, nor was it mixed by a Gary Rydstrom-level sound supervisor. It also changes incidental dialogue more than is necessary for the sake of translation, including the removal of any reference to Gulliver’s Travels and Treasure Island. All these factors, combined with some pretty bland vocal performances, leads me to recommend against the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio English dub track. However, it appears that some’99 dub’s changes have been ‘fixed’ for this release, and the subtitles on this disc are ‘dubtitles’, meaning viewers that don’t speak Japanese won’t be getting the benefit of the original dialogue anyway.

Comparing the tracks directly there are surprisingly few differences in sound quality, meaning that Disney didn’t bother adding or messing with the original effects all that much. There are minor increases in the spatial representation of the basic stereo effects on the 5.1 English track, but generally speaking these differences are negligible, and the bulk of the aural action remains either centered or distributed over the front stereo channels. There’s not a lot in the way of rear channel work on either track, especially not much in the way of directional cues. The English track’s discreet LFE channel gives it a minor edge in terms of punch, but the more ambient vibrations of flight sound basically the same on the 2.0 Japanese track. The bigger surprise is that despite both tracks being DTS-HD MA encoded, the Japanese track shows fewer signs of compression overall, and is usually the louder of the two tracks. Disney originally commissioned Composer Joe Hisaishi to rework and extend his original synthesizer-composed, limited orchestra recorded 39-minute soundtrack into a 90-minute piece for symphony orchestra, and the effect was actually quite good. This music was part of the original DVD release, but is not here, for some reason.

There is a different 1989 English dub out there somewhere, but Disney didn’t produce it and Ghibli didn’t sign off on it, so there was never any way it was going to appear on this Blu-ray release.

 Castle in the Sky

Extras


The extras here are brief, and begin with an introduction from Pixar head John Lassete, and the original storyboards, which run the length of the film, and are presented in full HD video and 2.0 English dub audio. From here there is a Behind the Studio tab, featuring interviews The World of Laputa with Miyazaki (2:20, HD), Creating Castle in the Sky with Miyazaki (3:40, HD), Character Sketches with Miyazaki (2:40, HD), Producer’s Prospective: Meeting Miyazaki with Toshio Suzuki (3:10, HD), Scoring Miyazaki with Suzuki and composer Joe Hisaishi (7:20, HD) and Behind the Microphone with English language actors James Van Der Beek, Mark Hamill, Mandy Patinkin and Cloris Leachman (4:10, SD). The extras are completed with a Japanese trailer reel (4:10, HD) and trailers for other Disney Blu-ray releases.

 Castle in the Sky

Overall


Castle in the Sky remains a true classic. Not only is it one of Hayao Miyazaki best films (surpassed only by Spirited Away in my estimation), it’s one of the best animated films of the ‘80s, possibly even of all time. Disney has done right by the material in terms of HD video quality, and the inclusion of the original 2.0 Japanese dialogue (presented uncompressed), but it drops the ball a bit by not including more accurate subtitle translations. The extras are a bit disappointing as well, but overall amount to more than I’ve come to expect from Disney’s Studio Ghibli releases. Even with these issues I still mark this as the ‘must buy’ among the three May 22 Ghibli Blu-ray releases.

* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray and DVD releases and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.

 Castle in the Sky
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