“Studio Ghibli Forever: An Initiation” is a series in which Jordan Brooks, having no experience with the animation house, seeks to discover the basis for the worldwide phenomenon that is Ghibli. The international theatrical retrospective of some of Ghibli’s most beloved features serves as the perfect introduction to the studio giant, and will hopefully afford fans and newcomers alike a chance to see these monumental films as originally intended.
Eschewing the fanciful, imaginative worlds upon which he built his career, Hayao Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises plays more like an aircraft passion project and less like any Studio Ghibli film I have recently encountered. The high-flying antics of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind and Laputa: Castle in the Sky meet their reality-enslaved, low stakes equivalent in this bureaucratically minded cartoon biodoc. The anime analogue for the year-end Academy Award seeking, “heartfelt” cash-grab, The Wind Rises isn’t the usual plea for young people (and with Ghibli, girls in particular) to follow their imaginative passions, and instead offers some convoluted reasoning as to why a career in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) could be just as “exciting” as, say, living in a Moving Castle.
Jiro Horikoshi changed Japanese aviation forever when he designed one of the greatest fighter planes of all time, the Mitsubishi A6M Zero. A massive admirer of both Horikoshi and aeronautical engineering in general, Miyazaki envisions one of his heroes as a daydreaming nonviolent striving for aerodynamic perfection. Involving another of his heroes via surreal segments into Horikoshi’s mind, the director places the gallantly-moustachioed Giovanni Battista Caproni (whose founding company designed the Caproni Ca. 309 Ghibli from which the Studio gained its name) into The Wind Rises as a means to discuss the purity of the implicit bond that exists amongst aircraft engineers past and present. Injecting the story with flourishes of fantasy, love and determined yet mathematically-sound imagination, Miyazaki’s fictionalized biography worships Horikoshi as a heroic guardian of the skies, entirely forgetting to ground him in the fallibilities that come with being human.
Breaking very little new ground in terms of settings in pastoral Japanese landscapes, or with flighty narratives based in the heady imaginations of the Studio Ghibli team, The Wind Rises hopes to win its audience over with a singularly Japanese/engineering reverence for its central character. Only allowing seekers of Ghibli’s unique sense of adventure brief glimpses of what they came for — other than through Jiro’s dreams of Caproni and his incredible (and ill-advised) super-sized flying machines — most of what breaks up the monotony of mundane airplane design is a sidelined love story between the protagonist and the tuberculosis-afflicted Naoko Satomi. Grounding Jiro in real human emotion, and by association the story itself, this single thread of feeling is overshadowed by what comes across as the director’s childlike infatuation with one of his heroes. Going so far as to have another character remark on Jiro’s robotic proclivities towards mathematics and problem solving, Miyazaki seems to know how oddly he has painted this WWII hero, while being unable to do anything about it.
Writing a film about the designer of an airplane that killed countless thousands becomes trickier and trickier when that designer’s career approaches the point of that faithful breakthrough, so Miyazaki and his team try their best to steer clear of the war and its casualties, and focus instead on the man and his dream. There’s testimony from a German expat who declares Hitler and his Nazi followers “hoodlums,” and hints at Japan’s violent march towards war, but these themes feel far too heavy for this light-hearted passion project, and only slightly deaden the blow that viewers know is coming. Striving more to make a film about a brilliant engineer fueled only by his passion for airplanes than one about the military’s bureaucratic appropriation of beneficial civilian creativity, Ghibli fails to ground their film in human reality — history is too painful to recall in vivid detail, it is far easier to splice it with dreams of incredible Italian aircraft and breeze-blown Japanese countryside.
The culmination of Miyazaki’s lifelong obsession with airplanes, twisted by what feels like strangely narrow-minded nationalistic rhetoric bordering on happy-faced propaganda, The Wind Rises uses the enchanting beauty of Ghibli’s trademark animations to bring to life the story of a man it deems as all but totally perfect. Almost as if something out of a Japanese elementary school history class, Miyazaki’s last Studio Ghibli film leaves me with a great sense of numbness rather than the invigorating wonder I have come to expect from the master of anime.
Jordan Brooks (@viewtoaqueue) is an increasingly-snobby cinephile based out of London, England. As a contributor to several online publications, including his own blog, he has succeeded in fulfilling his life long dream of imposing strong opinions on others.