Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The Dreams of Hayao Miyazaki

The Dreams of Hayao Miyazaki

By Claudina Yang

The Wind Rises marks the last of Hayao Miyazaki’s long line of visual masterpieces in a career that has spanned over six decades, and it is arguably his most important film. A biopic that follows the fictionalized life of Jiro Horikoshi, the WWII airplane designer of the deadly Zero fighter plane, it solidifies its place as a significant part in both animation and in Japanese history. Embodying some of Miyazaki’s most beloved themes, The Wind Rises is perhaps Miyazaki’s most personal film, and at the heart of it, like in all of his films, there lies the all-encompassing idea that beautiful dreams can become a reality, and that creation comes from a number of fragments both good and evil.

The film surrounds one of Miyazaki’s favorite tropes: wind and flight, and it opens with a series of dream sequences. Jiro Horikoshi is a young, near-sighted boy who dreams of becoming a pilot. Due to his poor sight, he becomes an engineer instead to build those beautiful machines he imagines for others. In his dreams, Horikoshi encounters the famous Italian aircraft designer, Caproni, who shows him the endless possibilities of “flying machines,” giving the young boy a sense of how far he can stretch his imagination—just like the immense skies he dreams about. The animation of this opening scene is gorgeous. The young Horikoshi climbs onto his roof, and the paper airplane he made is anthropomorphized into a bird, and as it comes to life, Jiro rides the fantasized plane as it sails over the countryside of Japan. 

There are many essential elements that all Miyazaki films have, and this film encompasses most of them. The first of these themes is anti-war. As Jiro grows up and becomes a student at Tokyo University studying engineering, he notices the upheaval happening around him. Jiro mourns that Japan is backwards. The airplanes are still made of wood instead of metal, and Jiro believes that they are 10-20 years behind in technology as compared with America and Germany. And so Jiro is sent to Germany to work for Mitsubishi and to learn about airplane technology to bring back to Japan. This all takes place during the 1920’s and 30’s leading up to the war. Political and economic tensions are high, and Miyazaki renders this tension in a myriad of visual subtleties that is his trademark style. In his depiction of the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, instead of simply showing the tremors of the city collapsing, he depicts red lines streaking through the darkness. Much like the themes of his films, the rendering of the animation itself is beauty from destruction. This leads us to the main tension in the film between art and war, and the question of what creativity means in the face of tragedy. It is a film about chasing dreams, but it also explores the question of what happens when your dreams manifests itself into weapons of war. What keeps me captivated in Miyazaki’s films, in addition to the wondrous imagery, are the very questions and ideas he makes his viewers consider. And that is why audiences often take away from his films a certain poignant nostalgia. The Wind Rises is a story of the absence of valuing things left behind, and how the traces of beautiful things are imprinted into our memories like the remnants of war.

Jiro struggles with moral qualms throughout the film when the flying machines he dreamed of turn from colorful, beautiful birds into dark and ominous weapons of destruction. All he wanted to do was to make beautiful things, but the result of that conception helped to unleash horrible violence and devastation in history. This example of the depth of human creation and possibility is one that shows both the corruption of beauty and of human nature.  However, amidst such tragedy, there is always the element of hope in a Miyazaki picture. A character in the film says to Jiro, “Life is wonderful isn’t it? The wind is rising. We must try to live on.” Wind is used as a metaphor in every scene of the film, both metaphorically and literally. Whether it’s the wind under the wings of the airplane keeping it airborne, or the winds of change, or the breath of our life, Miyazaki shows us that there is beauty and hope that exists.

Another central theme to Miyazaki’s films is the absence of moral absolutes: “You must see with eyes unclouded by hate. See the good in that which is evil, and the evil in that which is good. Pledge yourself to neither side, but vow instead to preserve the balance that exists between the two.” No character in any of Miyazaki’s films is truly good or bad. His characters are real, susceptible to change, flawed—human. In his film, Ponyo, the wizard Fujimoto is an overprotective father who is willing to unleash a tsunami on an entire town rather than figure out why his daughter has a desire to live on the surface land.  However, his actions are ultimately driven by love. In Spirited Away, the main heroine, Chihiro is swept away to a world where both good and evil spirits and creatures dwell and coexist together. Although the worlds Miyazaki creates are fantastically imagined, there are still disturbingly real elements. His antagonist characters are often at the core good people who are conflicted and have made bad decisions. In Princess Mononoke, the main “antagonist” destroys the forest for industrial materials to make weapons, and does so with no concern for the life of the animals or what it would mean for the future of the environment. However, she is a character who is benevolent and sympathetic to the well being of her people. The film ends not in a vanquishing of a certain common evil, but a resolution between maintaining a balance between human progress and preserving nature.

