Jiro Horikoshi, in a still from The Wind Rises. Image: Studio Ghibli
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Animating principle: The Wind Rises and the genius of Miyazaki

The last film from Hayao Miyazaki, Japan's Walt Disney, has been met with controversy. But his career is one of wonder and enchantment

Aged 73, the Japanese animation director Hayao Miyazaki has finally grown up. After a career of child-centred fantasies such as My Neighbour Totoro (1988) and the Oscar-winning Spirited Away (2001) comes a historical wartime biopic, The Wind Rises, released in Japan last summer and in the UK on 9 May. The film is based on the life of Jiro Horikoshi (1903-82), the designer of the Mitsubishi A6M Zero, Japan’s formidable Second World War dogfighter. With scenes in which aircraft engineers discuss new rivet designs, nightmare visions involving bombs with gnashing teeth and a tuberculosis-scarred romance inspired by Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, The Wind Rises is emphatically not “for kids” – so much so that Miyazaki told staff at his Studio Ghibli that in making the film they were “digging their own grave”. Two months after its release, he announced that he was retiring.

There is a moral conundrum at the heart of The Wind Rises. Miyazaki portrays Jiro as an innocent genius whose only desire is to create extraordinary flying machines; but his Zeros were also extraordinary killing machines. Perhaps aware that the film was in danger of being seen as a celebration of Japanese military strength, Miyazaki published an essay explaining how as a child (he was born in 1941) he had “heard adults speak boastfully of the horrible things they had done on the Chinese continent” – where the Japanese policy during the war was “Kill all, loot all, destroy all” – and he “truly started to hate Japan”. He criticised the present conservative government for plotting to overturn the constitution’s “peace clause”, which prohibits the state from maintaining armed forces capable of war.

Miyazaki, usually revered as a national treasure, was attacked by Japan’s dominant right wing, which branded him a “traitor”. Abroad, South Koreans and Americans were equally enraged: by the film’s failure to acknowledge the Korean slave labour that built the Zeros and by its uncritical attitude to the man who enabled the devastating attack on Pearl Harbor. Despite the controversy, Ghibli had not dug its own grave: The Wind Rises was Japan’s highest-grossing film in 2013. But its director had made many enemies.

Miyazaki’s final film sprung not from a political urge but from a personal obsession with the Zero fighter, which his father’s company, Miyazaki Airplane, made parts for during the war. “For all [Japan’s] humiliating history,” he has said, “the Zero represented one of the few things that we Japanese could be proud of.” He once tried to purchase a surviving model and have it flown past his studio. Miyazaki is in thrall to Jiro’s creation and as a result the moral knot at the film’s heart is never fully unpicked: Jiro is absolved too easily. What the off-screen arguments do not recognise, though, is that the reasons for this are, at least partly, visual. In a lavish, hand-drawn animation such as this, why waste frames with furrowed-brow soul-searching when you can trace vapour-trails in the sky?

And what skies! The stereotype of Japanese animation (anime) involves wide-eyed, spiky-haired heroes and wide-eyed, busty heroines. But in Miyazaki’s films, the sky and sea are often two of the main characters, the former dotted with Constable-like clouds, the latter’s placid aquamarines capable of roiling into tsunamis – as in Ponyo (2008) – to rival Hokusai’s The Great Wave. In Porco Rosso (1992), set in the interwar period, a former fighter ace (whose survival of the war has mysteriously transformed him into a pig) roams the Adriatic in his seaplane, hunting pirates. Everywhere there is sea and sky. Miyazaki fills his expansive canvas with glorious blue tones that seem to promise peace even as Italy’s fascist forces loom.

These days most animation is done by computer – except at Studio Ghibli, where each film is composed of thousands of frames (170,000 for Ponyo), the majority of them hand-drawn by Miyazaki and his animators. Miyazaki hates technology and does not own a mobile phone. A colleague of his told me that when his staff whipped out their phones to photograph a birthday cake, he told them to put their gadgets away and to use their eyes and memory instead.

There is a focus and stillness to Ghibli films that is at odds with their frenetically paced western equivalents. The Japanese word is ma – emptiness, the interval between two parts. Even in the fever-dream of Spirited Away there are moments of ma, in which wind rustles through grass, or shoals of tiny fish dart through shallow water. In an interview with Roger Ebert in 2002, Miyazaki explained that his aim was to “quiet things down a little bit; don’t just bombard them with noise and distraction. And to follow the path of children’s emotions and feelings as we make a film. If you stay true to joy and astonishment and empathy you don’t have to have violence and you don’t have to have action. They’ll follow you.”

