The Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki has had a lifelong obsession with flight. His father was the head of a small Japanese aviation company that made rudders for the Zero fighter planes in World War Two. His seven-volume manga comic book series Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, a post-apocalyptic eco-fantasy featuring a glider-flying renegade princess, was serialised in 1982 and in 1984 became Miyazaki’s second feature film. Nausicaä set in play a motif that has run through all of the director’s films over the three decades since: no matter how disparate their subject matter, we can expect to see in them deliriously beautiful sequences – always hallucinatory, often vertiginous – of humans, animals and spirits soaring and careering through air. These sequences have the clarity of particularly vivid dreams; Miyazaki’s genius lies not just in rendering epically complex fables out of what are, at heart, childhood anxieties, but also in re-animating, for an adult viewer, some long-lost sense of the subconscious as a spectacularly grand adventure.
The protagonists of these films are generally children or young adults. (In an exception, the hero of 1992’s Porco Rosso, who’s either a humanoid pig or porcine human, is a gruff, world-weary ace fighter pilot.) Their anxieties seem reasonable enough – there are sick parents, moves to the countryside – but are never dwelt on for long: it always quickly becomes a full-time job, for these characters, dealing with the otherworldliness that Miyazaki creates for them, and there’s never time for self-indulgence. In My Neighbour Totoro (1988), two sisters discover spirit creatures living in the forest near their new home. In the beautiful Princess Mononoke (1997), a cursed warrior, wounded by demons, travels to a complex and chaotic land in order to save his life. In Spirited Away (2001), Miyazaki’s best film and one of the best of the 2000s, a young girl, Chihiro, explores a strange abandoned town with her parents. When the parents are turned into pigs, Miyazaki makes Chihiro’s anxieties manifest, as the town is transformed into a kind of bathhouse-cum-brothel for monsters, gods and impish spirits, through all of which Chihiro must wend her way. This is cinema as pure metaphor.
Miyazaki’s latest film, The Wind Rises (in national release), will also be his last: the 73-year-old has announced his retirement, though Studio Ghibli, the animation house that Miyazaki co-founded, will continue to operate. The Wind Rises differs from the director’s previous works in a few ways. It’s a “fictionalised biography” – new territory for Studio Ghibli – of Jiro Horikoshi, the aviation engineer who designed the Zero, among other planes. We do meet Jiro as a teenager, but the story largely follows his adult life. He starts somewhat anxiety-free, obsessed with aviation and absolutely certain of where his destiny lies. In this case, his anxieties increase as the story gathers momentum.
The Wind Rises begins with a framing epigraph, a line from Paul Valéry’s beautifully strange poem ‘The Cemetery by the Sea’: “The wind is rising, we must try to live!” (Miyazaki might have noticed another line from the Valéry poem – “I render you to your original lightness” – which could well stand as the mission statement of his films.) In any case, Jiro lives largely in his own imagination; the marvellous opening dream sequence displays Miyazaki’s technical gift for putting flying machines in the air. On land, young Jiro buries his head in aviation journals, watches the night sky to improve his eyesight (eventually he learns he is too nearsighted ever to be a pilot) and shows a keen sense of social justice.
Into Jiro’s psyche wanders Count Caproni, an eccentric Italian aeroplane designer. They take improbable strolls on the wing of Caproni’s plane. Each accuses the other of being a character in a dream. “Yes, this is a dream,” says Caproni. “This world is a dream. Welcome to my kingdom.”
In Caproni’s kingdom, his gloriously lavish, multi-winged passenger planes seem to defy the laws of physics; however, a quick look online reveals not only that Caproni was real but also that his 1921 Noviplano flying boat (which, yes, never successfully flew!) bore certain similarities to Miyazaki’s baroque creations.
“The important thing for an engineer,” Caproni tells Jiro, sounding like Steve Jobs giving a TED talk, “is inspiration. Inspiration unlocks the future. Technology will catch up.”
