Corliss: A Tribute to Japan’s Movie Master

6 minute read

Moviemaking, which requires a field marshal’s gift for strategy and a foot soldier’s fortitude, is supposed to be a young person’s game. And occasionally, directors in their prime get weary of scouting locations and coaxing another take from a temperamental star. Steven Soderbergh, who directed 25 features in as many years, has called it quits at 50, saying, “For the foreseeable future, the movie door is closed.” Kevin Smith (10 features since his 1994 debut with Clerks) tweeted in December, “My last cinematic effort as a writer/director will be Clerks III.” He’s all of 43. But most helmers keep going as long as they can find someone to subsidize their visions. They see directing not as a job but as a fulfilling, lifelong quest.

So the news that Hayao Miyazaki, the world’s most revered director of animated features, was calling it quits at 72 came as a jolt and a disappointment. “Miyazaki has decided that The Wind Rises will be his last film and he will now retire,” Koji Hoshino, who runs the Japanese director’s Studio Ghibli, announced Sept. 1 at the Venice Film Festival, where the new movie received its premiere outside of Japan. The Wind Rises screens at the New York Film Festival Sept. 28; Disney will release the film in North America.

Miyazaki fans might show a little sympathy toward the master. His films, meticulously hand-drawn (little or no CGI), can take four years to complete. From his 1979 debut, The Castle of Cagliostro, he has made just 11 features. He has created other creepy castles (Castle in the Sky, Howl’s Moving Castle), launched teenage witches (Kiki’s Delivery Service) and a flying pig (Porco Rosso), unleashed forest gods (Princess Mononoke) and fish-girls (Ponyo) and, in Spirited Away, which in 2003 won the Best Animated Feature Oscar, sent a plucky girl into a haunted bathhouse. His past four films have grossed $743 million in Japan and $870 million worldwide. But Miyazaki is in it only for the art, and making his kind of art is exhausting. He may not want to climb another mountain.

And he couldn’t have picked a more piquant swan song. In his first film intended primarily for grownups, he has courted political controversy. Miyazaki’s protagonist, whom he portrays as a visionary genius, is Jiro Horikoshi, designer of the Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighter planes that on Dec. 7 in the year of the director’s birth dropped the bombs on Pearl Harbor. The Wind Rises, which earned $80 million in its first six weeks in its home country, has been ripped by the pacifist left for blessing the war aggression of imperial Japan and by the nationalist right for being “anti-Japanese.” Even the Japan Society for Tobacco Control has a grievance: people in the movie smoke too much.

The wind rises–its title taken from a line in Paul Valéry’s poem “The Graveyard by the Sea” (“The wind is rising! We must try to live!”)–weaves a tender, doomed love story into two volcanic decades of Japan’s history, from 1918 to the end of the ’30s. Here are indelible images of the 1923 Kanto earthquake and the firestorms that devoured whole cities and killed 140,000 people. Here is the Depression that crippled Japan while its government poured more money into its military.

The movie is really a double biopic: of Horikoshi, whose life it follows from his youth to his work at Mitsubishi, with a brief postwar coda; and of the author Tatsuo Hori, whose 1937 novel The Wind Has Risen tells of a tubercular girl at a sanatorium. The life and works of Hori, who died at 48 of TB in 1953, inform the character of Naoko Satomi, the young woman who becomes Jiro’s wife.

The Wind Rises is inspired by a quote of Horikoshi’s: “All I wanted to do was to make something beautiful.” Miyazaki often achieves just that. In the amazing first scene, young Jiro climbs to the roof of his home and finds a plane parked there. Lured by its colorful avian design–white wings, blue feathers, a red tail and a yellow nose–Jiro scoots aboard this metallic bird for a lovely jaunt until he is shadowed by a huge dirigible holding dozens of military aircraft; the boy falls from the sky and awakes in his bed. The film is a series of flights and falls, airy dreams that crash-dive into disaster.

Stark history and buoyant fantasy often merge in The Wind Rises. Jiro’s spiritual guide is the Italian airplane designer Giovanni Caproni, who says, “The whole world’s a dream.” Caproni eagerly awaits the age of commercial aviation: “Instead of bombs, we’ll carry passengers.” But his first attempt, essentially an airborne cruise ship, crashes. That was Caproni’s tragedy. Jiro’s planes flew supremely efficient bombing raids. That was his.

Miyazaki has never cared much for the “realistic” animating of human figures; they are abstracted into giant-eyed doll faces and stiff legs, as if trudging on stilts. (Even the adult Jiro looks like any anime child.) The director expresses his true artistry in his landscapes: rural vistas rendered in the most delicate pastels, like the watercolors Naoko paints as Jiro courts her. In a hard land heading to war, Miyazaki makes sure the views are ravishing. His perfect metaphor for a Japan straddling the old world and the new: the planes Jiro designs are pulled onto the practice field by teams of oxen.

This exquisite paintbrushing, or whitewashing, extends to Jiro’s visits to Germany to gauge its aircraft ingenuity against his, and to his development of the Zero prototype. But as Japan flexes its military muscle, Miyazaki tiptoes away to concentrate on the Jiro-Naoko love story. Their devotion is heart-strong and constant. As Naoko says, “I’ve loved you since the wind brought you to me.” But this last half hour might have considered the impact of the hero Jiro’s Zero. It was a beautiful machine that encouraged tyrannical Japan to dream of world conquest and brought death more swiftly to rival airmen and civilians alike.

The Wind Rises may be a challenging end to a major artist’s career. But Miyazaki has retired before, after the 1997 Princess Mononoke, and he returned to make four more wonders, including this one, that immeasurably enrich his legacy. The new film betrays no hint of flagging energy, let alone senility; it is vigorous, subtle, thematically daring, visually gorgeous. So may his stated retirement be a brief, dark whim. May he go on enchanting and confounding us for years to come.

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