Thursday, February 12, 2015

The Kami-Electrified World: Hayao Miyazaki and The Wind Rises

I. Which movie? Why?

The movie this post is about is Hayao Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises, which I think is pretty much the best movie of 2013, and the main reason I’m writing it is there don’t seem to be all that many people who agree with me.  Which isn’t to say everybody hated it or anything.  The reviews were by and large very kind, some more than that, but far too many were of the perfunctory “it’s-nice-to-see-one-last-movie-from-a-guy-who-made-better-movies-before” variety, and far too little of that aforementioned kindness tended to show up when it came time for awards and 10-best lists and such.  Even among anime fans, the film garnered little excitement or celebration, being far outside the otaku wheelhouse in subject and style.  (Not to get too far into the weeds, but this is a movie that barely made Film Comment’s Top 50 poll--below stuff like American Hustle and Room 237, only got 4 mentions in the Village Voice poll, and didn’t even make this Metacritic list at all.  It’s safe to say that while it has a few admirers, the film is not overpraised, is what I’m getting at.)

Why is that?  At this point, it’s not even a controversial statement to describe Hayao Miyazaki as the greatest director of animated films the world has ever seen.  But if that is so widely acknowledged, why is every film from him not treated as an event, an occasion for cinephile geek-outs and think-pieces and in-depth dissections, the way a movie by Martin Scorsese or Quentin Tarantino or Steven Spielberg is?  Especially when it’s his last film.  There are probably many reasons for this reception, including but not limited to: the limited-release rollout of the movie that prevented most audiences from seeing it until 2014, the particularly Japanese (hence foreign) focus of the plot, the lack of magical fairy-tale elements, the fact that Miyazaki’s oeuvre primarily addresses children/family audiences, and even the fact that the film is, yes, animated.  (More difficult are the ethical objections some have raised concerning the film’s stance on WWII and Japan’s role in it, but let’s table those for the moment.  Keep ‘em in mind, tho.)

The last one in that list might raise an eyebrow or two.  After all, we are in the era of Pixar.  Animated movies have decisively overthrown the old live-action tyranny, been recognized as every bit as worthy as “regular” movies, topped critics’ lists year after year, and even nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars (thrice)!  Yes, but they’re still ghettoized in the US, relegated to fantasy plots and family entertainment.  The bigger issue with animation, though, is that so few cinephiles and critics actually know that much about it as an art form.  So few cinephiles and critics actually know anything about the history of animation outside of Disney and Warner Bros.  So few cinephiles and critics know there is such a thing as “world animation” that extends beyond Aardman and Studio Ghibli and maybe a couple other movies from Japan and France.  Why is it not a controversial statement to describe Miyazaki as the greatest director of animated films ever?  Because nobody can think of anyone else.

Which is just ignorance.  Simply among his Japanese peers, here are ten (10) major figures worth searching out, watching, lauding:  Isao Takahata, Gisaburo Sugii, Rintaro, Osamu Dezaki, Mamoru Oshii, Katsuhiro Otomo, Satoshi Kon, Hideaki Anno, Mamoru Hosoda, Masaaki Yuasa.  And those are just mainstream feature directors.  In the realm of the animated short--the arthouse and avant-garde of animation--witness the names Yuri Norstein, Frederick Back, Kihachiro Kawamoto, Aleksandr Petrov, Norman McLaren.  They are masters of animation, and ignorance of them while claiming to understand animation is like being unfamiliar with Tarkovsky, Bergman, Kurosawa, Kieslowski, and Godard, while claiming to understand cinema.  Both lists barely scratch the surface, or course, and I don’t claim to be an expert in either realm--but I have been watching animation intensely for the last few years, and I can at least recognize ignorance when I see it.  If we are going to understand Miyazaki we have to understand where he’s coming from.

But first, to the movie:  The Wind Rises is the semi-fictionalized life story of Jiro Horikoshi, a Japanese aircraft engineer most famous for the A6M Zero fighter plane used extensively in WWII.  Film follows him from boyhood to eve of WW, as he pursues his dreams of flight in college and then as star designer at Mitsubishi--set against backdrop of Japanese history, and including lengthy romance section w/ tuberculosis-stricken woman named Nahoko. Said dreams are also interspersed throughout film as surreal/hyperreal windows into Jiro’s creative consciousness.  

The whole thing is told with a David Lean-style sweep that I’ve simply never seen in an animated film before, and which is remarkably difficult to do--the length, number of scenes/settings/characters are all highly unusual in animation because of their high cost in money/time/manpower, to the point that only a handful of other traditionally animated films have ever been made that compare with the scale of this movie.  It is also clearly the most personal film of Miyazaki’s career, allegorizing his own life and relationship to art even as it explores the past attitudes of his country and implicitly critiques the politics of the present.

At least half of my argument for TWR’s greatness lies in the experience of watching it.  If you aren’t left in awe of the film’s grandeur, fascinated by it’s details, moved by it’s narrative, then I don’t know what to tell you.  Our tastes simply differ.  The best I can do is try to convey to you what the experience is like for me.  If OTOH, you find yourself attracted to the film but left cold or put off or confused by certain aspects, perhaps this review can help.  New information and new perspectives can often give us new eyes to see a film.  The film’s themes are built in deep, and their nuances easy to miss.  It is my hope that at least some of the information and perspectives in this post are new to you.

So what makes this movie special? And what’s going on inside it?

Scene 1: Flight

Fog drifts before a traditional Japanese house at night.  Inside, beneath a mosquito net, a boy sleeps peacefully.  We enter his dream.  It is wondrous:  We take flight with him in a magical craft with feathered wings.  The sun rises, the landscape warps and shifts.  We see the countryside spread before us, tranquil and happy.  Truly, this is freedom.  But out of the clouds comes a mechanical war-beast, writhing with demonic shadows.  Bombs drop, the boy’s plane crumbles, we tumble; the dream ends.

