LAPUTA BluRay Review
Slowly but surely we see the Studio Ghibli back-catalogue appearing in high-definition, and last month Optimum UK released "Laputa: Castle in the Sky" on BluRay. The first film released by the (then) fledgling Studio Ghibli which was built with the money earned by "Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind", the venerable "Laputa" turns 25 years old in 2011. Made without any of the cgi-trickery available for the last two decades, does this film still have the power to impress today?
The answer: hell yes.
Did Optimum's disc floor me as hard as their "Nausicaä" BluRay disc did last November (and here is a link to my review of that disc)? Initially yes, and rightfully so as this is again a very good release, but I did notice something strange which makes me scratch my head a bit and even made me check the "Nausicaä" BluRay again to see if the same thing applied there as well. Read on...
Legends tell of huge flying cities which existed centuries ago. The young mineworker Pazu is building an airplane to go looking for one of those cities, which was glimpsed by his father during a storm years ago.
His plans are disrupted when one day he literally catches Sheeta, a girl gently floating down from the sky, seemingly held aloft by a mysterious pendant. Sheeta turns out to be searched for by government agents who think she is the key to finding the floating city Laputa. Before long, Pazu and Sheeta are running for their lives while being pursued by both the army and pirates, but then they discover that Sheeta and her pendant might indeed be connected to Laputa...
It's interesting to note that Miyazaki has hinted that "Laputa: Castle in the Sky" takes place in the same universe and continuity as "Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind". While both films are often referred to as a twosome and mentioned together, I cannot even tell which movie is supposed to fit before the other. Is "Laputa" happening before the wars which demolished the whole planet into the apocalyptic landscape in which "Nausicaä" takes place, or is it centuries after?
The fact is that this doesn't matter. "Laputa" is very much its own film and if it's linked to other Miyazaki films, it is because of its themes and crew pedigree rather than story relevance.
There are differences though: it's the only film Miyazaki ever made with an adolescent boy in the lead, and with enemies which are mean-spiritedly evil instead of just misguided. This makes "Laputa" very much a straight action-adventure, and given that there is an honest-to-god princess to save here as well makes the film probably more kin to "Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro" than "Nausicaä".
Straight action-adventure or not, all of Hayao Miyazaki's signature quality can be ticked off here once again. Learning curve for the protagonists: check. Strong humanist and environmentalist themes: check. Outstanding technical design: check. Amazing flight sequences: CHECK and DOUBLE-CHECK!
Yes, in a film about the search for a flying city you wouldn't have expected anything else from Hayao Miyazaki, now would you? "Laputa" features some of the best flying action scenes ever put on film, from chases, to races, a submarine-like cat and mouse game between two dirigibles in a cloud, and to top it all you get what might possibly be the best edited escape sequence in cinema history (at least John Lasseter thinks so). And that's BEFORE they even reach the city when things get truly epic, "Akira" style.
Even the Earthbound action looks exciting, also because Miyazaki has allowed to let his imagination run wild on what a mining community would look like. Taking the historical mining villages in Wales as a starting point and extending them a thousandfold, he creates a landscape which looks familiar as typical industrial-age Britain but with huge canyons, caves, vertical towns on cliff walls, and trains that drive around through all of this like a bunch of rollercoasters. When Miyazaki showed his preliminary sketches to Mamoru Oshii he got the surprised reply: "Does Wales really look like that?". Heheh. We wish.
All of this makes "Laputa: Castle in the Sky" maybe Hayao Miyazaki's most unabashedly crowdpleasing film, and over the years it has received tremendous critical acclaim and financial success. But at its premiere it just broke even, making it hard for Studio Ghibli to get funding for Miyazaki's next film: "My Neighbor Totoro", which was only greenlit after it could be released in a double-bill with Studio Ghibli's other upcoming project, Isao Takahata's "Grave of the Fireflies".
But that is another story, and hopefully another two BluRays to be on the lookout for...
Studio Ghibli has never released a bad film. But this one, their official first, almost shames most of their other output with its excellence. Miyazaki gives a masterclass on how to do an epic, sprawling action adventure and while I may like "Nausicaä" even more, "Laputa" has had more repeat viewings. This film again gets the highest possible recommendation. Cinema doesn't get much better than this, folks!
About the BluRay:
Optimum UK has released "Laputa: Castle in the Sky" on BluRay as a double disc release, the second disc being the DVD you might already have. The BluRay has been coded for region B-only which means people from outside of Europe, Africa or Australia / New Zealand who want to import this disc must make sure their equipment can handle that.
When I reviewed "Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind" last October I was shocked by the incredible picture quality on that disc, and "Laputa: Castle in the Sky" looks the same. Previously I owned this film on an interlaced DVD from Hong Kong, so the upgrade in visuals is nothing short of astounding. For such an old film it looks like it just went through a washing machine: clean, crisp colors, fine lines are fine lines and there is a delicious contrast between all pristine shades. Unfortunately the image on the BluRay is noticeably cropped at the top and the left side, which is a shame. "Laputa" was always looking a bit cramped in its compositions but now even more so now that there's a ribbon missing. In some shots you can't see the top of people's hats, and during Laputa's grand reveal the top of the tree remains just out of the image. Note that on the DVD in this same package, you can see all of Laputa in that same shot.
