The Wind Rises (Kaze tachinu, Japan 2013)

Horikoshi leads out his aircraft for a test flight

Horikoshi leads out his aircraft for a test flight

It’s sad to think that after The Wind Rises there will be no more films directed by Miyazaki Hayao. But it’s good that his last venture is also one of his best. I think that The Wind Rises is up there with Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away and My Neighbour Totoro as a film I will always want to see again. What is different about this last film however is that it features a ‘real’ rather than a fantasy scenario and that it mainly features adult characters and concerns. Those earlier films did, of course, explore important themes relevant for contemporary society, but The Wind Rises does so more directly and audiences are likely to respond differently. As several others have pointed out, some of the sequences in the film also suggest links to Grave of the Fireflies (1988), the great work of Miyazaki’s erstwhile colleague Takahata Isao. Both films refer to the catastrophe of the bombing of Japan in 1944-5.

For his last film Miyazaki focuses on his obsession for flying and aeronautics, offering us a fictionalised account of the life of the aircraft designer Horikoshi Jiro, designer of the fighter plane known in the West as the Zero. Beginning with Jiro as a young teenager dreaming of flying, the film narrative features two main personal stories. One involves Jiro’s fantasy relationship with the Italian aircraft designer Caproni and the quest to design the most beautiful flying machine – set against the reality of working for Mitsubishi to design fighters for the Japanese Navy. The other involves Jiro’s (real and tragic) relationship with the beautiful Nahoko. These two narrative strands are developed in the context of first natural disaster (the 1923 Kanto earthquake) and then the gradual ‘militarisation’ of Japanese society and eventually the outbreak of war.

Horikoshi arrives in Tokyo in the midst of the Kanto earthquake of 1923

Horikoshi arrives in Tokyo in the midst of the Kanto earthquake of 1923

The Wind Rises has been, like all the latter Studio Ghibli films, a box office smash in Japan and, supported by Disney, a sizeable hit in the international market, led by North America and France, the best two markets outside Japan for manga and anime. Much has already been written about the film and I want to just pick up two or three aspects of the story. First I need to comment on the problems associated with the life story of someone identified as contributing to the Japanese war effort. This film, like several others made in the last few years, ‘humanises’ figures who for some audiences will forever be ‘the enemy’. I don’t mean to belittle the concerns of these audiences – there are good reasons why it is difficult to forget the pain of war. Horikoshi Jiro travels to Germany to learn from designers at Junkers (who have a business relationship with Mitsubishi). He is disturbed by some things he encounters in Germany and is befriended at one point by a ‘good German’ – a critic of the Nazis and something of a stereotypical character. (This character is named Hans Castorp after the hero of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain with the TB sanatorium as the link between Miyazaki’s narratives.) Miyazaki might be accused of trying to ‘find excuses’ for Horikoshi but I don’t think this is a problem as the focus is clearly on the obsessive designer who gives little thought to the military build-up in the 1930s because he is so focused on the technical problems of his design. It occurred to me that the strange sense of beauty associated with certain designs of military aircraft is not something unique to Miyazaki.

The British equivalent of Miyazaki’s aircraft designer might be R. J. Mitchell (1895-1937), designer of the Spitfire. Two British films immediately spring to mind. The first is Michael Powell’s A Canterbury Tale (1944) which opens with a sequence in which one of the original pilgrims to Canterbury releases his hawk to hunt for prey. As the bird flies high the scene changes to the present day with the watcher in uniform and the hawk transposed to a Spitfire high in the sky. The film about R. J. Mitchell is The First of the Few (UK 1942). Leslie Howard directs and plays Mitchell who died young soon after the prototype Spitfire first flew. Like The Wind Rises the story is fictionalised and it is interesting that there are some features common to both films. For instance, Mitchell is shown meeting the German designer Messerschmitt and there are suggestions that he overworks. There is also an Italian connection with Mitchell competing in the Schneider Trophy air races against Italian designers with his Supermarine S6. Miyazaki makes references to this competition in his 1992 film Porco Rosso. Because The First of the Few (titled after Churchill’s speech about the ‘Battle of Britain’) is a wartime film it is more propagandistic. David Niven plays a Squadron Leader relating Mitchell’s story to the younger pilots in his charge. I’m sure there must be other similar aircraft designer films – Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator (US 2004) includes aspects of Howard Hughes’ obsession with aircraft design.