Disney, which distributes Ghibli films in the west, has less faith in their audience and its dubbed versions sometimes fill silent passages with music or sound effects and give characters additional cute chuckles. This is at least not as perfidious as what an American studio did with Miyazaki’s post-apocalyptic epic Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984): retitling it Warriors of the Wind, it cut the film drastically, watered down its environmentalism and replaced its female protagonist with a male hero on the VHS cover. After this, Miyazaki wised up. When Harvey Weinstein bought the distribution rights to Princess Mononoke (1997) and asked for edits, the Ghibli producer Toshio Suzuki sent him a samurai sword with a note attached to the blade: “No cuts.”

In their quiet way, Miyazaki’s films are radical. Few artists honour so meticulously the child’s point of view or capture so accurately the imaginative leaps and emotional handbrake-turns of the childish psyche. DreamWorks and Pixar films tend to operate at two levels: Shrek gives kids a dancing donkey and a belching ogress while parodying The Matrix and quoting Dickens for their parents. It’s a neat trick but the most successful Ghibli films such as My Neighbour Totoro do something more remarkable.

Set among the lush green fields of rural Japan in the late 1950s, Totoro begins with a father and his two young daughters moving into an old house to be closer to their mother’s hospital, where she is being treated for a long-term illness. Mei, a loud and gutsy four-year-old, discovers a rotund, furry woodland spirit (a Totoro) who helps them in a moment of crisis. There is not much plot, little dialogue and no “message”, other than that Mei approaches the world with a sense of possibility and is rewarded with friendship and magic. Nor does the Totoro – whose presence is not explained or analysed – make it a fantasy story. The reality of the illness is inescapable: when Mei realises that her mother could die, there is a frightening outpouring of grief. There is no multiple-register wisecracking here. Instead, Miya­zaki somehow manages to hot-wire the adult brain: we seem to experience events just as a child would.

His films are striking, too, for foregrounding strong female characters who are not tied in to fairy-tale narratives. Each new Disney princess movie is obsessively parsed for feminist credentials: Frozen, the latest, scored highly for having two female leads but lost marks for their Barbie-doll beauty and the film’s reliance on a conventional love-match ending. Miyazaki’s girls are sometimes pretty but also often awkward, brave and stubborn. In Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989), a 13-year-old witch and her sensible black cat set off on her broomstick (cue more thrilling aerial animation) for the city, where she sets up her own business, in a community that happens to be almost entirely run by women (there is only one significant male speaking part in the film). Kiki is wooed by a local boy but, like all Ghibli heroines, her crises are solved by her own agency and resolve, not by romantic love.

Disney simply cannot stomach strong women. Its pluckiest, least sexualised princess, Merida of Brave, was later given a glamorous makeover, her bow and arrow ditched. By contrast, the female protagonist of Princess Mononoke appears on the poster not in an hourglass dress but with a knife in her hand and blood staining her mouth.

For all their elegant stillness, Miyazaki’s films are capable of conveying violence and horror, particularly when it comes to our mistreatment of nature. Mononoke and Totoro convey the idea – linked with Japan’s Shinto religion – that the natural world is represented by various spirits and gods, with whom we must coexist. In reality, Miyazaki is pessimistic about that relationship. “It would be wonderful if I could see the end of civilisation during my lifetime,” he told an audience at University of California, Berkeley, in 2010. It got a good laugh but it did not seem to be entirely in jest.

His art, however, is shot through with resilience and optimism. Toshio Suzuki tells me that one of Miyazaki’s mantras is: “Don’t tell stories of hopelessness to children!” The Wind Rises ends an extraordinary career on an odd and melancholy note, offering something that is not quite despair and not quite hope. It is an acknowledgement that while civilisation goes to the dogs, we can still create works of great beauty. Which is what Miyazaki has always done.

Tom Gatti is Culture Editor of the New Statesman. He previously edited the Saturday Review section of the Times, and can be found on Twitter as @tom_gatti.

 

This article first appeared in the 08 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, India's worst nightmare?

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The West can never hope to understand Islamic State

Graeme Wood's The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State reminds us of something that ought to be obvious: Islamic State is very Islamic.

The venue for the declaration of the “Islamic State” had been carefully chosen. The Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul was a fitting location for the restoration of a “caliphate” pledged to the destruction of its enemies. It was built in 1172 by Nur al-Din al-Zengi, a warrior famed for his victories over the Crusaders. When Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi ascended the pulpit in July 2014 and proclaimed his followers to be “the backbone of the camp of faith and the spearhead of its trench”, he was consciously following in Nur al-Din’s footsteps. The message could not have been clearer. The Crusaders were back and needed defeating.