II.  Where Hayao Miyazaki came from and a bit about why it matters

He was born in Bunkyo Ward, Tokyo, on Jan. 5, 1941, the year the Japanese would attack Pearl Harbor.  His father worked at the Miyazaki Airplane Corporation, which was run by his uncle.  Among other things, the company made rudders for the Mitsubishi A6M Zero.  In 1944, he and his family evacuated Tokyo for Kanuma City (where the factory was) to escape the American bombing campaign.  Memories of the bombings would stay with him all his life.  From 1947-1955, his mother suffered from spinal tuberculosis, generally leaving her bedridden.

(Already the astute reader might be getting an idea about why these details might impact one’s perspective of the film, so I’ll refrain from spelling them out.  The rest of this section is less related to TWR, and more important for understanding his career as a whole.  I had thought this information difficult to find online and in English, but it turns out Wikipedia is now flush w/ details of this period, so head there or IMDb if you want a more detailed filmography.)

He drew manga for fun in high school, majored in political economy at Gakushuin University (where he was part of a children’s literature study group), then got interested in animation after seeing Hakujaden (1958), Japan’s first color animated feature.  After graduation he joined the company that created it, Toei Animation.

Toei Doga, as it was called, is not well known in the West, but for almost 20 years it was essentially the Walt Disney Animation Studios of Japan.  Formed when Hiroshi Okawa, head of the Toei film studio, acquired the small animation house Nichido in 1956, it was explicitly modeled on Disney, setting out to make full-color, fully-animated features, based on folk tales, for a family audience.  They started with Hakujaden, and continued turning out a new feature every year (and sometimes two) until the mid-70s.  Many of these movies are regarded as classics on the level of Silver Age Disney films in Japan, and are studied by animators even today.  More than that, Toei essentially fathered the entire anime industry, building up a huge staff, training them carefully, and then watching as they left to found or join other studios and create much (most?) of the anime of the ‘60s, ‘70s, & ‘80s.  Miyazaki was hired in 1963, an auspicious year which saw the release of The Little Prince and the Eight-Headed Dragon, widely considered Toei’s best film before ’68, and the premiere of Osamu Tezuka’s Astro Boy on TV.  Together, these works would inaugurate the anime explosion.  Miyazaki was part of the last group of regular hires at Toei, making him something a junior member of the first great generation of Japanese animators.

At Toei, Miyazaki worked on several movies and TV eps as an inbetweener.  He famously first made his mark while still at this low rank, when he came up with a better ending for Gulliver’s Space Travels, one that modified the theme of the film significantly, and made his point forcefully enough to convince the director to change it.  It was here he also met his greatest friends and collaborators, who would be major parts of his career for decades, including Yasuo Otsuka (a brilliant animator of action), Yoichi Kotabe (an expert character designer), Yasuji Mori (Toei’s premiere animator), and especially Isao Takahata (who was on the labor union board with Miyazaki).  He also met his wife, Akemi Ota, there--she was also an animator, and for the first few years, she made more money than he did.

Miyazaki and Otsuka
Takahata was actually the leader of this group, and together they spearheaded the creation of Horus, Prince of the Sun (1968), the greatest film to come out of Toei, an ambitious, auteur-driven feature that was years ahead of its time.  Miyazaki contributed ideas and designs and animated a giant rock creature, as well as (I think) the snarling wolf fight at the beginning.  The film was a flop, of course.  Nevertheless, Miyazaki took a leading role in more films at Toei in the next 3 years, especially Puss in Boots (1969) and Animal Treasure Island (1971), where he contributed spectacular slapstick action sequences that are the clear highlights of both films.  But Toei was beginning to crack up, so he left for greener pastures.

Otsuka had started a show based on a popular manga called Lupin III, but it was doing poorly in the ratings, so Miyazaki & Takahata were brought in to co-direct and make it more audience-friendly.  The series was cancelled anyway, but it quickly became a cult favorite and was revived in 1977; it is now a franchise that has gone through 4 series and still turns out a new TV special every year.  While working on Lupin, M&T conceived of a feature based on Pippi Longstocking and did extensive planning.  They even took a trip to Sweden to scout locations and get permission from author Astrid Lindgren.  Unfortunately, Lindgren turned them down, apparently because she didn’t trust Japanese to do her work justice.  Instead, M&T converted their project into the Panda! Go Panda! short films, which found some success among a panda-mad audience and presaged many of their later productions.

Next they would create the TV series Heidi, Girl of the Alps (1974), a major work and acknowledged classic that established a new style of anime concerned with the poetic exploration of everyday life.  It also started a trend of adapting classic children’s books from around the world in anime series which continues to this day.  Takahata directed and Miyazaki did layout (with Kotabe as animation director) for every one of the 52 episodes.  In 1976, they did it again with Marco, or 3000 Leagues in Search of Mother, a darker series influenced by Italian neo-realism.  Miyazaki also did layout on A Dog of Flanders and key animation on Rascal the Raccoon; his workload in this period was immense and became legendary in the industry.  Up to this point, however, Miyazaki was only an animator.  An animator who could do storyboarding and scene layout, who could do both crazy chase scenes and character-revealing human gestures, who came up with ideas left and right and expressed his (often negative) opinions about other animation passionately, but nevertheless an animator, not a director.1

Miyazaki’s first real project as a director was Future Boy Conan (1978), a crackerjack adventure series set in a post-apocalyptic Earth covered in water but for a few isolated islands.  It was based on an American novel by Alexander Key called The Incredible Tide, but Miyazaki threw out much of the plot and theme to make the story his own.  He brought in Yasuo Otsuka and Heidi veteran Yoshifumi Kondo as key animators, and even asked Takahata to direct a couple episodes in the middle, but this is a Miyazaki project through and through.  It is filled with exciting chase scenes, eccentric flying machines, unexpectedly vast world-building, and anchored by hugely appealing and heroic child characters.  The series wasn’t much of a hit, but it caused a sensation among animation buffs and critics and is today regarded as a masterpiece.  Criminally, it has never been made officially available in English, so to watch it you may or may not have to search for a fan-subbed torrent, though of course I would never suggest such a thing.