My second major interest in The Wind Rises is its depiction of 1920s-30s Japan, including the devastation of the earthquake and the daily routines of Horikoshi and his friends and colleagues. In particular, I’m fascinated by his relationship with Nahoko. I’m very taken by the way Miyazaki is able to create such beautiful and evocative images of the world familiar to me from Japanese film melodramas of the period. And The Wind Rises is strongly influenced by the melodrama tradition in Japanese cinema. I noted the score by  Joe Hisaishi and I’m looking forward to watching the film again and focusing on the melodrama references. I found The Wind Rises to be just as beautiful in terms of drawn animation as the fantasy anime for which Miyazaki is better known. (There are references to those earlier films via the character of Jiro’s younger sister.) I hope that there are plenty of aspiring anime directors who want to develop Miyazaki’s ideas and carry on the tradition.

Nahoko and Jiro

Nahoko and Jiro

Sight and Sound (June 2014) has an extended set of articles on The Wind Rises which are informative and stimulating. Some of this material is available online, including a ‘gallery’ of stills from the film and a quiz – which Studio Ghibli character are you? (I’m Princess Mononoke apparently!)

From Up On Poppy Hill (Kokuriko-zaka Kara, Japan 2011)

The house on 'Poppy Hill'

The house on ‘Poppy Hill’

The latest Studio Ghibli anime has received rather grudging reviews on the whole, being described as ‘bland’ and ‘minor Ghibli’ or at best ‘pleasant and light’. I enjoyed it a great deal but I can understand why the less enthusiastic responses have come from some fans and critics. But I should also point out that this was the biggest-grossing Japanese film of 2011, so plenty of fans did like it.

Based on a shojo manga (i.e. a girl’s comic book story), the film has a screenplay by the studio head Miyazaki Hayao and Niwa Keiko. It is directed by Miyazaki Gori, Hayao’s son, whose 2006 anime Tales of Earthsea was generally panned. This time he seems to have had a smoother ride with critics prepared to delay judgement after a film that works – “not amazing” but “simple and cute” as fans have described it. I’ll try to explain why I think it is more than that.

The beautifully-drawn streets of Yokahama with Sun and Umi on the bicycle

The beautifully-drawn streets of Yokohama with Sun and Umi on the bicycle

Umi and her sister venture into the boy's world of the 'Latin Quartier' building.

Umi and her sister venture into the boy’s world of the ‘Latin Quartier’ building.

The most obvious category/genre of the narrative is ‘teen high-school romance’. But it is also a ‘period film’ set very precisely in the port city of Yokohama in 1963, a year before the Tokyo Olympics when Japan is poised to ‘leap forward’ in terms of its modernising economy and society. The students in the last two years of high school were born in 1945-6 and they have lived through the painful and difficult period of Occupation and ‘recovery’. The central character Umi has a busy life running her grandmother’s house and catering for lodgers and her two younger siblings, having lost her father, the captain of a supply ship which sank during the Korean War. Her mother is an academic working for a spell in America. Every day Umi shops and makes food before and after school. She also runs up signal flags outside the house in memory of her father. One day she meets Shun, a senior at school who is the editor of a school newspaper. The potential romance develops (with the approval of the older women in Umi’s household) but an unforeseen obstacle lies in the way – a plot development that might surprise some viewers (and which one character refers to in terms of ‘cheap melodrama’). However, the teen romance also involves that classic high school element – saving something valuable which the school authorities want to close down. The boys occupy a rambling old house that offers accommodation for various clubs and societies, including the newspaper ‘offices’. Given the title ‘the Latin Quartier’ the building represents an old, but culturally important aspect of the school community but there are plans to sweep it away to make way for a modern building.