Time present and time past are both perhaps present in time future. In Islamic State’s propaganda, they certainly are. Sayings attributed to Muhammad that foretold how the armies of Islam would defeat the armies of the Cross serve their ideologues as a hall of mirrors. What happened in the Crusades is happening now; and what happens now foreshadows what is to come.

The Parisian concert-goers murdered at the Bataclan theatre in 2015 were as much Crusaders as those defeated by Nur al-Din in the 12th century – and those slaughters prefigure a final slaughter at the end of days. When the propagandists of Islamic State named their English-language magazine Dabiq, they were alluding to a small town in Syria that – so they proclaim – will at last bring the Crusades to an end. Every issue is headed with the same exultant vaunt. “The spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify – by Allah’s permission – until it burns the Crusader armies in Dabiq.”

How much does Islamic State actually believe this stuff? The assumption that it is a proxy for other concerns – born of US foreign policy, or social deprivation, or Islamophobia – comes naturally to commentators in the West. Partly this is because their instincts are often secular and liberal; partly it reflects a proper concern not to tar mainstream Islam with the brush of terrorism.

Unsurprisingly, the first detailed attempt to take Islamic State at its word ruffled a lot of feathers. Graeme Wood’s article “What Isis really wants” ran in the Atlantic two years ago and turned on its head the reassuring notion that the organisation’s motivation was anything that Western policy­makers could readily comprehend.

“The reality is,” Wood wrote, “that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic.” The strain of the religion that it was channelling derived “from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam” and was fixated on two distinct moments of time: the age of Muhammad and the end of days long promised in Muslim apocalyptic writings. Members of Islamic State, citing the Quran and sayings attributed to the Prophet in their support, believe themselves charged by God with expediting the end of days. It is their mandate utterly to annihilate kufr: disbelief. The world must be washed in blood, so that the divine purpose may be fulfilled. The options for negotiating this around a table at Geneva are, to put it mildly, limited.

In The Way of the Strangers, Wood continues his journey into the mindset of Islamic State’s enthusiasts. As he did in the Atlantic, he scorns “the belief that when a jihadist tells you he wants to kill you and billions of others to bring about the end of the world, he is just speaking for effect”. Although not a report from the “caliphate”, it still comes from front lines: the restaurants of Melbourne, the suburbs of Dallas, the cafés of Ilford. Wood’s concern is less with the circumstances in Syria and Iraq that gave birth to Islamic State than with those cocooned inside stable and prosperous societies who have travelled to join it. What persuades them to abandon the relative comforts of the West for a war zone? How can they possibly justify acts of grotesque violence? Is killing, for them, something
incidental, or a source of deep fulfilment?

These are questions that sociologists, psychologists and security experts have all sought to answer. Wood, by asking Islamic State’s sympathisers to explain their motivation, demonstrates how Western society has become woefully unqualified to recognise the ecstatic highs that can derive from apocalyptic certitude. “The notion that religious belief is a minor factor in the rise of the Islamic State,” he observes, “is belied by a crushing weight of evidence that religion matters deeply to the vast majority of those who have travelled to fight.”

Anyone who has studied the literature of the First Crusade will recognise the sentiment. The conviction, popular since at least the Enlightenment, that crusading was to be explained in terms of almost anything except religion has increasingly been put
to bed. Crusaders may indeed have travelled to Syria out of a lust for adventure, or loot, or prospects denied to them at home; but that even such worldly motivations were saturated in apocalyptic expectations is a perspective now widely accepted. “Men went on the First Crusade,” as Marcus Bull put it, “for reasons that were overwhelmingly ideological.”

The irony is glaring. The young men who travel from western Europe to fight in Syria for Islamic State – and thereby to gain paradise for themselves – are following in the footsteps less of Nur al-Din than of the foes they are pledged to destroy: the Crusaders.

Jonathan Riley-Smith, who revolutionised the study of the Crusades as a penitential movement, once wrote an essay titled “Crusading as an Act of Love”. Wood, in his attempt to understand the sanguinary idealism of Islamic State sympathisers, frequently echoes its phrasing. In Alexandria, taken under the wing of Islamists and pressed to convert, he recognises in their importunities an urgent longing to spare him hellfire, to win him paradise. “Their conversion efforts could still be described, for all their intolerance and hate, as a mission of love.”