After Conan (and after doing layout for the first 15 eps of Takahata’s Anne of Green Gables), Miyazaki got the the job to direct the second Lupin feature Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro.  With several team members from Conan still with him, the film was turned out in four (4) months, which is so fast I’m not sure it’s human.  (Though for comparison’s sake, many 25-min. TV eps were turned out in about a week.) C of C re-imagined Lupin to a significant degree, giving him a noble heart and replacing the usual femme fatales with a symbol-of-innocence princess, changes that angered some fans.  But it also turned out to be a nearly perfect action movie, filled w/ thrilling car chases, knuckle-tightening roof-top battles, and a plot that keeps new developments coming like clockwork, never letting the pace flag.  Again, the movie flopped at the box office, leaving Miyazaki unsure where to go next.

He directed a couple more eps of Lupin and several eps of Sherlock Hound, all of which display some trademark interests, but the fire was gone.  He got involved in the production of a film based on Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland and traveled to L.A., but the project got bogged down and he dropped out.  (This is when John Lasseter met him and first saw clips from C of C.)  Since none of his projects could get off the ground, he started drawing a manga for Animage magazine.  He had done several before, including official adaptations of Puss in Boots and Animal Treasure Island, but this was something new, an attempt to do something only possible in the realm of manga.  It was called Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind.  

After this, the story becomes more familiar.  Miyazaki got an offer to turn Nausicaa into a feature and couldn’t pass it up.  With Takahata as producer, he directed a film that leapfrogged the rest of Japanese animation into the future, widely agreed to be the finest, most fully realized anime feature made up to that point in history.  This film was a financial success, prompting Miyazaki, Takahata, and producer Toshio Suzuki to found Studio Ghibli, of which the first film produced was Laputa: Castle in the Sky.  The studio’s first real blockbuster wasn’t until 1989’s Kiki’s Delivery Service, but from that point on the company has been regarded as a national treasure, and Miyazaki has gained a stature in Japan somewhere between Walt Disney and Steven Spielberg in America.  This part ought to be well known, and any critic writing about a Miyazaki movie ought to know it.  Anyway, it’s so well-attested on the internet there’s no reason for me to repeat it.

That first part of his career, though, before Nausicaa, maybe/maybe not including Cagliostro? Only fans and anime experts seem to know that.  And that is a shame because those early years are often brilliant.  It’s important to realize that even if Miyazaki’s career had ended before Nausicaa, he already would have been a legendary figure in Japanese animation.  His scenes in Puss in Boots (w/ Yasuo Otsuka) & Animal Treasure Island (both released in fine English translated versions, btw) are studied by young animators as models today, and there are many who regard Conan and Cagliostro as his finest works.  They certainly represent the culmination of his first period of swashbuckling and slapstick and they deserve to be seen.2  OTOH, much of this work--even the Toei films--was done on a relatively low budget and fast schedule, and it shows to American eyes.  Frame rates are lower, details are fewer, colors are simpler--even compared to the lesser Disney films of the ‘60s and ‘70s, it’s easy to see the flaws.  (Disney also has a sense of vivid personality that Toei never managed, leaving non-action scenes rather boring.)  Lupin episodes can be choppy and incoherent; Panda! Go Panda! was made for preschoolers and it shows; Heidi’s simplistic character designs and colors make it look like it would be unbearable for more than a few minutes.  But the Miyazaki-Takahata-Otsuka-Kotabe-and-sometimes-Mori team has a standing in Japanese animation something like Disney’s Nine Old Men or the Avery-Jones-Clampett-et al. team at Warner Bros.3  And while it’s pretty clear the (mainstream) Japanese never did anything in the ‘60s-’70s to equal the beauty and smoothness of Disney in the ‘30s-’40s, nor is their slapstick quite as tight and well-timed as the best of Looney Tunes, I submit that they are still pretty darn good.  And in the case of Takahata’s Heidi/Marco/Anne and Miyazaki’s Conan, they created things American TV animation didn’t come close to topping for 15 years and in some ways never did.

We might also note here the various parallels between Miyazaki’s life story and Jiro’s in The Wind Rises: aside from the family connections to airplanes and TB, both had childhood dreams of flight, poor eyesight, entered a major company and distinguished themselves quickly (Mitsubishi’s design studio may be historically accurate, but it’s hard to miss how closely it resembles an animation studio), had eye-opening/disappointing trips to Europe, became workaholics dedicated to their art, met wives who were also artists, and let their drivenness damage their marriage.  (Miyazaki has written of how often he would come home late at night and continue working, leaving the burden of raising their two sons to his wife.)  The scene with Jiro holding an after-hours training course also feels exactly like Miyazaki training his animators.  And yet: it is dangerous to read this as straight autobiography; Jiro Horikoshi was a real person, and Miyazaki is talking about his parent’s generation, not just his own life.  We ought to see the life in the film, but we should be wary of judging the life by the film.

Scene 2: Earthquake

It comes with no warning, as it must in real life.  A strange bestial gasp, a jagged flash of light, and the very earth comes to life, roiling as if in pain.  It is terrifying.  People scream and clutch, a train buckles--  Then all is still, as sudden as it began.  Only then do people move, take stock, check who’s injured.  Smoke rises, crowds gather, confusion fills the screen.  In the middle of it all, we follow three people: a young man and two young women.  A cool head and calm eyes are what’s needed.  There are no two ways about it--they are trapped in the midst of History.

 III.  One way in which Miyazaki’s early work can be seen to be important to the cinephile/critic

While it’s easy to see why the first 20 years of his career are important from a biographical standpoint, it can be difficult to explain why these works are important from the standpoint of auteurist appraisal.  After all, prior to F.B. Conan, he didn’t actually direct anything, not in the full sense at least, and it seems like it might be easy to just acknowledge the existence of these works as stepping stones in his career and move on.  There isn’t a good parallel here for live-action directors.  We aren’t talking about a director who used to be an actor and how that might have influenced the way he directed actors, for instance--although to be a good character animator you have to be a good actor.  I thought for a time it was like a director who used to be a cinematographer and how he learned to shoot scenes, but that’s not quite it either.  The best I can suggest is this: In some of the films and TV shows he worked on, Miyazaki was given the chance to shoot, act out, and direct whole scenes all by himself--under the supervision of the overall director, of course.4  When looking at it that way, any attempt to truly comprehend his artistic evolution has to include his time at Toei and the various series he worked on--his personality and pet themes come through again and again.