The ‘problem’ for fans is that this film is a change from the fantasy films usually associated with Studio Ghibli, although there were a couple of such films in the 1990s, rarely seen in the West and, most famously, Grave of the Fireflies in 1988. Miyazaki Gori’s direction is also perhaps a little prosaic but I’m not sure that this matters since I found the story to be strong. There are several themes and set pieces which bring Miyazaki Senior’s work to mind. So we see the focus on preparing meals (and shopping) and the sequence in which Umi organises the girls in the school to clean and renovate the Latin Quartier in order to impress the school administrators is reminiscent of both the cleaning of the country house in My Neighbour Totoro and the many sequences featuring the great bath-house in Spirited Away. Like these two buildings, the Latin Quartier house (built probably in the Meiji period in the 19th century) is a symbol of a Japanese tradition that needs to be preserved. This aspect of the story is potentially problematic in the context of the school.

The Japanese convention/tradition of dressing students in identical uniforms with military connotations does mean that a lively student debate can sometimes feel like a fascist rally with uniformed ranks chanting in unison. But in fact, this is all about collective action and collaboration. There is no sense that the students want to persecute others or make themselves more important. And it isn’t sexist either. In Studio Ghibli films young women are active agents. Umi has to run a household without adult males. She knows how to get things done – although she initiates the cleaning, the boys also contribute.

Watching the film, I found myself thinking about classical Japanese cinema from the 1950s and links kept popping up – the train journey into Tokyo was reminiscent of Ozu, the house on the hill and the city below form the basis of Kurosawa’s (very different) story in High and Low, also set in Yokohama. Both Ozu and Kurosawa made ‘youth pictures’ celebrating the vitality of young people. I think I’ve read that Miyazaki Hayao was a big fan of these films. I also wonder about the naming of the ‘Latin Quartier’ – is this a nod towards the Japanese New Wave cinema in the 1960s or, more likely, a reference back to the importance of European culture in the mix of Japanese education practices in the early 20th century? Most of these references won’t mean much to contemporary audiences but they point towards the care with which the best Studio Ghibli films are constructed. Contemporary Japanese politics seem to be swinging right and there are worrying signs about a revival in interest in the militarism of the 1930s and the disavowal of the post-1945 ‘reconstruction’ of Japanese identity. I hope that the investigation of tradition and heritage in Studio Ghibli films acts as a counterweight to those swings.

Here’s a very short Japanese trailer for the film. I watched the subtitled version of the film. In the UK specialised cinemas tend to show the American dubbed version in matinees and the Japanese version in the evenings. The trailer features one of the songs and I loved the music in the film which features choral singing (from the students) alongside contemporary Japanese popular songs. I’m used to Joe Hisaishi but the music in Poppy is by Takebe Satoshi.

 

Finally, here’s one of the most useful reviews of the film by Andrew Osmond (who also reviews the film in Sight and Sound, August)

http://www.animenewsnetwork.com/review/from-up-on-poppy-hill

Gake no Ue no Ponyo (Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea, Japan 2008)

Sosuke and Ponyo approach a tunnel – reminiscent of Spirited Away?

Ponyo finally gets its UK release this week, eighteen months after Japan. Why do we have to wait so long? Miyazaki Hayao has to be one of a handful of major directors from the last 25 years, yet he isn’t properly appreciated in the UK – other than by the growing number of anime and manga fans.

A moan first in that the UK distributor Optimum seems to have forced arthouse cinemas into a position where they will have to show afternoon screenings in the American dub. Evening shows can use the Japanese soundtrack with subtitles. This seems to me a lost opportunity. What better chance is there for progressive parents to introduce their offspring to the joys of subtitled films from around the world than via Studio Ghibli? The problem lies with adults not children. Get them used to subs as young as possible when they are adventurous and willing to explore. A lot of fuss seems to have been made about how closely Disney have worked with Studio Ghibli on Ponyo but I’m sure that we’ve heard this before for Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle. I’m sticking with the Japanese dub.

