“The Wind Rises” (“Kaze Tachinu“), legendary Japanese anime director Hayao Miyazaki‘s last film before retirement is causing quite a little tempest in a teacup since it opened in Japan last July. It is, as with most Studio Ghibli Miyazaki films, a big hit in Japan earning over $120 million so far. Considering Miyazaki’s most famous film, “Spirited Away”, is the champion box office effort in Japan this is almost to be expected. Unfortunately, In the US the Japanese penchant for serious subject animation is not shared. Producers here still see animation as a vehicle for inspiring and influencing small children with singing, comic animals and princesses galore. Our serious animation is generally brightly colored, rapid-fire edited, ham-handed abbreviated movies with almost transparent moral lessons usually featuring rescues or tales of fitting in. Turn off serious considerations of life and let loose with loads of laughter and love. Leave reality outside the theater. Not always a bad goal, but seldom does it produce films worthy of repeat viewing. Insipid seems to be the best word to describe many of these productions.
Miyazaki is commendable for his ability to tell interesting, captivating and complex stories. His films feature the winning characteristics of subtlety, grace and leaving conclusions to the viewer without being overly foreshadowed or needlessly overdeveloped. This is very much unlike most standard American fare which takes an attitude of “hit them over the head and leave no prisoners” as well as treating their audiences as if they are dense and unable to grasp complex subjects.
Miyazaki has always been a strong fan of flying machines and has used them as central “characters” in such films as “Porco Rosso”, “Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind” and “Kiki’s Delivery Service”. In “The Wind Rises” he focuses on the life and love story of a real historic individual, Jiro Horikoshi, the man who designed Japan’s preeminent fighter-bomber for WW2. The film focuses on the turbulent times Horikoshi lived in juxtaposed with his love of designing and creating airplanes.
That the film concerns such an individual has caused controversy on Miyazaki’s native soil where it has been described as unpatriotic because, as anyone who knows Mr. Miyazaki can tell you, the man is a diehard pacifist and the film expresses his pacifism. Conversely, South Korea has condemned the film as being little more than a celebration of Japan’s wartime aggressions. It is ironic that two such dramatically opposing viewpoints can be elicited by one film that represents neither.
Also, at issue is the fact that characters smoke cigarettes in the film. Since Americans see this movie as expressly kiddie fare, ignoring that merely because it is animated doesn’t mean it is entirely suitable for small children, some critics find it unsuitable for release here. I suppose cleansing history and avoiding hard questions about the past is better than using the film as a teachable moment to educate children. The film also deals with the Great Depression, an earthquake and a tuberculosis epidemic which very obviously declares Miyazaki’s intention to relate an accurate portrayal of Horikoshi’s life and is definitely not a selling point for little ones.
Personally, I find the politically opportunist criticisms of this work reason enough to see it next year. I am very glad to know Mr. Miyazaki has made yet another fine animated feature and that this one is aimed at mature and more discerning audiences. I hope that someday the US can evolve to this same level of artistic endeavor and treat animation as a serious form worthy of serious films by equally serious and adult filmmakers. I’m not holding my breath.