Later, in Norway, he meets with a white-haired Islamist to whom the signs of the impending Day of Judgement are so palpable that he almost sobs with frustration at Wood’s failure to open his eyes to them. “To Abu Aisha, my stubbornness would have been funny if it were not tragic. He looked ready to grab me with both hands to try to shake me awake. Were these signs – to say nothing of the perfection of the Quran, and the example of the Prophet – not enough to rouse me from the hypnosis of kufr?”

Wood does not, as Shiraz Maher did in his recent study Salafi-Jihadism, attempt to provide a scholarly survey of the intellectual underpinnings of Islamic State; but as an articulation of the visceral quality of the movement’s appeal and the sheer colour and excitement with which, for true believers, it succeeds in endowing the world, his book is unrivalled. When he compares its utopianism to that of the kibbutzim movement, the analogy is drawn not to cause offence but to shed light on why so many people from across the world might choose to embrace such an austere form of communal living. When he listens to British enthusiasts of Islamic State, he recognises in their descriptions of it a projection of “their idealised roseate vision of Britain”. Most suggestively, by immersing himself in the feverish but spectacular visions bred of his interviewees’ apocalypticism, he cannot help but occasionally feel “the rip tide of belief”.

The Way of the Strangers, though, is no apologetic. The time that Wood spends with Islamic State sympathisers, no matter how smart or well mannered he may find some of them, does not lead him to extenuate the menace of their beliefs. One chapter in particular – a profile of an American convert to Islam whose intelligence, learning and charisma enabled him to emerge as the principal ideologue behind Dabiq – is worthy of Joseph Conrad.

Elsewhere, however, Wood deploys a lighter touch. In a field where there has admittedly been little competition, his book ranks as the funniest yet written on Islamic State. As in many a British sitcom, the comedy mostly emerges from the disequilibrium between the scale of his characters’ pretensions and ambitions and the banality of their day-to-day lives. “He can be – to use a term he’d surely hate – a ham.” So the British Islamist Anjem Choudary is summarised and dismissed.

Most entertaining is Wood’s portrait of Musa Cerantonio, whose status as Australia’s highest-profile Islamic State sympathiser is balanced by his enthusiasm for Monty Python and Stephen Fry. His longing to leave for the “caliphate” and his repeated failure to progress beyond the Melbourne suburb where he lives with his mother create an air of dark comedy. Visiting Cerantonio, Wood finds their conversation about Islamic State ideology constantly being intruded on by domestic demands. “His mother was about ten feet away during the first part of the conversation, but once she lost interest in the magazines she walked off to another part of the house. Musa, meanwhile, was discussing theoretically the Islamic views on immolation as a method of execution.”

The scene is as terrifying as it is comic. Were Cerantonio merely a solitary eccentric, he would hardly merit the attention but, as The Way of the Strangers makes amply clear, his views are shared by large numbers of Muslims across the world. Just as Protestant radicals, during the 16th-century Reformation, scorned the traditions of the Catholic Church and sought a return to the age of the Apostles, so today do admirers of Islamic State dread that the wellsprings of God’s final revelation to mankind have been poisoned. What, then, are they to do?

That their enthusiasm for, say, slavery or the discriminatory taxation of religious minorities causes such offence to contemporary morality only confirms to them that there is a desperately pressing task of purification to perform. As Wood observes, “These practices may be rejected by mainstream Muslim scholars today, but for most of Islamic history, it barely occurred to Muslims to doubt that their religion permitted them.” Verses in the Quran, sayings of the Prophet, the example of the early caliphate: all can be used to justify them. Why, then, should Islamic State not reintroduce them, in the cause of making Islam great again?

Perhaps the most dispiriting section of Wood’s book describes his attempt to find an answer to this question by consulting eminent Muslim intellectuals in the US. Scholars whose understanding of Islam derives from a long chain of teachers (and who have framed documents on their walls to prove it) angrily condemn Islamic State for ignoring centuries’ worth of legal rulings. It is a valid point – but only if one accepts, as Islamic State does not, that scholarship can legitimately be used to supplement the Quran and the sayings of Muhammad.

When Wood asks Hamza Yusuf, an eminent Berkeley Sufi, to demonstrate the group’s errors by relying only on the texts revealed to the Prophet, he struggles to do so: “Yusuf could not point to an instance where the Islamic State was flat-out, verifiably wrong.” This does not mean that it is right but it does suggest – despite what most Muslims desperately and understandably want to believe – that it is no less authentically Islamic than any other manifestation of Islam. The achievement of Wood’s gripping, sobering and revelatory book is to open our eyes to what the implications of that for all of us may be.

Tom Holland’s books include “In the Shadow of the Sword: the Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World” (Abacus)

The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State by Graeme Wood is published by Allen Lane (317pp, £20​)

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era