Here’s a for instance:  In Toei’s Puss in Boots, the climax is a 20-minute chase through an evil sorcerer’s castle that became one of the most beloved sequences in anime.  The basic situation is: Pierre and Puss (in Boots) are trying to rescue the Princess from evil giant Lucifer along w/ several talking mice pals. To do so they must steal Lucifer’s magic skull pendant and play keep-away until the sun comes up and destroys him.  Complicating matters are a trio of cats sent to capture Puss (in B.) who have been pursuing him Keystone Kops-like all movie.  The entire sequence was key animated back and forth by Miyazaki and Yasuo Otsuka, and it is a lot of fun.  Not just running back and forth, but up and down, in and out, around in circles smashing walls and roofs and steps, always w/ the growing threat of falling from the vertiginous heights of the castle to the ground so far below we can hardly see it.  It’s clever: when Lucifer or P. (in B.) teeters on the brink of falling, it’s exaggerated, played for laughs, but when Pierre or the Princess are about to fall and only barely catch a rope--the breath catches, the hands clench; there is real danger.

In Animal Treasure Island, there is a sequence on a boat of a pirate attack which is animated entirely by Miyazaki.  There is a lot going on, but among other things there is a girl being menaced by a scurvy dog (possibly an actual dog? most of the characters are anthropomorphic animals) on the mast above the sails, and Jack has to swing up to her rescue.  They dodge thrusts and teeter on the edge, the deck far below.  (There is also a scene at the end involving a chase up the pass over a cliff that involves throwing a map back and forth, but I’m not sure if that’s animated by Miyazaki.)

In Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves, a goofy little film hampered by a nonsensical plot and a horribly ugly genie design (looks like a naked mole rat), Miyazaki again animated the climax.  This time it involved Aladdin flying his magic carpet in and around a crazily designed sultan’s palace, the giant genie chasing him.  But it doesn’t really work; the characters don’t matter and the architecture makes no sense, so there’s no sense of parallax or vertigo or danger.

In Future Boy Conan, Conan is forever chasing after and rescuing Lana, most impressively in ep. 6.  Lana is trapped in an immensely high tower in the city of Industria.  Conan climbs to her window, breaks it open (w/ his head), and carries her out onto the miniscule ledge.  It’s a good thing Conan is super-strong and has prehensile toes.  But they’re pursued by spotlights and gunfire and eventually have to just drop or be shot. Here the excitement lies in getting down not up

In Cagliostro, Lupin must break into a high castle tower to rescue a princess.  Getting in is hard but played mostly for laughs, as he accidentally finds himself running down a steep roof with no way to stop and must leap from spire to spire.5  Impossible, cartoony actions can be exciting if you pace it right and have the characters react believably.  We all know what it’s like to lose our balance and teeter on the edge of falling off something small, like a curb, so put an animated character on a rooftop and have him flail and yelp.  The comedy here is as old as Wile E. Coyote (older--Safety Last!).
Danger is harder to manage, but Miyazaki does it again with Castle in the Sky, where the play between high and low, flying and falling, is practically the whole subject of the film.  Here there is a far more vast, coherent, and realistic sense of space, of how solid (or not) the ground is and how far you have to fall.  Pazu and Sheeta (an updated Conan and Lana) are constantly in danger of falling--Sheeta actually does, the first time we meet her--and by the end of it they are scaling castle walls again (this time, a castle in the!) and throwing an amulet back and forth.  Smart framing lets us see the climb to make, the fall to fear, and the antagonist searching for Pazu all at the same time.

There are other tower scenes in Miyazaki’s later works, including two that reverse the gender formula.  Kiki must rescue Tombo from falling by flying her broom, and Chihiro must rescue Haku by climbing the outside of the bathhouse. 

In TWR, Jiro watches longingly for Nahoko to come out on her porch.  He constructs a paper plane to try to get her attention, but it doesn’t fly very well and gets stuck.  Climbing onto the railing to get it, the wood breaks, he slips, Nahoko gasps.  Again, there is a vertical space with planar platforms high and low, and the difficulty is getting from one to another.  We get views from above, below, and straight on so we understand the geometry, the possibility, and the danger.  Vertigo induces both fear and humor.  The old save-the-princess plot--born of dreams of heroism--is commuted into a lover’s game, tempered by reality.  Jiro cannot climb to Nahoko’s porch nor defeat her illness, he can merely play at it in flirtation, sending her way the one thing he’s good at, a dream made of paper and freighted with promises.  But no matter how hard he tries, it’s all at the mercy of the wind.

Scene 3: Germany

It is night time, after they have visited the airfield.  Jiro and Honjo walk through the streets of Berlin, musing on airplanes and politics.  From a window comes the sound of someone singing Schubert’s “Winter Journey.”  Then come shouts and running feet.  A desperate man (a Jew? a dissident?), chased by many others.  Before when Jiro had seen a boy being bullied, he had leapt into action.  Now he can only watch.  The men’s shadows flare wildly on a building down the block as the man is beaten.  The music has stopped, the window shuttered.  Independent art and moral action cannot survive political oppression like this.

