In the early 2000s, Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away offered many Western moviegoers their first glimpse at Hayao Miyazaki's movie magic. Yet for many decades earlier, his movies have enchanted countless Japanese viewers, both young and old. With charming characters and colorful environs, Miyazaki is often considered the Walt Disney of Japan cinema, and rightly so as all Japanese children are familiar with such fanciful friends as Totoro, Kiki, Howl, and Ponyo. A Japanese relative once told me that her kids had watched their VHS recording of My Neighbor Totoro so often that the tape wore out. Yesterday at the movie theater, I was heartwarmed to hear American children chuckle with familiarity when they saw Totoro appear on the Studio Ghibli logo before the start of The Wind Rises, Miyazaki's latest and presumed last feature film.
What is special about Miyazaki movies is that one can find playful stories aimed primarily toward young children, such as My Neighbor Totoro and Ponyo, as well as darker tales, such as Princess Mononoke and Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, which are directed toward older children (of course all of these are suitable for adults!). If one looks beyond to other animations from Studio Ghibli--the production company co-founded by Miyazaki and Isao Takahata--one can find Grave of the Fireflies by Takahata, a tale of two children trying to survive in Japan during World War II. This adult-oriented story is so heart-wrenching that I would have difficulty watching it again. The broad use of animation to describe a manifold of thoughts and emotions likely derives from the cultural foundation of manga, the comic books of Japan, which span the market from young children's stories to adult pornography.
Comparisons between Miyazaki and Disney are valid, yet what is apparent while watching a Miyazaki movie is how much our sense of storytelling is culturally based. For one, a Miyazaki movie very often involves a young girl as the main character who must confront a coming-of-age situation. These heroines are refreshing, especially compared to the "princesses" in Disney movies. Of course Miyazaki's characters are themselves grounded in their own cultural myths of gender and youth. More interesting to me, from a cultural standpoint, is the lack of a true villain. In Western philosophy, we are ingrained with a sense of polarity—there's good and evil, right and wrong. We expect to have a defined bad guy that the hero must overcome and defeat. Eastern philosophies tend to acknowledge that goodness or badness often depends upon the context or situation. Psychologist Kaiping Peng has considered how such cultural influences play on our thoughts and feelings. In a Miyazaki movie, a character who starts out seeming to be the evil archenemy suddenly works to assist the hero.
The Wind Rises
The Wind Risesis similar to other Miyazaki movies, as the story is wonderfully engaging and the visuals stunning. The characters are depicted with typical "anime" features (big eyes, flat shading), though the background is drawn with a painterly, watercolor style. The film is based loosely on actual events and features Jiro Horikoshi, the designer of the "Zero," Japan's World War II fighter plane used infamously during the attack on Pearl Harbor and on many kamikaze operations. Unlike any other Miyazaki movie, the film is directed primarily toward an adult audience. The issues are politically complex, and Miyazaki does not cater to political correctness—for example, the characters smoke like chimneys. I actually felt sorry for the many young children in the theater who were expecting to see something like Ponyo or The Secret World of Arrietty. Yet in Japan, The Wind Rises was the highest-grossing film in 2013.
The movie has an anti-war sentiment, though it has been criticized in the West for depicting and some say glamorizing Japan's jingoist policy during the war. It is fascinating to consider cultural perspectives while viewing this film. My best analogy would be if Disney produced a serious animation about scientists involved in the Manhattan Project who were motivated by the mathematical elegance and precise engineering in building the atomic bomb—and then showing the film in Japan! In any event, I thoroughly enjoyed the movie but was a bit stunned, much like the kids in the theater, as I too was expecting a more light-hearted film. Perhaps all of us should watch movies from other countries to gain a better perspective of how we might be viewed by others.