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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In the age of podcasts, the era of communal listening is over

Where once the nation would listen to radio events together, now, it is the booming podcast market that commands our attention

It’s a moment so celebrated that no TV drama about the Second World War is complete without it. At 11.15am on 3 September 1939, Neville Chamberlain made a live radio broadcast from Downing Street announcing that “this country is now at war with Germany”. A silence fell over the nation as people rushed to the wireless to hear him. The whole country was listening, but crucially, it was listening together.

Nearly eight decades later, it is difficult to imagine a communal audio event like that ever happening again. The arrival of the Walkman in 1979, since superseded by the iPod and then the smartphone, turned listening into a personal, solitary pastime. It was no longer necessary for families to get a radio on a hire-purchase arrangement and gather round it in the sitting room. The technology that delivers audio to us is now small and cheap enough for each of us to have one in our pocket (with headphones tangled around it, of course).

At the same time, the method of delivery changed, too. “Radio” ceased to indicate simply “programming transmitted by electromagnetic waves” in the late 1990s, when conventional radio stations began to make their output available on the internet. Online-only radio stations sprang up, streaming their shows directly to computers. Free from any regulation and with the internet as a free distribution platform, these early stations echoed the tone of pirate radio stations in the 1960s.

The idea of “audioblogging” – making short voice recordings available for download online – has been around since the early 1980s, but it wasn’t until 2004 that the word “podcasting” was coined by the technology journalist Ben Hammersley in an article for the Guardian. He was looking for a name for the “new boom in amateur radio” that the internet had enabled.

Thanks to technological advances, by the early 2000s, a podcaster could record a sound clip and upload it to his or her feed, and it would arrive automatically on the computer of anyone who had subscribed. Apple began to include podcasts as a default option on iPods; in 2008 iPhones offered a podcast app as standard. The market boomed.

Apple is notoriously reluctant to provide data on its products, but in 2013 it announced that there had been more than a billion podcast subscriptions through its iTunes store, which carried over 250,000 podcasts in 100 languages. In 2016, Edison Research released a study suggesting that 21 per cent of all Americans over the age of 12 had listened to at least one podcast in the past month – roughly 57 million people. Audiobooks, too, are booming in this new age of listening; the New York Times reported that
although publishing revenue in the US was down overall in the first quarter of 2016, digital audio sales had risen by 35.3 per cent.

The vast share of this listening will be solitary. This is because audio is a secondary medium. For all the talk about the rise of “second screening”, it isn’t really possible to do much more than idly scroll through Twitter on your phone as you watch television, but you can easily get things done while you listen to a podcast. Put on a pair of headphones, and you can go for a run or clean out the oven in the company of your favourite show. In this sense, the medium has been a game-changer for commuters and those doing repetitive or manual work: there’s no longer any need to put up with sniffling on the train or your boss’s obsession with Magic FM.

Though podcasts are an internet phenomenon, they have managed to remain free from the culture of trolling and abuse found elsewhere. It is difficult to make audio go viral, because it’s tricky to isolate a single moment from it in a form that can be easily shared. That also deters casual haters. You can’t just copy and paste something a host said into an insulting tweet.

Our new and solitary way of listening is reflected in the subjects that most podcasts cover. While there is the occasional mega-hit – the American true crime podcast Serial attracted 3.4 million downloads per episode in 2014, the year it launched – most shows exist in a niche. A few hundred listeners who share the host’s passion for pens or for music from antique phonographs can be enough to sustain a series over hundreds of episodes (there are real podcasts on both of these topics).

This is also where the commercial opportunity lies. It costs relatively little to produce even high-quality podcasts, compared to TV or conventional radio, yet they can ­attract very high advertising rates (thanks to the dedication of regular listeners and the trust they have in the host). The US is far ahead of the UK in this regard, and podcast advertising revenue there is expected to grow 25 per cent year on year, reaching half a billion dollars in 2020. Where this was once a hobby for internet enthusiasts, it is now big business, with venture capitalists investing in new networks and production companies. The US network Gimlet attracted $6m in funding in 2015. However, in the UK, the BBC crowds out smaller, independent operations (the trade-off is that it makes undeniably outstanding programmes).

There is even a movement to make listening a communal activity again. The same hipsters responsible for the resurgence of vinyl sales are organising “listening parties” at trendy venues with high-quality sound systems. Live shows have become an important source of revenue for podcasters. Eleanor McDowall, a producer at the Falling Tree radio production company, organises subtitled “screenings” for podcasts in languages other than English. I even have a friend who is part of a “podcast club”, run on the same lines as a monthly book group, with a group of people coming together to discuss one show on a regular schedule.

The next big technological breakthrough for audio will be when cars can support internet-based shows as easily as conventional radio. We might never again gather around the wireless, but our family holidays could be much improved by a podcast.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times