IV.  Some historical info to keep in mind about TWR

  • Parts of this movie are made up.
  • But some parts that aren’t are surprising, and can certainly add to one’s experience of the film and the moral complexities involved.
  • Jiro Horikoshi lived 1903-1982, did indeed attend Tokyo Imperial University and work at Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (both institutions of course still around).  Contrary to many reports, isn’t seen working on the A6M Zero in film.  First seen designing the experimental carrier fighter 1MF10, which crashes.  Then works on the A5M for rest of film, recognizable by the distinctive inverted gull wings.6  That means last real-world scene can be dated precisely as February 4, 1935, the date prototype flew.  A6M Zero, famously the finest fighter in the world for first half of WWII, only seen in final dream scene, when Jiro and Caproni watch them fly off into death.
  • A heck of a lot of the info in this section is just from Wikipedia, if you were wondering.
  • Horikoshi was indeed opposed to the war, and wrote in diary of the stupidity of attacking the United States.  Bedridden at the end of the war, witnessed the firebombing of Nagoya and the devastation it caused.  After war, became a professor of aeronautics and wrote couple books on the Zero that were even published in U.S.  Was widely admired around world among aircraft engineers and enthusiasts.
  • Otherwise, nothing about Horikoshi’s personal life in the film based on reality (e.g., wife wasn’t named Nahoko and didn’t have tuberculosis, probably never stayed at that  nice hotel/villa, etc.)
  • (Also probably didn’t have those weird dreams all the time.)
  • Giovanni Battista Caproni lived 1886-1957, started first factory 1908, completed Caproni Ca. 1 in 1910 (first aircraft built in Italy, crashed during first flight).  Massive, triple-winged plane built in film really existed (Caproni Ca. 60 Noviplano) and really fell apart--there’s even real footage!  During WW1, Caproni bombers used by most of Allied powers, including Italian, British, & American forces.  In WW2, again built bombers for Italy, this time part of Axis powers.
  • Hugo Junkers lived 1859-1935, was brilliant engineer, held patents on all kinds of thermodynamic contraptions.  Company originally made radiators (like one in Jiro’s hotel room), didn’t move into aircraft until Junkers in 50s.  Had already designed world’s first practical all-metal aircraft by 1915.  Built military planes for Germany during WW1, but reportedly w/ great reluctance--was a socialist and pacifist, which facts did not endear Junkers to Nazis when they came to power.  Plane we see in film called Junkers G.38, first flown 1929.  Germans only built 2 and used for commercial transportation, but licensed design to Mitsubishi which built several for military use.  Although Junkers the company built military aircraft throughout WW2, Nazis forced Junkers the man out and into house arrest by 1934.  Junkers died February 3, 1935--the day before Jiro tested the A5M prototype.  Perhaps best to let that detail just sink in.
  • Just in case Western audience doesn’t know/didn’t remember: Long before WW2 got going, Japan fighting in China.  After faking terrorist attack (poorly at that), invaded Manchuria in 1931.  Skirmishes continued until Second Sino-Japanese War really got going in 1937, didn’t stop until Hiroshima+Nagasaki.  Japanese often refer to whole period as 15-Year War.  Bizarrely, Germany actually supported China against Japan until 1938.
  • Movie is adapted from Miyzaki’s 2009 manga of same name (~45 pgs, serialized in Model Graphix mag).  Miyazaki written number of short mange like it for Model Graphix--stories about historical aircraft & even tank battles, well-researched but not over-bound by facts, chock full of details and specs on vehicles.  After all, this a model magazine, and Miyazaki a model enthusiast.  Previous comic was turned into short for Ghibli Museum, and detailed instructions on how to build Jiro’s paper airplane included in this one.  Here are a couple pages:7

  • Other source for story--aside from history--is Tatsuo Hori’s 1937 novel Kaze Tachinu, about young man’s love for woman with TB and set in sanatorium.  Hori (1904-1953) was close contemporary of Horikoshi and may have attended Tokyo Imperial University at same time (they even sort of look alike).  Hori was poet and translator heavily influenced by French modernists, esp. Paul Valéry who wrote line giving book and movie their name.  Book has actually been adapted into live-action more than once, and at least somewhat autobiographical:  Hori had TB and spent time in sanatoriums.
  • Caproni also produced aircraft in 1937 called Ca. 309 Ghibli.  Intended as reconnaissance and ground-attack plane, was sold to several different European air forces and used extensively by Italy in North African campaigns.  Of course it inspired name of studio.  Word “ghibli” is Libyan word for sirocco--powerful wind that blows northward from Sahara and slams North Africa and Mediterranean regions, w/ gust up to 100 km/h.  The wind rises, indeed.
  • Movie is dedicated to both Jiro Horikoshi and Tatsuo Hori.  That one you oughta know, it’s right before the credits.

Scene 4: Marriage

. . . There really aren’t words for this one.

V.  In which the question of the film’s treatment of war is finally addressed

From its release, TWR has encountered controversy regarding its depiction of a fraught period in Japanese history and the relative judgment it passes on its protagonist and his generation.  Released in the middle of a national debate on rearmament, it reportedly garnered criticism from both left and right in Japan as too soft and too critical respectively.  In America, it was met with a broadside in The Village Voice by Inkoo Kang that basically accused the film of whitewashing Japanese war crimes and the rest of the peoples of East Asia.  Few others went that far, but a number of critics expressed discomfort with the film’s attitude toward war and its protagonist’s part in producing war machines, including J. Hoberman and Xan Brooks.  These concerns are certainly thorny, and have caused me trouble as well, but they are not insurmountable, and I believe a detailed reading of the film will overcome them.

Kang’s article accuses the film of three main crimes: Portraying the Japanese as the victims of WWII, elevating them in contrast w/ the Germans, and ignoring the enormity of Japan’s war crimes.  She believes the film is meant to be a subtle critique of Imperial Japanse attitudes, but political pressure and the need to make a profit led Miyazaki to water it down, leaving out the crucial scenes of destruction and the strong condemnation of Jiro’s character required to make the film a morally defensible statement.  All in all, it’s the kind of savage attack of a review usually associated with Roger Ebert reviewing I Spit on Your Grave or something.

And so well first what has to be said:  There are several errors/mischaracterizations in the piece.  Jiro doesn’t “compar[e] his planes to the pyramids,” that’s the egomaniacal Caproni; he doesn’t exactly “rescue a little girl from a train wreck,” he carries her nurse on his back after an earthquake while the girl gamely hefts his bag; and his marriage is absolutely not “devoted but sexless”--unless that shot of Nahoko pulling Jiro to her and shutting out the light seems ambiguous to anyone else.8  Neither is the film “suffused with fear of German aggression,” though at least there Kang has evidence: “scene after scene” of “Japanese bombarded by Teutonic suspicion.”  Of course, by “scene after scene” she means 2-3 scenes (depending on how you count) all in a long sequence; a sequence which far from “conveniently” forgetting the alliance between Germany and Japan, actually draws our attention to it as it first forms.  The German military/secret police certainly do treat the Japanese with contempt, but later on the Japanese military is shown similarly obtuse, and the Japanese secret police come after Jiro just as the German police had chased that unknown man.  N.B.: It is the German hotel guest (also on the run from Gestapo) who confronts Jiro with Japan’s invasion of Manchuria--the two countries, their governments, their militarism, are linked, the same.  Kang should have paid more attention.

