Andrew Osmond traces the links from Miyazaki’s Laputa to the works of Jules Verne.
In his proposal for the anime classic Laputa – Castle in the Sky, the director Hayao Miyazaki wrote that he wanted to set the story in a time when “machines are still exciting and enjoyable, and science does not necessarily make people unhappy.” The machines would not be mass produced, but “possess the inherent warmth of handcrafted things… The vehicles are a diverse collection of hand-built, eccentric inventions.”
This vision is expressed in Laputa’s brilliant title sequence, where we see great fleets of dirigibles, galleons hoisted aloft by propellers, and shoals of flying islands. The images purposefully recall old illustrations. Parts of the sequence make use of “hatching,” tight parallel lines giving an antique texture to the pictures. The style and subject scream Jules Verne, the pioneering author of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1869). Verne, too, envisaged marvellous craft in the air or sea, his dreams drawn by great illustrators such as Edouard Ridou and Leon Bennett.
If you’ve wondered what Laputa’s title sequence would look like at movie-length, then seek out The Fabulous World of Jules Verne. This is an extraordinary 1958 Czech film by the fantasy director Karel Zeman, who used fake scenery, mechanical props, stop-motion and real actors. Zeman also mimicked the “hatched” illustration style, overlaying his screen images with lines and pin-striping his film’s costumes, decor and models. A zeppelin is flown by a pedalling pilot; divers drive deep-sea pedalos with handbells; there are war-camels on roller-skates! (There’s an anime in the last one…)
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Laputa is also linked to several Verne-derived anime. The oldest is a TV version of 20,000 Leagues, which reduces the story to forty breathless minutes. Made for the American studio Rankin-Bass around 1972, it was animated by Japan’s Top Craft studio, which made Miyazaki’s Nausicaa a decade later. (Top Craft’s co-founder, Toru Hara, later produced Laputa, Totoro and Kiki’s Delivery Service.)
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Miyazaki wasn’t involved with 20,000 Leagues, but he made a lighter submarine adventure in “Treasure under the Sea,” an episode of Sherlock Hound (available as a box-set from Manga Entertainment). Actually, the mini-sub in the story is incidental. Miyazaki is far more excited about drawing giant guns and battleships blasting things (and you thought he was a gentle Totoro!). A lot of the imagery gets reused both in Laputa and Miyazaki’s later Howl’s Moving Castle, but “Treasure under the Sea” is a splendid knockabout in its own right. The story was shown on a double bill with Nausicaa in Japanese cinemas.
The best-known Verne anime, though, is Nadia, The Secret of Blue Water. This 1990 TV epic by the Gainax studio was inspired both by Verne and Miyazaki, using bits of a story that Miyazaki had pitched in the 1970s, but reinterpreted by director Hideaki Anno. As such, Nadia is a fascinating link between Laputa and Anno’s subsequent Evangelion. Nemo and the Nautilus figure prominently, but the most striking character is the titular black heroine, who first looks like a sunny Miyazaki-esque girl, but has a troubled and tortured soul worthy of Nemo himself.
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Laputa: Castle in the Sky is out on 9th April on UK Blu-Ray and DVD from Optimum Releasing.