This leads us to another prevalent theme in Miyazaki’s films, which is environmentalism. Miyazaki is known for showing contempt for modern life and the societal changes that have made us forget to value the things we have lost: “Modern life is so thin and shallow and fake. I look forward to when developers go bankrupt, Japan gets poorer and wild grasses take over.” His films often emphasize the intangible nature and fragility of the environment, and provide commentary on human development and pollution. In a Miyazaki picture you will rarely see shiny cars or towering skyscrapers; his worlds are often built in nature and magical realism. In the movie, My Neighbor Totoro, two sisters seek refuge in the forest, and most of the film presents pastoral imagery and the beautiful rippling greens of the forest tress. In all of Miyazaki’s films, the forest is always a place of wonderment and enchantment. In Princess Mononoke, a myriad of magical creatures live in the forest: forest spirits, talking gorillas and wolves, deer’s who have magical properties etc. The spirit of the forest is not one that can be controlled or owned. These environmental themes also appear in Castle in the Sky and Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind.

Along that same vein, water is also another central theme in many of Miyazaki's films. Many of his character are often cursed and on the verge of disintegrating or melting into water themselves, like the wicked witch in Howl's Moving Castle, the river water demon in Spirited Away, and the God-Warrior in Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. This theme falls under the idea of nature as intangible and fluid, but also un-breaking and uncontrollable. In many of these films, water often represents the conflicts and contradictions between life and death, and between entrapment and freedom. The natural world is threatened by the human lifestyle and vice versa. In each film, the conflicts between the natural way of life and the man-made destruction of culture, tradition, land, and resources often act as one of the central quandaries for the protagonists. Battle scenes and ecological destruction are often paramount images to a Miyazaki film, meant to promote environmental awareness and to show the consequences of human development.

The themes of flight and pacifism also appear in many of Miyazaki’s film. These two themes often go hand in hand. What Miyazaki often wants to depict in his films is the joy of liberation—freedom. Although many of his films are centered on the natural world, Miyazaki is also fascinated by the workings of heavy machinery, specifically airplanes. And it seems evident that flight has also provided him with a metaphor for several of the storylines in much of his work, both literally and metaphorically. In Porco Rosso, the protagonist is a WW1 Fighter ace with the head of a pig. Like in The Wind Rises, Porco Rosso pays homage to early aviation. The entire film is focused on aviation and aerial combat, as well as the connection between flight and the afterlife and the feeling of liberation. His film, Castle In The Sky, takes place entirely on a floating city in the sky. Kiki in Kiki’s Delivery Service is a witch who rides her broomstick, and Howl in Howl’s Moving Castle lives in a walking machine and is also a wizard who can fly. Haku, a character from Spirited Away can also turn into a flying dragon. Every film in which this theme appears, flight scenes gain almost as much screen time as the protagonist characters themselves, and these scenes are always lovingly rendered. Many of Miyazaki’s films are so personalized in the sense that his own fascination and awe for flight is present in many of his pictures. The wonder of defying gravity never gets old for him or for us.

Another great thing about Miyazaki’s films is that even if many of them have very overt political messages, all of his protagonists are essentially lovers and not fighters. Jiro Horikoshi, the real-life person whom the protagonist in The Wind Rises is fictionalized after was a gentle man who originally only ever intended to create something beautiful. And the film itself focuses on Horikoshi’s life as a regular person with moral struggles rather than power and destruction. The film received some backlash in that some critics wondered why Miyazaki would heroize and make his protagonist an engineer who created one of the most deadly weapons of war. Miyazaki responded that with regards to the invention of the Zero itself, it "represented one of the few things we Japanese could be proud of – they were a truly formidable presence, and so were the pilots who flew them." In Princess Mononoke, Prince Ashitaka’s refusal to take sides and to promote hate between humans and nature and themselves is clear. In Howls’ Moving Castle, Howl’s contempt for the war and his refusal to join is also apparent. When he finally does participate, he uses his magic not to destroy, but to provide distraction and to protect the people. Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind also focuses on depicting the aftermath of war in a post-apocalyptic environment, where remnants of the old civilization remain. Although war remains a common trope in many of his films, Miyazaki’s main message is to show that what he is concerned with isn’t necessarily about what happens on the battlefield or even its outcome, but instead, he means to depict the plight of the human condition, and to show that from hatred, there exists so many things that are worth living for.