As to the film’s relation to contemporary Japanese politics, I can offer little substantial info.  (Though Kang’s assertion Japan “has yet to acknowledge, let alone apologize for, the brutality of its imperial past” seems at least a little unfair.)  The film has certainly been released in a time of political controversy, and while Miyazaki did not intend it as a partisan political statement, he has certainly made his own views known in interviews and an essay.  There can be no doubt of his own opposition to Japan’s historical aggression, nor of his knowledge and condemnation of Japanese war crimes; it’s just the views contained/expressed by the film that matter.

Miyazaki could never have made a film that assesses collective guilt and historical trauma and the surrounding cultural narratives in the modernist structural manners of an Alain Resnais or a Michael Haneke or a Joshua Oppenheimer, nor could he even analyze a system and assign culpability a la Mamoru Oshii; he’s simply not that kind of filmmaker, and it’s useless to wish he was.  He approaches the film in the traditionalist manner of classical Hollywood or Steven Spielberg, as the story of an individual’s feelings and actions as he lives through an historical moment, told straight.  This approach is susceptible to criticism for insufficiently representative characters (e.g. Jews who survived the Holocaust), and/or omitting peripheral but important actions/events (e.g. Japanese war crimes).  While it does not seem difficult to include a scene of Japanese planes wreaking destruction on China, would such a scene truly serve the story well?  The worst horrors of the Pacific War were yet to come when the main narrative ends, and the ignorance/ignoring of such destruction by the Japanese populace is part of what the film is about.

Miyazaki was challenged to make TWR by Toshio Suzuki as a way to confront his own contradictory love of military craft and hatred of war, but the end result is deeper, richer, and wider than that.  The narrative is a grand tragedy of a man who pursued his dream with everything he had and ultimately lost everything.  It is not the story of a system, but along the way it details the moods and attitudes that led to destruction.  And make no mistake--everything in the film is a build up to this destruction, an inevitability felt deeply by Japanese audiences;  whether they acknowledge comfort women and sinister human experimentation or not, they all remember their defeat.  Miyazaki says he grew up hating Japan, angry and ashamed that his country could have engaged in such a stupid and evil war; he argued with his father about the family’s role in building for the military.  This film is his attempt to understand his parents’ generation and their perspectives: Japan was poor and backward, so the government pushed for industrialization, but in the process left many poor people behind; they were jealous and shamed by the Western imperialist powers, so they started an empire of their own and became as monstrous as Nazi Germany.  It’s all there if we look.9

More than that, the film is about the nature of art, its possibilities and its costs.  Jiro’s planes were used by the military to wage war, as they were designed to do, though he disagreed with the wars that were fought.  They were also used for suicidal kamikaze missions, something they were not designed to do.  The comparison to filmmaking may seem tenuous, but: the first animated feature in Japan was a propaganda film for children called Momotaro’s Divine Sea Eagles that celebrated aerial bombing and empire building.  Many animators were put to work as part of the “Shadow Staff,” creating instructional films for flying planes and driving tanks.10  Some of these animators would go on to establish the post-war animation industry that Miyazaki later joined.  Among the larger film industry, Kurosawa, Mizoguchi, and Ozu all made films which could be considered nationalist or propagandist during this period.  The issues here cut to the heart of Miyazaki’s art form.

TWR represent the culmination of Miyazaki’s own dream of flight.  His love of aircraft has always focused on the early days of man’s attempts to fly--machines made of wood and cloth constructed in a garage, or imaginary machines whimsical in design.  This film maps the point at which the romance of flight died, when airplanes became sleek metal, mass-produced and inhuman.  A great era in human imagination gives way to first destruction, then banality: who now but a child finds a commercial flight wondrous?  It is no accident that Miyazaki frames Jiro before the shattered 1MF10 just as he framed Lana and Colonel Muska before the robot in Castle in the Sky.  Both plane and robot are man-made creations of great power and potential, metonyms for technology as a whole; they can be used for death or beauty, evil or good.  Nor is it coincidence that the shots of Japan’s destruction mirror the Seven Days of Fire in Nausicaa.  That scene had always called to mind Hiroshima and Nagasaki, now the reference has been brought full circle.  For all his movies’ apparent optimism, Miyazaki has always had an essentially tragic, pessimistic view of humanity/human nature.  Mankind brings destruction on itself and its world, over and over again, and it may be only a matter of time before we finish ourselves for good.

Miyazaki does judge Jiro, but he also loves him.  He sees in him both himself and his father, as well as a childhood hero whose feats deserve to be remembered.  Jiro is pursued by the secret police and is only protected by his company because he designs their planes. He is opposed to the war, but always pushes aside this worry in order to focus on his dream.  His dream becomes obsessive, taking him away from his dying wife.  In the end, it is not clear what his accomplishments were worth.  This is not lionization, but the critics are right that it is not condemnation either.  It is something far more difficult and rare: empathy, understanding, identification.  If Jiro seems flat or simplistic, it is because Miyazaki is farther inside the character than he has ever been; he is no longer observing behavior, like with, say, Kiki, but expressing personal longings.

Scene 5. Graveyard

A black cloud, big as the world, fills the sky which had once meant freedom.  Other planes fly there now.  On the ground below lies a vast valley of destruction, an ocean of wreckage, all that’s left of Japan’s air force.  All that’s left of Japan.  

Jiro picks his way past this desolation and crests a small hill.  It is the hill where he first met Caproni, in his second dream, and look--there the Italian is once more.  This must be Caproni’s kingdom of dreams and madness, a place between life and death, heaven and hell.  He also knows what it means to lose a war.  A squadron of Zeros flies past, fearsome and beautiful.  They rise to the sky, joining millions of their brothers in death.  