Ponyo takes us back to Miyazaki’s masterpiece My Neighbour Totoro (1988). That film was in some ways a nostalgic look at 1950s rural Japan which by the 1980s had for many disappeared into urban sprawl – taking with it several of the redeeming features of Japanese family life. Although ostensibly a narrative for small children, full of wonder and delight, My Neighbour Totoro is also stuffed with cinematic references and adult themes about rural/urban differences and the support of close communities. Its simple drawn animation style manages to create images that resonate for viewers of 1950s Japanese films. It also establishes Miyazaki’s grand themes – about ecology and the narrative possibilities of (young) female-centred stories.

Ponyo celebrates the Japanese affinity to the sea and foregrounds Miyazaki’s concerns about the pollution in the waters around Japan. It also appears to be somewhat biographical in terms of Miyazaki’s own family experiences. The narrative is a version of the Little Mermaid, retaining several features of Anderson’s tale, but transforming it through Miyazaki’s authorial concerns and stupendous artist’s imagination.The mermaid equivalent here is a rather special goldfish, the daughter of an underwater wizard and a sea goddess, ‘Granmamare’. The fish escapes the confines of the wizard’s realm and ends up in the possession of a small boy, Sosuke, who is playing at the water’s edge. The fish licks a tiny wound on the boy’s hand and the taste of human blood has dramatic effects which will in turn lead to the emergence of a little girl after a series of spectacular events. ‘Ponyo’ is the name given by the boy to the fish. Ponyo’s attempt to become human destroys the balance of sea, sky and land and threatens the existence of the coastal community (and by extension the rest of the world). Like the Little Mermaid, Ponyo will be faced with a choice which also involves something that only Sosuke can provide. The choice must be made if the world is to be saved.

One otherwise clueless US critic is reported to have written that the film is only suitable for those under 5 or on hallucinogenic drugs. Well, those two groups might indeed enjoy it most, if only because they won’t be worrying that it isn’t appropriate for grown-ups to enjoy animation. But anyone with any aesthetic sense whatsoever is likely to just drink in the wonders of Miyazaki’s imagination and the skills of his animators. I wish I understood why traditional anime look so stunningly beautiful but CGI bores me rigid. Most, not all, western animation seems to depends on narrative – the images themselves, as images, are not that interesting. Miyazaki creates stunningly beautiful images for riveting stories. There is at least one frame in Ponyo that recalls the woodblocks of Hokusai and Hiroshige.

A view of the school and old people’s centre on the coast road.

Mt. Fuji from Kanaya on the Tokaido road by Hokusai

I’ve chosen the print by Hokusai above because of the angle, the effect of the hats worn by the peasants (cf the umbrellas in Ponyo) and the imaginative way in which Hokusai presents the sea. Miyazaki has similar ideas in Ponyo. The Hokusai image is one of ’10 additional prints’ added to the ’36 Views of Mt. Fuji’ in the early 1830s. Ponyo is set further south on the Inland Sea.

The triangle formed by the cliff-top house where Sosuke and his mother live, the ship at sea carrying the boy’s father and the school/old people’s centre is the centre of the world Miyazaki has created. It neatly represents the social concerns about an ageing population, an economy that still needs the resources of the seas and that perennial fascination for Miyazaki, the self-reliant children, seemingly confident because there is a community of supportive adults who are there when needed. Jonathan Ross, in one of his more lucid comments on Film Night, made the perceptive comment that in Ponyo, Miyazaki (writer and director) spends time on everyday incidents involving children and adults – such as sharing a cup of soup – in which this sense of a community of all ages, not just parents and their own children, comes across so forcefully.

In short a film for small children and adults of all ages – and for cinephiles who will really appreciate a maestro at the top of his game.

