We can all agree by now that any child who has soaked up with Studio Ghibli films will have a better chance in growing up into a responsible adult. If you’ve paid careful attention well enough into their canon, it’s not entirely difficult to recognise that Japan’s flagship animation studio advocates human responsibility, environmental concern and existential maturity over barbaric phenomenons such as war, greed, avarice, inhumanity and general idiocy. Sure, they create colourful cartoons theoretically pitched towards the demographic of wide-eyed kiddywinks, but films like Castle in the Sky, Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away and Grave of the Fireflies have more important things to say about our existence as human species than half of the the movies churned out from the industry today, both animation and live-action.
So it comes to no surprise that the arrival of Hayao Miyazaki’s swansong The Wind Rises has been greeted with both soaring praise and waves of palpable sadness, and quite rightly so. The Ghibli extraordinaire has left a colossal legacy behind, and his final film is a distinct reminder that there will never be another Miyazaki and there’ll be a gaping hole as soon as he steps out of the studio’s hallowed halls. For The Wind Rises remarkably feels like an apotheosis of a lifetime’s work – a compendium of theses that have probably been formulating under Miyazaki’s drawer for years. Here, his commitment to the fantastical is kept to a bare minimum, strictly keeping flights and fancy under the context of the protagonist’s dream sequences, and adheres to structuralist rigours of both biopic and period drama. This is closer in tone to Whisper of the Heart and Grave of the Fireflies than, say, the unfettered fantasia of Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke. Anyone expecting childlike escapism will be discontented – this is one of the most mature works in the Ghibli oeuvre, with Miyazaki undertaking themes of ethical responsibility, morality and mortality. It may be a piece of animation, but the studio’s political fervour hasn’t been this strong since the pulverising anti-war sentiments of Fireflies.
Beautifully rendered and bucolic as it is, Miyazaki isn’t without his detractors, who condemns the director’s whitewashing of his protagonist Jiro Horikoshi and his direct involvement of Japan’s insurgent militarism during World War II. Anyone who insists this is obviously delusional or just plainly not paying enough attention to what Miyazaki is trying to say. In this narrative, Jiro’s transformation from frustrated dreamer (compromising ambitions of flying planes due to myopia) to passionate, if slightly work-obsessed, aeronautical engineer is charted with great subtlety and eloquence. The man is portrayed as a peace-loving optimist, who dreams of designing aircraft for ‘aesthetic’ purposes. The beauty of flying, of invention, of technological perfection is always second to national purposes. It’s inevitable that the genius of Horikoshi has resulted to the creation of the Mitsubishi Zero, a model repurposed by the Japanese militia to wreak havoc, destroy cities and end hundreds of thousands of lives in the war later. But to blame Horikoshi directly for the outright destruction of the war is mad, even foolish. It’s equivalent to blaming Tim Berners-Lee, the man who invented the World Wide Web, for internet porn and Twitter trolling.
Pacifism has always been central to Miyazaki’s art, and The Wind Rises couldn’t be a finer example of his philosophy. The illustrative realism and naturalistic strokes are often breathtaking, taking into consideration the small foibles of life that affect geniuses like Horikoshi, including his quietly poignant romance with his sweet-tempered wife Naoko. It’s made all the more affecting since this idyll cannot last long, his wife’s tuberculosis ravaging her slowly from within – a heartbreaking historical metaphor to Japan’s war-mongering disease looming in the horizon, which will soon decimate and spoil this bucolic landscape. That aching feeling is ever present here, with Miyazaki conveying a specific melancholy of an artist, lamenting his national system’s perversion of a beautiful invention. This essence couldn’t be any much clearer as demonstrated by one scene where Jiro explains the one thing that prevents the new design’s efficient aerodynamics, pointing out to lighten the load, to “get rid of the guns”. There’s a moral obligation in every invention, whether to use it for mankind’s advancement or destruction. The choice is yours to make. Major clue: just don’t be a dick about it.