What a privilege it is to get one last great film from Hayao Miyazaki. My sons have grown up with his movies, so it wonderful to be able to take Sam, now 18, to what is Miyazaki’s most adult film. The Wind Rises tells in two hours the ten-year quest of Jiro Horikoshi to create the perfect airplane – albeit one that will be used to drive Japan’s war machine.
The deceptively simple animation, hand-drawn as ever, is achingly beautiful. Tiny details such as the patter of raindrops or the fall of snow leave you on the verge of tears, even before the love story at the film’s centre causes them to spill over.
It’s obviously an intensely personal story for Miyazaki. His father owned a factory that designed airplanes for the Second World War. But he is also a life-long pacifist who saw at first hand the devastation of war: he has recalled how, aged four, he and his family fled their burning city, with his uncle kicking away poor refugees who tried to board their truck.
He was inspired in making it by a quote of Horikoshi’s: “All I wanted to do was to make something beautiful.” It’s not hard to see in Horikoshi’s quest for perfection in engineering an echo of Miyazaki’s own exacting standards in animation. And in the end, both dream of flight; though Miyazaki’s is one of imagination.
“Airplanes are beautiful dreams,” says Horikoshi’s hero, the Italian aeronautical pioneer Count Caproni; “engineers turn them into reality.” Substitute “films” for “airplanes” and “animators” for “engineers”, and it’s about as perfect a distillation of Miyazaki’s career as you could wish for.
Picturehouse cinemas are running a We Heart Miyazaki retrospective season this month and next. Here’s the roll-call, with my own rating:
My Neighbour Totoro (1988): magical coming-of-age drama in which a young girl befriends the woodland spirits. As in later Miyazaki movies, the protagonists express little surprise to find that there is a spirit world moving alongside the “real” world, such that it comes to seem quite natural to the viewer, too. *****
Porco Rosso (1992): Apart from being set amongst pilots, and starring a flying anthropomorphic pig, this is the least “Miyazaki” of his movies. It’s light, it’s funny, it’s silly, and the animation is nothing special. ***
Princess Mononoke (1997): The ecological issues first explored in Nausicaä Of The Valley of Wind (1994) are given full rein, adding depth to a gripping supernatural samurai drama. Miyazaki even bested US distributor Harvey “Scissorhands” Weinstein, who asked as usual for a re-edit, and received instead a katana sword with the message, “No cuts”. *****
Spirited Away (2001): This will stand as Miyazaki’s masterpiece. As in My Neighbour Totoro it’s a world where the magical and the real co-exist, where hungry demons stalk and dragons fly through the skies. But it’s also a very human drama about a ten-year-old girl learning to make her own way in life. *****
Howl’s Moving Castle (2004): I didn’t get this one. Maybe it’s because it is based on a novel by Diana Wynne Jones rather than being an original Miyazaki story, but it seems to me nothing coheres: it’s like a parody of Miyazaki tropes, of witches and monsters and magical happenings, but without a clear identity. ****