Princess Mononoke (Japan 1997)

Mononoke hime (Princess Mononoke) is perhaps Miyazaki Hayao’s masterpiece. It combines his two main themes – support for feminist ideas and concern over the ecological disaster that faces the planet. It is also the Miyazaki film with the most direct relationship with Japanese history and culture.

Setting
The setting is during the late Muromachi period in Japan, possibly in the early 16th century. Most of Miyazaki’s other films are set in indeterminate historical periods with various anachronisms (e.g. flying ships in Victorian Europe etc.) Princess Mononoke is by contrast remarkably consistent. The chosen period is the ‘pre-modern’, a time of great change when the Japanese population was growing rapidly and local wars over land and resources were quite common. But it pre-dates the first appearance of the Europeans and also the major wars of the end of the 16th century when the Tokugawa shogunate gained control and stabilised/stratified Japanese society. Miyazaki argues that in some ways this period was similar to our contemporary world – in which we still have a chance to change before the future is mapped out for us.

The setting also has a meaning in terms of Japanese cinema in which films have traditionally been defined as ‘contemporary’ (gendaigeki) or ‘period films’ (jedaigeki). Princess Mononoke is clearly a jedaigeki, but unlike many such films it doesn’t focus on the slightly later Tokugawa period and it doesn’t focus on samurai warriors and their lords (daimyo). Instead it gives precedence to artisans and to confrontations with the natural world.

“The reason for these settings is to depict characters more freely, without being bounded by the existing commonsense, preconceived notion, or prejudice in the existing period dramas.” (Miyazaki Hayao on www.nausicaa.net)

Characters
One feature of the Muromachi period that interested Miyazaki was the greater freedom for women in these more anarchic times. In this respect, the film is similar to the jedaigeki of the great master Mizoguchi Kenji, whose women are active in films like Ugetsu Monogatari (1953), but generally suffering. Miyazaki’s women are often both active and successful achievers. Although Princess Mononoke (‘Princess Ghost/Spirit’) is the named character of the title, the protagonist of the story is actually the young prince, Ashitaka, a rare example of a male protagonist in a Miyazaki film.

Ashitaka is a prince of the Emishi, one of the original peoples of the main Japanese island, Honshu, who were eventually conquered and assimilated by the Japanese around the 10th century AD. However, the history of the Emishi and their relationship to the Ainu, the other group of indigenous people of the most Northerly Japanese island, Hokkaido, has still not been resolved. Perhaps for Miyazaki what is important is that Japan was once a much less ‘mono-ethnic’ culture.

There are several groups of characters with various inter-relationships in Princess Mononoke. This is one of the great strengths of the film. There are no absolute heroes or villains. The humans are fighting the spirits and the gods of the forest. They are of course also fighting each other. The iron workers in the forest are led by women and are in many ways progressive, yet they threaten the natural world. The ‘princess’, San is quite unlike the the feisty but generally pleasant young women (shōjo) of most other Miyazaki films. Instead she is violent and angry, but also loyal and protective towards her adoptive mother, the dog/wolf god, Moro. In his early discussions about the film, Miyazaki suggested that San would be resemble a clay doll figure from the pre-agricultural period.  With her blood-stained face she is clearly not a ‘princess’ from Western stories.

Japanese culture
Western commentators have sometimes referred to The Lord of the Rings or the Tales of Narnia in trying to introduce Princess Mononoke. I’m not sure that this helps. Japanese culture is much more accepting of spirits as part of everyday life and although the action in Princess Mononoke may be fantastical, it is rooted in a much more realistic context (only the Shishi – the spirit of the forest – is a Miyazaki invention). The film has a universal appeal certainly, but this doesn’t mean that we can view it in the same way as Western mythological stories. Miyazaki has created a story that should concern us all, but it takes place firmly within the context of Japanese history and popular culture.

Roy Stafford, 27/10/06

(These notes were written for a screening of the film during the 2006 Bradford Animation Festival.)