The much-loved animator’s Studio Ghibli has become part of the aesthetic fabric of Japan. But The Wind Rises will be Miyazaki’s swansong as director. What happens next?
Half-hidden in a public park in the Tokyo suburb of Mitaka, the Studio Ghibli museum is not quite Disneyland. It’s not at all like it, in fact. The size of a large detached house, it has just 10 rooms and no rides, although you can board a stuffed-cat bus if you’re small enough to fit inside the windows. The best exhibits are not much more than piles of overflowing ashtrays, jumbles of books, huddles of knick knacks and dozens and dozens of drawings. It’s less like a theme park, more like an exhibition celebrating the Untidy Victorian Of The Year.
According to the museum’s literature, the rooms belong to an anonymous individual. The abandoned offices are there simply to show visitors how animators work. Every visitor knows that’s not entirely true, though. They know that just like everything else at Studio Ghibli, this anonymous character is more than partially inspired by the passions and talents of Hayao Miyazaki, perhaps the world’s pre-eminent animator. But soon, just as in his museum (whose building he designed himself), the 73-year-old Miyazaki is about to vacate his desk. The great man has retired from making films and an awful lot of people are wondering what will happen next.
To recap, Studio Ghibli is the animation studio founded by Miyazaki and his partner Isao Takahata in Tokyo in 1985. Over the 29 years that followed they have released 19 full-length feature films, eight of them directed by Miyazaki. Of these, 2001’s Spirited Away is the biggest film of all-time in Japan and was the first to gross $200m worldwide before opening in North America (it also won the Oscar for best animated film). When Japanese consumers are polled as to their favourite brands, they often put Ghibli top, ahead of Toyota and Sony. But Ghibli’s importance in its home country goes beyond financial success; in a way it has helped to define a sense of national character, creating new fables for the country such as the environmental parable Princess Mononoke. Ghibli has come to stand for both an aesthetic and moral code, continuing the practice of hand-drawn animation as everything else turns digital and creating stories for children that offer a more complex morality – and have a more vivid imagination – than its peers.
This month sees the UK release of Miyazaki’s final film as a director, The Wind Rises. It tells the story of Jiro, a young boy in love with the concept of flight. An idealist and a dreamer, Jiro’s innocent passion takes him to the top of his profession, but it also leads him to invent the Mitsubishi Zero fighter plane, a catastrophic instrument of war. The Wind Rises, based in part on the real-life inventor of the Zero fighter, Jiro Horikoshi, has received rapturous critical notices. It has also proven politically contentious both in Japan and America; at home for being anti-war and “anti-Japanese” and abroad for apparently absolving Jiro of guilt for his actions. Fans of Miyazaki’s work may find it something of a departure, more adult in tone and certainly light on the fantastical creatures that usually populate his films (unlike in the earlier Porco Rosso, at no point do any of the pilots turn into pigs). But they will also find themes that are familiar: a belief in the virtues of pacificism and the glory of nature; a hero that will not waver from his path. And if you wondered whether Miyazaki sees anything of himself in his protagonist, you will find that Jiro, just like his creator, wears glasses that look like sawn-off Coke bottles.
"We exaggerated the glasses; we exaggerate a lot," says Kitaro Kosaka, the man who worked most closely with Miyazaki’s vision as supervising animator on The Wind Rises. "A lot of research went into it, too; we would compile portraits of Jiro Horikoshi and other photos of that era, but we didn’t want just to reproduce. We would try to match the research with our own designs, try to blend it in so it would be coherent and seamless. It was a very interesting process for me. I don’t wear them, but Miyazaki-san has very big glasses and has a sort of complex about it. I would say he’s projecting a part of himself on to that character."