Perhaps one of the greatest features Miyazaki showcases in his films is the breaking through of traditional gender stereotypes, and to provide positive messages, making his films a delight for both children and adults alike. Having The Wind Rises feature a male as its protagonist is an outlier for a Miyazaki film. Most of his films feature the main protagonist as a woman. Most of Miyazaki’s leading women are badass, hard-nosed heroines who break through all gender barriers and norms. They are tough, smart, and don’t conform to societal expectations. Princess Mononoke is a wolf princess who represents the voice of the spirit of the forest and sees it as her duty to protect her kingdom. In Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, Nausicaä fearlessly dodges bullets and flies her own airplane. Chihiro braves the evil creatures of the spirit world and is the one who breaks the curse put on Haku. Miyazaki’s attitude towards women is also apparent in the way he portrays women at work. In Princess Mononoke, the town and machinery is entirely operated by women. Porco Rosso and Spirited Away also feature all female factories. Back off, Frozen, the feminist ship already sailed a long time ago with all of the Miyazaki movies from the very beginning.

I think what also makes Miyazaki’s films particularly moving is its theme on the value of childhood. Just like Pixar's Toy Story 3 pulled at my heartstrings when Andy played with his toys for the very last time, Miyazaki’s films make us face the complex emotions we have towards growing up.  In My Neighbor Totoro, only the children can see the spirits of the forest, and so Miyazaki emphasizes the connection children have with the natural world and with their beliefs and value in magic and imagination.  The ending of Spirited Away is also particularly melancholic. When Chihiro looks back towards the riverbed where she entered the spirit world and tells her parents that she will be all right, it is essentially a goodbye. A goodbye to childhood and to the things left behind.

One can never mistake any other animated movie for being a Miyazaki film. He has created and spearheaded a niche in animation that will always be his and his alone. His work has completely shaped so much of the way animation is rendered and perceived today. I think it is fairly easy to see why Miyazaki’s films have become so loved by children and adults alike. The stunning animation captures the attention of all ages, but the films also contain themes and messages that cannot often be understood or appreciated with one single viewing. The stunning details of a Miyazaki film, both visually and in terms of content, are overwhelming and awe-inspiring. Each film is a work of art. I remember watching Miyazaki films growing up and being completely enthralled by the beautiful imagery and world building, but then realizing that only as in an adult could I fully appreciate the breadth of Miyazaki’s stories and visions. For Miyazaki, animation has never been exclusively intended for one demographic. It has always been something that could be shared and appreciated by all. This idea of animation as a competitor for more traditional media and genres is also starting to be prevalent in the appearance and rising popularity of such adult TV shows like Archer and Bob’s Burgers. Furthermore, in much of movie making today, the level of popularity and how well animation is received has traditionally relied on the level of CG technology and 3-D animation. However, almost every frame in a Miyazaki movie is drafted by hand. What makes a Miyazaki film so impressive is not correlated with the technological advances of the way motion pictures are rendered today. Instead, it is his particular brand of artistry and passion towards capturing the human spirit that makes his films so breathtaking, meaningful, and significant.

Hayao Miyazaki films tell us that all of the best stories are still ones of love and hope, and every film he has made has proven to be an open love letter to animation. Miyazaki makes films not only to entertain, but also to share with us adventures and truths about the world, all the while giving us some of the best images seen in moving pictures. Miyazaki has truly solidified his spot as a true artist and innovator of animation. At last, Miyazaki has made films that tell us despite what happens in the world, “it is good to be alive.” At one part in The Wind Rises, a character looks up into the sky and says, “Airplanes are beautiful, cursed dreams…waiting for the sky to swallow them up.” Miyazaki’s films are hauntingly beautiful dreams, too. A fitting end for a humble master with a limitless, quicksilver imagination, the dreams of Hayao Miyazaki will be dearly missed.

1 comment:

  1. Claudina,

    An inspiring and passionate overview of Miyazaki's films, alert to their political force and their eerie beauty. You choose to focus mainly on the themes, but you suggest the visual abundance and extraordinary--and rare--techniques behind the movies. A fine introduction to the work of this great artist.