The wind continues to blow, and--there! on the floor of the valley--the long-dead Nahoko comes walking, carrying her parasol.  Has she come to welcome him to the after-life?  Not yet.  “Darling, you must live!”  Grief chokes his voice.  He does not deserve her.  His thanks are all he can give, as the breeze wafts her away.

Then he follows Caproni down the hill; there is nothing else to do.  Behind them, the grass waves and the clouds roll on with the wind.

VI.  Final: A few words on technique and an attempt to get at just what it is that makes Miyazaki’s movies special

And so we see that Miyazaki’s context is an essential component for placing and analyzing his art, one that can be trickier to nail down than it first appears.  Alternate phases of his career situate him among different peers: early pioneers of anime, populist commercial entertainers, geek-serving cult-forming genre directors, world art-animators, mega-budget blockbuster kings, elite arthouse auteurs, and a vast legion of worshipful imitators.  His influences are just as broad: a very brief list might mention world children’s literature, Japanese folklore, Moebius, Antoine de St.-Exupery, classic Hollywood, Akira Kurosawa11, J.R.R. Tolkien, Ursula K. Le Guin, The King and the MockingbirdThe Snow Queen, Kenji Miyazawa, Hans Christian Anderson, and Terry Gilliam’s Brazil.  I once heard it said that “Miyazaki mines all human myth, all genres . . .even our dreams.”  Yet for all that, he wishes to create art for the people, to address his audience where they’re at about life, and convey to them his worldview and aesthetic sensibility.

As has been stated by reviewers over and over, this is Miyazaki’s first movie that “isn’t a fantasy.”  Well, if we ignore Lupin, which is only as much of a fantasy as James Bond (so it is, but not the type they mean), and the films he wrote like From Up on Poppy Hill and Whisper of the Heart, and we forget completely the Heidi/Marco/Anne series he made w/ Takahata (which aren’t movies anyway), then maybe.  So it’s the first feature film he’s directed set in the “real world.”  But that still seems a little insulting to (1) Lupin again, though the film is set in a made-up country, (2) My Neighbor Totoro, which except for the spirits is as real as it gets, and (3) Porco Rosso, which is set in a real time and place amid real political events, and the only thing make-believe (except for the ability to shoot down a plane full of little girls without injuring any of them) is Porco’s face being a pig’s face.  Which is to say that the departure in this film isn’t really from fantasy to reality, despite the lack of fanciful megafauna.

If it is a departure (uncertain), it is instead one of construction and intent.  Narratively traversing years where all previous films had covered days or weeks, it is inevitable for TWR to present itself episodically, a common result of Miyazaki’s habit of finding his stories during production.  What is surprising is the unexpected sublimation of theme & thought beneath & within plot & incident.  Miyazaki has here built an elegant, streamlined body around an internalized engine of meaning, filing off all the screws and edges to create a smooth reflective surface.  If fantasy typically externalizes signification through allegory and imagery, the polarity here is reversed, with the greatest import buried beneath the surface.  The film imparts its deepest meaning through internal rhymes and echoes, allusions to artistic forebears, and metafictional reassessment of its artist’s own life’s work.  (It’s worth noting here--and could be expanded upon greatly, if there were more space and time--the deep thematic relevance of the film’s references to Valery’s La cemetière marin--a poem about standing in a cemetery overlooking the sea, contemplating the dead below and the life ahead--and Mann’s The Magic Mountain--a philosophical novel about a man sojourning in a TB hospital trying to find existential meaning and avoid serving in a war.)

But every detail of the surface conveys Miyazaki’s sensibility as well.  As usual, he assembled a magnificent team of animators, including names like Shinya Ohira12 and Takeshi Honda, to endow every frame with a lush beauty and vibrancy.  Mechanics, buildings, and environments can be minutely detailed, but people are drawn with a simple, clean-line style that allows for cartoonish expression.  The character designs themselves may be less inspired than in previous films, but the looseness of the line follows Ponyo in emphasizing their hand-drawn quality at every moment.  (There are a few shots where digital techniques are noticeable, though.)  Even the editing is top-notch: I noticed more interesting cuts and transitions here than in his last three films combined.  Most excitingly, many of the sound effects throughout, especially those of the airplanes, were created by human voices, lending them a unique vitality.  Miyazaki himself even tried out to be part of the sound effects team, but was turned down!  

There is wind blowing in almost every shot--even when Jiro works at a desk, wind is blowing out the window behind him.  The wind is the film’s most clearly (repeatedly) stated yet multivalent metaphor.  The wind that carries Jiro and the film onward is life, is the sweep of history, the force of events, is destiny and chance, is danger and excitement, is the wind beneath an airplane’s wings and the winds of war.  To navigate such winds for long is impossible, but one can only try; it is a necessity of life.

It is this particular sense of life and the world that Miyazaki’s films attune us to.  A sense, in Chris Stangl’s wonderful phrase, of “the kami-electrified world.”  Every tree, every blade of grass, every spring and sprocket has a spirit; they are endowed with possibility, the potential at any moment to leap to life right out of the screen (and therefore must be treated with respect).  There is also a kinetic energy here that permeates the films, though it does not depend on action, filling the screen with movement.  Such energy gets to the heart of animation as a word (from animus, Latin, meaning mind, soul, or spirit), and as an art form: movement = animation = life.  This way of seeing is unique, personal; rooted in Shinto religious tradition and an old hobbyist’s favorite playthings.  But it has power even (esp.?) in the West to open our imaginations and draw attention to the sacred within the mundane and the wondrous within our backyard.  In this film, he makes it clearer than ever before that fantasy has its limits; that dreams and real life are not one and the same.  Dreams beget responsibilities and consequences, so those who fashion them for the world must hone their moral senses well.  In The Wind Rises, Hayao Miyazaki has crafted his final statement of this worldview, the final achievement of a great career.  It is a film that blazes new trails even as it feels already old-fashioned.  We shall not see its like again.

*  *  *  *  *


Starting Point: 1979-1996 by Hayao Miyazaki, a collection of essays, speeches, interviews, and production notes that contains a wealth of fascinating information, timelines, and insight.

