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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

Jiro Horikoshi, in a still from The Wind Rises. Image: Studio Ghibli
Jiro Horikoshi, in a still from The Wind Rises. Image: Studio Ghibli

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.