Following the success of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, one of that film's producers, Suzuki Toshio, teamed up with Miyazaki Hayao to create a new animation studio, one that would release films boasting the opulence and epic scope of Nausicaä on a more or less regular basis. 24 years and 16 films later, Studio Ghibli (its name referring to a type of wind blowing over the Sahara) has firmly entrenched itself as one of the premiere movie studios - not just animation companies - in world cinema, and Miyazaki and Suzuki's goal has been met with greater success than those men could have ever imagined.

But we're supposed to be in 1985 still. Miyazaki and Suzuki, along with Miyazaki's old collaborator, director Takahata Isao, were in agreement on few key points: Studio Ghibli would not be in the business of making quick and dirty television productions; nor the hyper-violent and hyper-sexual films that would end up proving anime's first major "in" with Western audiences. Ghibli would make its name with very high-class, artistically intensive features meant for the broadest audience possible: kid-friendly, but smart enough for adults, and beautiful enough for everyone. And if their focus on craft and process meant that Ghibli wouldn't be able to keep up with the output of their competitors, that was no matter. Quality would be the watchword, not quantity.

The first Studio Ghibli feature released under that company's banner (before historical revisionism led the studio to claim Nausicaä as its debut work) was unsurprisingly written and directed by Miyazaki himself, Laputa: Castle in the Sky - more commonly known simply as Castle in the Sky, given an unusually absurd touch of bowdlerisation on the part of the Walt Disney Company, Studio Ghibli's official distributor in most of the English-speaking world; they were concerned because "la puta" is Spanish for "the whore". And I suppose that if I was as fucking anal as the Disney executives, I'd be worried about that too, although it does make for a fun game while you're watching the film, to re-imagine scenes playing out with dialogue like, "That crystal must have been made by the Thewhoreans".

The film - for those of you keeping track at home, Miyzaki's third feature - is set in an undefined era on what seems, from scattered references, to be our own Earth, but not an Earth from any particular time or place. The architecture in the film ranges from Medieval European to early 20th Century British (Miyazaki was heavily influenced by a 1984 trip he made to Wales during the miners' strike), with technology that ranges from early steam to shiny futurism. It's best to assume, I think, that it takes place in a pure fantasy world - Miyazaki's first. Wherever and whenever we are, the world of the film is full of flying ships and other wonders; but there are also worn-out industrial villages. The scenario unites these two worlds, low and high, when a young girl named Shita (Yokozawa Keiko) - in another darling bit of Disney censorship, her name is customarily rendered "Sheeta", but screw that - escapes from the twin threats of air pirates and evil government henchmen, falling from miles in the air, only to have her blue stone necklace somehow slow her descent to a gentle drift downward. When she lands, unconscious, she's found by a young miner's assistant named Pazu (Tanaka Mayumi), who in the enthusiastic way of all young male heroes in Miyazaki starts to tell her of his obsessions, especially the floating island Laputa, which his late father once photographed. Nobody believed him at the time, but it seems like there might be some truth to the old legends, given that the pirates, led by a feisty old woman named Dola (Hatsui Katoe), and the government troops, under command of a snaky fellow in glasses named Muska (Terada Minori), are still giving chase, and it appears that they, at least, have every faith that Laputa exists, and that Shita and her necklace are the key to finding it and all its powers and riches.

In a lot of ways, Laputa: Castle in the Sky feels so similar to Miyazaki's 1978 series Future Boy Conan that it might as well be called a feature-length adaptation of that show. There's a girl with a mystical power and a secret history who escapes from the technically advanced Evil Government to find herself in the company of a happy-unto-manic boy orphan living with a kindly older man. They escape the Evil Government with the help of a morally grey pirate captain who turns out to have a sentimental streak. The girl's secret involves a buried technology that the chief government agent wants to possess, and the ruin of the last people to wield that technology is explicitly connected to their having forgotten the proper deference humans owe the natural world. The overriding theme, though, is not one of ecology, but of friendship: the boy and girl demonstrate time and again the sacrifices made by true friends for others' safety.

I don't mean for that comparison to speak better about one project or the other, but since we are theoretically here to bear witness to Miyazaki's development as an artist, it seemed right to point out that he had a clutch of themes which obviously mattered a lot to him, both in 1978 and 1986. The primary difference between Future Boy Conan and Laputa is of tone: the cartoon slapstick of the earlier series had been effectively exorcised from Miyazaki's toolkit by this point (although it should be pointed out that Laputa is distinctly broader, with more impossible cartoon physics, than Nausicaä), along with it, the wackiness. Laputa is, if not a "mature" story, certainly a story whose charm and sincerity are expressed with more grace and simplicity than the earlier series, even if the charm and sincerity are about essentially similar characters and themes.

The other difference, of course, is that Future Boy Conan was made on a shoestring for television; Laputa was the first salvo from a company founded on the principal that its films should always be gorgeous and visually lush. Though it does not look nearly as opulent as Nausicaä - the colors aren't so richly saturated - it's not necessarily meant to, for it possesses a different, equally beautiful aesthetic. Several of the images in Laputa have the quality of a really lovely colored pencil sketch, especially the shots of the pirate airship Tiger Moth.

This new style reaches its apex unfortunately early, for the loveliest and most distinctive sequence in the film is probably its opening credits, which have the texture of moving wood carvings. I would give nearly anything to see Miyazaki (or anyone else) make an entire feature that looked like this.

As we've already come to expect, Laputa finds the filmmaker turning loose an unmatched level of imagination, creating floating islands and huge airships and the like, and the movie is, yet again, something of a catalogue of wonders. It's worth mentioning, I suppose that in Laputa more than any of his other features, Miyazaki was able to fully indulge in his well-documented love of flight. Every single project we've looked at so far has flying machines, and ambitious scenes dedicated to showing characters moving through the air (even Sherlock Hound: the most impressively-animated moment in all six of Miyazaki's episodes involves an airplane turning); and this is a visual trope that will continue to recur in his later works. But none of his films, past or future, was so dedicated to the idea of air travel as Laputa, which more than half consists of characters on a small airship and a flying island.

Yet here, more than anywhere, Miyazaki indulges in the old idea that flight is merely the romance of sea travel given a new veneer (he toyed with this idea in Future Boy Conan, but didn't really do much with it). The third most prominent character after Pazu and Shita is Dola, an air pirate; and no cinematic depiction of air piracy has ever tried to pretend that the characters involved aren't really just Caribbean pirates on a plane. Setting that aside, some of the most memorable images in Laputa involve the characters moving through clouds like they were the surface of the ocean, or the heart of a typhoon. Indeed, the single most dramatic image in the film is one that explicitly links the Goliath with a leviathan about the breach the surface.

This might seem like a non-sequitur, but that emphasis on seafaring makes Laputa a Romantic film, more than any of Miyazaki's previous work. It is an old-fashioned tale of adventure and finding new places (Gulliver's Travels is name-dropped, for obvious reasons; so is Treasure Island), and its primary mode as entertainment is as a swashbuckling adventure, where two brave children find new worlds and lost civilisations. Miyazaki being Miyazaki, that plot gets wrapped around a sweet character-based story of friends looking out for each other, and by all means Laputa is a humanist story before it is an adventure. But part of the man's genius is that he is able to combine modes like that, making a film that is as emotionally uplifting as it is exciting. And that, ladies in gentlemen, is how you make a really top-drawer family film, and that's why, from the moment of its birth, Studio Ghibli was destined for great things.