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Miyazaki: The Artist and his Final Film

Arts & Culture | April 22, 2014

            One of the world’s most talented and prolific animators is putting down his pencil for good. Hayao Miyazaki, the 73-year-old artist who has crafted over a dozen anime epics and brought the Japanese genre to an international audience, says that it’s time to retire. The Wind Rises, which was released in the US last month, is his final feature length film.

            In many ways, The Wind Rises is also Miyazaki’s tamest, and most realistic work.  The animator who took viewers soaring alongside a broomstick-wielding witch-in-training in Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989) and transported us to a world of spirits in Spirited Away (2002), now polishes off his portfolio with a period piece. Miyazaki brings viewers back to World War I-era Japan in The Wind Rises. The story follows Jiro, a passionate aeronautical engineer who builds fighter planes for Japan’s air force. Jiro’s character is based on a real engineer, Jiro Horikoshi, who built the Mitsubishi A5M, a renowned aircraft that Japan manufactured and deployed during the war. But the Jiro in Miyazaki’s film yearns for something beyond bloodshed. It is his dream to create planes that aren’t valued as tools of violence, but as works of art. Unsurprisingly, the film expresses a certain anxiety towards technological advancement and its potential for destruction. This anxiety is not only a common theme in Miyazaki’s films, but also in his own life.

            While Miyazaki’s films are in no way aesthetically simple, his method for creating them is staggeringly so—he uses his hands. The prolific filmmaker used computer-generated animation sparingly in most of his past films, but before he started animating his penultimate feature, Ponyo (2009), he shut down the entire computer graphics department at Studio Ghibli, his personal film studio. Miyazaki always preferred the rough, natural quality of hand drawn animation, and believes that relying on computers to produce artwork impedes the imagination. “[My] staff had computers coming out of their heads,” he said in a 2009 interview with IGN. “Their hand-drawn drawings became more awkward because they’d try to match the drawings on the computers.” Even without computers, Ponyo turned out to be one of Miyazaki’s most visually striking films. The plot pays homage to The Little Mermaid and follows a half girl, half fish, in her quest to live permanently among humans. Viewers are swept up in the current of a technicolor underwater world in constant motion.

Ponyo is also one of Miyazaki’s many films that supports another common thread in his body of work—a prominent female protagonist. In most of his films, young women are heroic figures: in Kiki’s Delivery Service, a 13-year-old witch saves her city from an aviation accident, and in Spirited Away a ten year old girl is able to outwit the bureaucracy in a world of greedy spirits when all other humans who try to do so fail. Interestingly enough though, Miyazaki’s last film does not feature a female figure. The Wind Rises seems to be more autobiographical than his other works, and many parallels can be drawn between the film’s leading character, Jiro, and its animator.

   Although Miyazaki and Jiro were alive during different generations, they both faced wartime conditions and economic and social instability early in their lives. In the film, Jiro experiences losses in World War I and Japanese disasters like The Great Kanto Earthquake, which killed and displaced thousands. The devastation Miyazaki saw in Japan is comparable, as he was just a boy during Japan’s World War II efforts and disasters, including the bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. For both, an exposure to destruction and instability early on led to an opposition to violence. Miyazaki is notorious for his politicized position against violence. Last summer he wrote an op-ed criticizing the Japanese government’s plans to amend the nation’s Pacifist Constitution, which prevents the creation of a military. He also didn’t show up to the Oscars in 2003 to accept Spirited Away’s award for best animated feature because he didn’t support US military intervention in Iraq. In The Wind Rises, Jiro doesn’t openly protest violence, but at the end of the film, he deeply regrets the contributions his planes make to the death toll in WWI. The film ends on a somber note, with Jiro looking back on what he’s created for the war effort with detachment and regret. His artistic and wholesome desire to create “beautiful” airplanes to benefit society was overshadowed by utilitarian, wartime demands. But at his core, Jiro is warm-hearted, pacifistic, and, like Miyazaki, motivated by the singular desire to perfect his craft.

     The recurring line in the film, “Le vent se lève, il faut tenter de vivre” (“The wind is rising, we must try to live”), expresses an anxious, inevitable reality in the film: after a certain amount of time, one loses the ability to create. Jiro is told by his mentor, the great aeronautical engineer Giovanni Caproni, that a true artist only has ten years to master his craft. Who knows if this is how Miyazaki felt about his own life as an artist, but his age certainly hasn’t stopped him until now. In fact, Miyazaki didn’t begin releasing his masterful feature films, becoming a household name in Japan, until he was in his forties. It has been reported that 95 percent of people in Japan have seen at least one of his films, and with the success that The Wind Rises experienced in Japanese box offices as the number one grossing film in 2013, the scope of his artistic reach in Japan is evident. But it seems that Miyazaki believes that every artist’s day must come to an end. At the conclusion of The Wind Rises, Jiro halts his career as an aeronautical engineer even though his creations are widely praised by the public and the government. Perhaps like Jiro does at the end of the film, Miyazaki will also ponder his life’s work for the next few years and try to decide whether or not it turned out like he hoped it would forty years ago.