The Ghibli Blog run by Daniel Thomas MacInnes, which has been spreading the word about the unexplored regions of the Miyazaki and Takahata filmography for almost a decade now, and from which I borrowed 3-4 of the pictures in this post.

Anipages run by Ben Ettinger, the finest anime writer on the net, who has all sorts of eye-opening details about the way Japanese animation is produced and what makes it special.

Along with plenty of good old-fashioned internet surfing, which led to most of the links spread throughout the article, not to mention these two collections of press notes for the film, and articles like this and this.  And this article by David Ross is the most beautiful and convincing critique of Miyazaki as a whole that I think you'll find anywhere.  I’d also recommend Anime: A History by Jonathan Clements if you want a scholarly overview of the Japanese animation industry from the 1910s on, and Cartoons: One Hundred Years of Cinema Animation by Giannalberto Bendazzi, if you’re interested in a critical view of the various major artists in world animation.

Oh, and since I just watched it before finishing the essay, The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness, essentially a making-of doc about Miyazaki and TWR, is about as lovely as such a thing can get.

1 He had the co-director credit on those Lupin episodes, but those were for a show that was already up and running, and it seems Takahata took the lead on directing them. He had also made a 10-minute pilot for a series called Yuki's Sun in 1972, but that never came to fruition. This short was shown in front of TWR in cinemas in Japan, and included on the Japanese Blu-Ray release. Looked at now, it resembles a somewhat stiffer Heidi, but with less warmth and idiosyncrasy. 5 minutes isn’t long to condense a plot for a series, tho, so perhaps it would have developed as it went on.
2  Castle in the Sky and Porco Rosso can be seen as returns to this style on larger canvases.
3 Otsuka retired by the late ‘80s and has spent the last decades as one of the most beloved animation teachers in Japan, as well as writing highly-regarded accounts of the early days of anime. Kotabe went on to work for Nintendo, becoming a character designer for the Pokémon franchise and an animation supervisor on its various TV shows. Mori, who had started as an animator in the late-40s/early-50s, was the old man of the group, and in some ways the most important single animator in anime if we look at the tree of those who trained under him. He died in 1992.
4 This does not necessarily apply with all animation: Japanese key animators are usually given entire scenes or sequences to animate, while Americans are generally given a particular character within a scene (or across the whole movie). This is just industry standard, tho. With independent and art animation, all bets are off.
5 This triple jump can be seen again, made elegant, in Howl's Moving Castle , when Howl and Sophie come down from the roof.
6 Those wings were actually replaced on the final model by almost-straight wings--presumably the film makes such a big deal of them simply because Miyazaki finds them beautiful.
7 Note that in the left page, Jiro’s friend Honjo looks distinctly different than in the film. I had assumed that Honjo was modeled on Isao Takahata, but the manga version doesn’t bear that out. It could be Yasuo Otsuka, who is famous for his driver’s cap, but this hat is different. Miyazaki himself actually wears a hat like that frequently, so maybe this Honjo is a self-insertion? But Miyazaki already draws himself in all his Model Graphix manga as a whiskered pig in an apron, leaning around the margins to make comments. But maybe I should just stop being an obsessive fanboy and let you get back to the essay.
8 Here’s another: We do NOT “see Japanese planes downed by a Chinese foe in a mid-film reverie,” we see one Japanese plane falling flaming through the clouds, with no hint of how it was shot, much less who was responsible. It’s more an expression of coming war and the danger to Japan’s aviation program weighing on Jiro’s mind.
9 Another point: In a country entirely mobilized for the war effort, with forced conscription, Jiro would have been involved in the war effort somehow
10 In America, the Disney animators were put to work in a similar manner. Also, Walt Disney became convinced of the necessity of aerial bombing to win the war, and produced an entire feature film called Victory Through Air Power in 1943. Such bombing was responsible for the loss of tens of thousands of lives, especially in Japan. It also no doubt made the war much shorter. Should we judge Disney for this propaganda and war-advocacy? Certainly that seems to be the kind of thing we should be thinking about, if we're to take the Miyazaki critics here seriously.
11 There’s actually at least 3 pretty cool reasons for mentioning Kurosawa here. 1st, Princess Mononoke is often rightly noted for its resemblance to Kurosawa’s old samurai epics like Seven Samurai or Throne of Blood. 2nd, the admiration was mutual--Kurosawa loved My Neighbor Totoro and Kiki’s Delivery Service. In fact, Miyazaki and Kurosawa once had a big sit-down discussion, I believe in front of an audience, and you can read the transcription of it here. 3rd, and most speculatively, I think TWR itself bears some traces of Kurosawa’s influence. As a final film itself, the film has some striking thematic parallels to Kurosawa’s last three movies: Dreams (1990), a recreation of a number of AK’s actual dreams; Rhapsody in August (1991), a generational story of a family who lost loved ones in the bombing of Hiroshima, and the younger generation who tends to forget their history (this movie was also criticized for its lack of reference to Japanese war crimes); and Madadayo (1993), about a retired professor whose students visit him every year on his birthday and ask him if he’s ready to die, to which he responds “Mada dayo,” that is, “Not yet!” --asserting that life must go on.
12 Ohira is a legend in the anime world, with a wild, distinctive style full of jittery lines and distortion. He has done work for Ghibli several times before. The cuts of Jiro at his desk with wind ripping at his clothes and the SS chasing the man at night, are easily identifiable as his work.


  1. What an exhaustive, staggering, scholarly and altogether brilliant marathon post, certainly one of the most monumental I have laid eyes on since I began blogging. Sad to say I am ill-equipped to do much more than to serve as a cheerleader, though I do highly regard the work of this director. This would work as an A plus thesis, that is certain.

  2. Thank you so much for the kind words, Sam. I was working on it off and on for months, jotting down notes, reading and researching, etc. I hope other people like it, because I think it's pretty much the best thing I've ever written. :) And it was such a nightmare to format! I had to teach myself some html to get it all figured out. And then the footnotes stopped working again in the last day or two, and I just finished going back in and readjusting all that before writing this, so it should all be put right again. But it is still satisfying, to put a lot of work into something and then be happy with the way it turned out.