This is possibly helpful advice, since at the factory where Jiro finds his first design job, oxen still haul the aircraft prototypes to the airfield for testing. But it’s the 1930s, and now Japan becomes allied with Germany. There, when Jiro and a team of Japanese engineers go to visit the Junkers factory, all is gleaming and impressive. Militarisation, via German technology, points the way to the future.
For Jiro the purist, this is not the way it was meant to be. His sympathies lie with Caproni, who dreams only of the future of passenger travel and tells Jiro that aeroplanes should be neither for dropping bombs nor making money. “Aeroplanes,” declares Caproni, “are beautiful dreams.” (The real Caproni, in fact, devoted a not insignificant portion of his energy and career to designing bombers.)
But Jiro himself has brooding visions of aeronautical disasters: calamities burst from the seams of this idyllic world of rural, sun-drenched, pre-war Japan. Aeroplanes may be beautiful dreams, according to Caproni, but they are also “cursed dreams, waiting for the sky to swallow them up”. He laments that planes are destined to become weapons of slaughter and destruction. “I’m retiring,” he tells Jiro, in their dreamland. “This is my last design.”
Here, Caproni clearly stands in as Miyazaki’s alter ego, and his lament may well echo Miyazaki’s own fears for the future of his particular style of anime – so quaint and anachronistic, so “artisanal” – when pitted against the genre’s wider trends of cyber-chaos, dystopian darkness and a certain need for speed.
Aesthetically, sensually, the film rewards close attention. At the micro level, every frame is filled with rippling movements, both background and foreground, caused by wind. There’s a beautiful texturing, too, of hair, leaves, snow. But at the macro level the strokes can be very broad, as in the transitions from the 1923 Great Kanto earthquake to the Great Depression, to the build-up to war; at moments, the film feels bullet-pointed.
Perhaps it’s a Japanese thing, but a greater problem in Miyazaki’s films is the sentimentality. Recently, an episode of The Simpsons parodied Miyazaki and the Studio Ghibli style. Among the various bizarre happenings (Chief Wiggum is a pig, Smithers a frog, Marge’s sisters witches on broomsticks), the Kwik-E-Mart lifts up from the ground and lumbers away on giant mechanical legs, à la Howl’s Moving Castle (2004). As the (now-Japanese) contents of the shelves are tossed around as if in an earthquake, the store’s owner, Apu, trying to keep his balance, cries out, “I am ruined by whimsy.”
Miyazaki films are at their best when there’s a kind of icy determination to the heroes’ demeanour, but none of them are exempt from dustings of schmaltz. In The Wind Rises, the love story feels laboured. Jiro’s young bride is sick, apparently with tuberculosis, and there’s even a sanatorium involved. (Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain is directly referenced.) Miyazaki’s mother was ill with tuberculosis for years, and elements of My Neighbour Totoro reflect his own experiences as a small child, when she was taken to the countryside. Perhaps here, too, as an old man saying farewell, he can be forgiven the indulgence of returning to such memories and mining them. The film works well enough as a paean to flight, to our “original lightness”.
Luke Davies is a novelist, screenplay writer and poet. He is the author of Candy, God of Speed, Totem (the winner of the Age Book of the Year in 2004) and Interferon Psalms (winner of the Prime Minister’s Literary Award in 2012).
The Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki has had a lifelong obsession with flight. His father was the head of a small Japanese aviation company that made rudders for the Zero fighter planes in World War Two. His seven-volume manga comic book series Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, a post-apocalyptic eco-fantasy featuring a glider-flying renegade princess, was serialised in 1982 and in 1984 became Miyazaki’s second feature film. Nausicaä set in play a motif that has run through all of the director’s films over the three decades since: no matter how disparate their subject matter, we can expect to see in them deliriously beautiful sequences – always hallucinatory, often vertiginous – of humans, animals and spirits soaring and careering through air. These sequences have the clarity of particularly vivid dreams; Miyazaki’s genius...