Posts Tagged ‘Hayao Miyazaki’

As one legend of Japanese cinema makes a long-awaited return to UK screens, another bids farewell: at least that’s what the publicity for Hayao Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises indicates, for this film is described as his ‘farewell masterpiece’. Even if we can’t be 100% sure about the ‘farewell’ part, the ‘masterpiece’ thing seems pretty much on the money. But then this is Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli, and masterpieces are virtually their stock in trade. Beauty and charm, along with dazzling technical expertise, are what you expect from a Ghibli movie, even the ones dealing with somewhat off-the-wall subject matter (demon bathhouses, child starvation, and possible cases of genetic sexual attraction).


It says something about how peculiar some of the Ghibli back catalogue is that a romantic social history of Japan between the two World Wars, focussing on the life story of the man who designed the Mitsubishi Zero (the all-metal fighter plane used by the Japanese navy to devastating effect in the early stages of the Pacific war), is a relatively straightforward choice of story by comparison. This is a heavily-fictionalised biography of the engineer in question, Jiro Horikoshi.

As a young boy in 1918, Jiro dreams of becoming a pilot, but his poor eyesight makes that impossible. Inspired by a dream in which he meets the Italian engineer Giovanni Caproni, he decides to become an aeronautical designer instead. The film follows him through university and his career with Mitsubishi, taking in major historical events like the 1923 Kanto earthquake and the great depression, as well as his relationship and ultimate marriage to his long-term sweetheart. The film also covers the rise of totalitarianism throughout the 1930s, both in Japan and Germany – the relationship between the two countries is, to some extent, dealt with in the film.

And, as usual, the artistic virtuosity on display throughout is simply jaw-dropping, including virtually photo-realistic backdrops and astonishingly intricate designs for characters and planes. Much of the time every inch of the screen is filled with colour and movement, and it is immaculately done – I’ve said this before, but I don’t think even the Disney company in the golden age of hand-drawn animation had the sheer level of expertise and attention to detail that the Ghibli animators routinely deploy. Nobody has ever made traditional animation better than this.

On paper the story does not sound especially engaging, but the actual film is very absorbing: quite apart from the sheer look of the film (which, as I believe I said, is gorgeous), the characters are appealing and the story is not without a certain fascination. Rather as in From Up On Poppy Hill, nostalgia for an older, unspoilt Japan is evident throughout The Wind Rises – there are numerous lovely landscapes, and everyone lives in beautiful traditional houses – but given that this is a film set in the 1920s and 1930s there is always a slightly ominous tone to the story. Every time Jiro or one of his colleagues vows to help Japan become a modern, technological country, a rival to Germany or America, you can’t help but be reminded that this is really not going to end well for the Japanese people.

It’s a mark of the film’s enormous subtlety that this point, though clearly intended, is never laboured or dwelt upon: in short, it treats the audience with intelligence (and, by the way, it’s clearly intended for a mature audience: probably not a movie to take your four-year-old to see). There’s also something very Japanese about the delicacy of the way in which it deals obliquely with some elements both of history and its own story. The climax is oddly obscure and understated, with a considerable amount left for the audience to surmise for themselves, while a post-War coda alludes to the terrible events which have occurred without addressing any of them in detail.

There is perhaps an issue with this, in that Jiro’s own responsibility as the designer of a warplane is never really addressed by the film. He is clearly a patriot, and a man interested in technical achievement for its own sake – ‘All I wanted to do was make something beautiful,’ is Jiro’s own comment – but to what extent does that excuse him from culpability, given his involvement with the Japanese war machine? Is there a greater responsibility than to nation and beauty? Again, it’s left for the audience to decide, but the difference here is that it’s a question that the film almost feels keen to evade.

Nevertheless, this is a minor issue given the achievement of the rest of the film on virtually every level. I saw the American dub, featuring the vocal talents of (amongst others) Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Emily Blunt, William H Macy and Werner Herzog, and all of them are fine, but the real strengths of this film are in the script and the realisation. This is a thought-provoking and beautiful film – and, yes, a masterpiece. I am actually rather astonished this film did not win the Best Animated Feature Oscar – perhaps it is just a little too mature and thoughtful for comfort. Either way, The Wind Rises is a superb film and a fitting conclusion to Miyazaki’s career.


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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published December 11th 2003:

It’s all too easy to get elitist and precious about cinema from the far east, or western films which seek to ape it (a sentiment I think I shall return to at least twice in the next two or three months). But when faced with a masterpiece like Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, it’s quite tempting to lay aside any attempt at objectivity and simply pile on the superlatives.

Hmm. Kinda laid my cards on the table there, haven’t I, folks? But to even attempt any other response to this magical, beautiful piece of animation would be intellectually dishonest. It’s that good. It’s the kind of film that makes one want to be a child again, simply so one could submit to it more easily, unencumbered by worries about job or rent or relationships.

This is the story of a young girl named Chihiro, whose parents are in the process of moving house (somewhat to her chagrin). En route to their new residence, her father takes a wrong turn and they find themselves in what seems to be a disused amusement park. Ignoring Chihiro’s vague sense of unease, her parents tuck into some of the delicious food that’s seemingly been left unattended. But as the sun sets the park reveals its secret: Chihiro and her family have strayed into an odd netherworld which is basically an entertainment complex for the myriad gods and spirits of Japanese mythology, ruled by the grotesque sorceress Yubaba, and any one of several horrible fates could await any human who stays here too long…

To say more would be to spoil the richness and wonder of the magical world Miyazaki and his animators have created. It’s quite extraordinarily detailed, endlessly inventive, and populated by an array of characters who are as bizarre as they are memorable. The story is rooted in Japanese folklore, true – but it’s still hugely accessible and owes an equally large debt to Greek mythology and the Brothers Grimm (I’m sure I detected a dash of that old Prisoner vibe in a couple of places too).

But the ideas are equalled, and perhaps excelled, by the quality of the animation. I can’t think of another animated film, certainly not since the 1940s, that’s so evidently had such love and talent lavished over every single from. From simple effects like grass rippling in the wind, to fantastical set-pieces like the visit of a Stink God, the pictures are gob-smackingly lovely, even when the subject matter is either icky or frightening.

Because Spirited Away is basically an old-fashioned fairy tale, as funny and moving and scary and enthralling as any you’ve heard before, and thankfully it eschews any didactic preachy eco-cobblers message in favour of simply making it clear that it’s much, much better to be brave and kind and generous than it is to be selfish and cruel and cowardly. And surely no-one can argue with that. It’s really just a crime against cinema, not to mention our own younger generation, that a film of this stature is tucked away unnoticed in an art-house slot while Disney’s latest formula vehicle for selling fast food is playing on two screens. Do your kids a favour. Do yourself a favour. Seek it out. Seek it out.

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