In the world of animation, Disney is respected, Pixar is respected and loved, and Studio Ghibli is respected, loved, and revered. That’s because Studio Ghibli’s cofounder and chief creative force is the writer-director Hayao Miyazaki. Such features as “Princess Mononoke” (1997), the Oscar-winning “Spirited Away” (2001), and “Howl’s Moving Castle” (2004) have earned Miyazaki a uniquely cherished place among filmmakers.
How cherished? His admirers range from the late Japanese director Akira Kurosawa to John Lasseter, head of animation at both Pixar and Disney, to the creative team at “The Simpsons.” On Jan. 12, the series aired an episode with an 85-second sequence that included more than a half-dozen references to Miyazaki films. His latest feature, “The Wind Rises,” opens here on Friday.
Latest and last: In September, Miyazaki announced his retirement, citing age (he turned 73 last month) and failing eyesight. Some colleagues have said they think Miyazaki will change his mind; and he’s said several times in the past that he had retired and then resumed work. For now, though, he hasn’t gone back on his announcement, and the swan-song factor alone has guaranteed “Wind” a lot of attention. In Japan it’s grossed $120 million and it’s one of the five Oscar nominees for best animated feature.
There’s been another factor in the attention: controversy. Miyazaki’s films are idiosyncratic, to say the least. In “Spirited Away,” a 10-year-old girl struggles with ghosts in an effort to rejoin her parents who have been turned into pigs. “Ponyo” (2008) centers on a goldfish who wants to become human. The only focus group Miyazaki’s ever paid attention to is his own whim — and enchanting whims they have been.
Are they in “Wind,” though? The film is doubly unusual for an animated feature. It’s a biopic, about Japanese aeronautical engineer Jiro Horikoshi (Joseph Gordon-Levitt provides his voice in the English-language version). Horikoshi’s best-known airplane design is the chief Japanese fighter plane of World War II, the Zero. Such a subject, coming at a time when a conservative Japanese government has expressed a desire to strengthen the nation’s military, has inspired consternation, at best, and outright protests, at worst. And Miyazaki’s been attacked by conservatives for the skepticism the film expresses about Japanese militarism and for similar comments he’s made to the press.
If that weren’t enough, “Wind” has also drawn criticism for how frequently its characters smoke. In fairness to Miyazaki, the film is set in the ’20s and ’30s, and it’s hardly possible to present anything like a realistic view of that period in which characters didn’t light up, and light up a lot.
Over the years, Miyazaki has spoken of his high regard for Horikoshi — “the most gifted man of his time in Japan,” the director has said. And if a love of nature is the deepest feeling throughout Miyazaki’s films, a love of flight may be runner-up. The hero of “Porco Rosso” (1992) is a World War I fighter pilot. The young witch in “Kiki’s Delivery Service” (1989) sails through the sky on her broom. Or there are the air pirates and dirigible (and what a dirigible it is) in “Castle in the Sky” (1986).
One of young Jiro’s heroes is the real-life airplane designer Giovanni Caproni. “Airplanes are beautiful dreams,” says Caproni (voiced by Stanley Tucci). “Engineers turn dreams into reality,” he tells Jiro. That’s what filmmakers do, too. Few have done so as unpredictably as Hayao Miyazaki — and perhaps never more so than in his farewell film.
Miyazaki makes it explicit that his own dream is of planes rather than warplanes. “We’re not arms merchants,” he has Jiro tell a colleague. “We just want to build aircraft.” Trying to solve the problem of limiting the weight of the Zero prototype, Jiro points out that “one solution would be we could leave out the guns.” That’s very witty, his colleagues think — except that he’s not kidding. Jiro knows that no one would take him seriously, but he does mean it. At the movie’s end, with World War II over, he’s praised once again for the design of his planes. “None of them came back,” he replies. “The Wind Rises” may be the first pacifist movie with a weapons designer as its protagonist. Viewers may question the means Miyazaki has chosen to make his point. None can question his sincerity.