There is a lot of telecine wobble as well, meaning the image refuses to "stand still" even when nothing is happening, but this is not the fault of this release: the wobbling has always been in the film itself, and select scenes (like again the grand reveal of Laputa) even show different layers of animation wobbling in different directions!
This is what you get when you see a technically difficult handmade film of this old age, made by a studio which had at the time severely limited funds, but it did highlight something else which bugged me a little: the almost total absence of any grain. Such a wobbly image is often also quite grainy (a sign of its age), yet I almost cannot spot any here.
Grain is what you see as those wriggly bits of noise which are actually part of the film stock used to shoot the movie with. Different film stock has different grain, and some directors and photographers use this to create a certain atmosphere. Notice the famous moody black and white portraits shot by Anton Corbijn, which use heavy grain to their great advantage.
Now some studios seem to think of grain as some sort of fault in the film, something which needs to be erased. One way to do this is called "Digital Noise Removal" ("DNR" for short) and careful use of that process may clean up an image of dirt, noise and unwanted grain. It's a valid and often even necessary method. But there are dangers: use it too much and you lose all fine detail as well. Textile and fabric will look like plastic, and human skin is suddenly ridiculously smooth. This loss of detail can also make the picture look like an upscaled DVD instead of a BluRay, and that is of course never a good thing. BluRay thrives on fine detail, it's my primary reason for watching films on a BluRay.
How much DNR was used for this HD release of "Laputa: Castle in the Sky"? I suspect a lot, seeing as how I cannot spot any grain anywhere except for in some shades of green and blue. In hindsight it seems it was used a lot on "Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind" as well. Optimum seems to have pushed the DNR-button rather hard on both.
Next question: does that harm these films? This is a tough one to answer because I don't have several different versions to compare. I guess this may be more a question of taste than a question of technical excellence, and some will prefer this look while others may prefer a grainier one. This is handmade animation old-style so there is no skin detail or textiles to destroy. Miyazaki has always been more concerned about the actual movement in his animation rather than the fine detail in his drawings, so to be honest I suspect he wouldn't give a damn about grain at all. I also know a thing or two about the few things in the film which DO contain fine detail, for example the intricate background paintings. Many of those have been published in print and where I could compare the BluRay-image with the printed ones I couldn't spot any loss of detail. Feel free to prove me wrong in the comments below but if you do, please cite distinct examples so I can check those myself.
So I'm going out on a limb here and say that, contrary to what I normally think of heavy use of DNR, I think the end result looks lovely here. The contrast with earlier DVD-versions is astonishing.
Moving on to sound, this release includes the original 2.0 Japanese soundtrack in LPCM, and the (decades) newer 5.1 English soundtrack. Both are excellent although I'm leaning towards the Japanese track as always. Subtitles are very good although there is a bit of a head-scratcher here. Like all previous releases they still seem to imply that the pirate captain and chief technician are married, with the other pirates being their children. Miyazaki always denied that to be the case (one look at the pirates show their mama has been shopping around, to say the least...) and this "slant" has always been blamed on distributor Disney trying to make the film a wee bit more family-wholesome than it originally was. It's a minor detail though. Alas, until my knowledge of the Japanese language improves vastly, I'll never know what chicanery translators will be up to so I cannot even confirm or deny this story.
Next up are the extras, of which there is a fine selection if not as big as for the "Nausicaä" BluRay. Oddly enough there are two extras on the DVD which are not on the BluRay: one is an alternate version of the "history lesson" in the opening credits, showing the final drawings interspersed with design sketches, while the other one is a Studio Ghibli trailer reel showing all their films from "Nausicaä" till "Howl's Moving Castle". The absence of these on the BluRay is no big issue as the DVD is included in this package anyway.
Both discs have the storyboards on them and the textless opening- and closing credits, but the first BluRay-exclusive extra is a promotional video from back in 1986 to advertise the coming of this film. It's a whopper at twelve and a half minutes, and shows impossibly young versions of (amongst others) Hayao Miyazaki, Isao Takahata and Joe Hisaishi (with hair!) discussing the film amidst shots of people actually creating the artwork. You even see blow-dryers being used to have the paintings dry faster. A unique insight even though you're literally watching paint dry!
Next up is a four minute item on the American voice cast, with people like James Van Der Beek chiming in on how this is done. Then things get interesting again (sorry) with a twelve minute long mini-doc on the film's production. This shows Hayao Miyazaki candidly speaking on his inspiration for the film, difficulties in its production and lack of short-term financial success (Studio Ghibli would only strike the jackpot several years later). This item also shows producer Toshio Suzuki discussing what a right royal bastard Miyazaki can be at times, which is always fun.
Also on the BluRay are several different trailers for "Laputa", and trailers for "Nausicaä", "Earthsea", "My Neighbors the Yamadas" and "Howl's Moving Castle".
All in all a very nice package for an excellent film. My sole gripe would be the fact that the BluRay-image is slightly cropped on top, but otherwise this is once again a stellar release from Optimum.
You can order "Laputa: Castle in the Sky" on BluRay through our affiliate (and ridiculously cheap too):
link to this disc.