A version of this story first appeared in OscarWrap: Director/Best Picture/Screenplay/Animation.
Hayao Miyazaki is one of the most respected animators in history, with an Oscar for “Spirited Away” and a long list of admirers that includes Pixar’s John Lasseter. So when the Japanese anime legend announced that “The Wind Rises” would be his final film, his retirement figured to turn the release into an event.
But the film has become something else, too: a flash point for the kind of controversy rarely whipped up by an animated feature.
The film has been called both unpatriotic and pro-militaristic. Numerous smoking scenes have raised eyebrows among those who assume that an animated feature must be aimed at kids. And some U.S. viewers — quite possibly including some Academy voters who are the right age — are offended by the fact that the focus is on a young boy who dreams of becoming a pilot but grows up to become the aircraft engineer who designed the Zero, one of Japan’s chief weapons in the war. (The character, Jiro Horikoshi, is a real person, though significant portions of his life are fictionalized.)
“Miyazaki-san is someone who is very strongly anti-war and loves beautiful airplanes,” Studio Ghibli international chief Jeff Wexler told TheWrap. “There’s a contradiction right there, but this is his film. He wrote it from scratch and drew a lot of it, and it’s him expressing how he feels about these issues.”
Producer Frank Marshall is supervising the film’s English-language dub, which will feature the voices of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, John Krasinski, Emily Blunt, Martin Short, Stanley Tucci, Mandy Patinkin, Werner Herzog, William H. Macy, Mae Whitman and Elijah Wood, among others.
“It’s a story about a young man who loves flight and loves airplanes,” Marshall told TheWrap. “It’s basically a love story. It has a whole lot of big themes in it, but I don’t think there’s a hidden meaning to them.”
Miyazaki mostly stayed off the film-festival circuit as his film screened, but he hasn’t shied away from politics. In July, he published an essay in Neppu, a magazine published by his company, Studo Ghibli. He called a proposal to amend the constitution to allow the country to rebuild its military “outrageous,” insisting that its supporters were trying to deny the fact that “Japan was a bad country” in World War II.
“I’m exasperated by the sheer lack of historical insight and principle of those at the top of government and political parties,” Miyazaki wrote. “People who don’t think enough shouldn’t meddle with the constitution.”
The most striking thing about “The Wind Rises,” though, are the images rather than the politics. It’s easy to fall under the spell of the sheer beauty of the film, with its soaring vistas and an array of sound effects — trains, airplane engines and the like — done by mouths, not machines. “Originally Miyazaki wanted to have all the sound effects voiced, and he wanted to do them himself,” said Wexler. “They said ‘No, we need you to draw the film.’
“And what was impressive was sitting with the animators and seeing their reaction when it was finally up on the big screen. There were many scenes, even the more subtle and quiet ones, that were genuinely breathtaking. You could hear people who’d worked on the film gasping.”
But the film is also rife with melancholy undertones, and with the awareness of where Jiro’s quest will lead. “Airplanes are beautiful dreams” is a mantra, but the key lies in the full passage, delivered by a legendary Italian aircraft designer who speaks to Jiro in his dreams: “Airplanes are not tools for war. They are not for making money. Airplanes are beautiful dreams.”
But, of course, in the Japan of the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s, airplanes were tools for war. And that is the knowledge that hangs over and haunts “The Wind Rises”–that our hero’s pure dreams and wonderful skills will lead to death and destruction.
Miyazaki doesn’t dwell on that theme, but he’s too smart and sensitive a filmmaker not to incorporate it. Even if the visual spectacle is what sweeps the audience away, its thematic richness is what cuts deepest and lingers longest.