I discovered the work of Hayao Miyazaki back in the early 1990s. An American friend of mine, a martial arts movie buff and film writer, sent me a VHS that had on it a grainy, third or fourth generation copy of Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. It was pronounced “Nausea”, he joked, and thinking it might be a “so bad it’s good” spoof or something so obscure and unwatchable that the only reason to watch was to gain bragging rights over other movie lovers, I let it languish on a shelf for a year or more before I finally got round to it.
To say it changed my life is perhaps an overstatement, but only a small one. I’d fantasised about animated movies that might carry the same emotional weight as other films and tussle with more complex ideas, but had never encountered one. Until then. Thrilled to discover that the director responsible had other films to his name, I set about tracking them down – no easy feat in the pre-internet age.
I got hold of Porco Rosso on laser disc from a friend who travelled to Japan, then had to buy a Japanese laser disc player to play it on. This was shaping up to be an expensive quest. As soon as it was released, I had someone else dub me off an unsubtitled copy of My Neighbour Totoro, and tried my best to watch it without the benefit of speaking any Japanese. Still loved it, by the way.
Since then Miyazaki-san has completed and released many others, including the wonderful Kiki’s Delivery Service, Howl’s Moving Castle, Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away – in my opinion not just one of the greatest animated films ever made, but one of the greatest films of all time, full stop. This should help you understand my excitement when it was announced that his company, Studio Ghibli, was about to release a new Miyazaki feature, The Wind Rises, followed by the crushing sadness when it was also announced it would be Miyazaki’s last film.
At 73, he must of course be forgiven for wanting to take more time for himself, even if I find myself selfishly praying that he’ll change his mind. Because even if the studio continues and even if he perhaps produces more films directed by his son Goro or his associate Isao Takahata, they won’t – and simply can’t – be the same.
It’s hard to sum up in a nutshell what makes his films so uniquely wonderful. They are all wildly different stories, but they all benefit from beautiful hand-drawn characters animated against lush, masterfully painted backgrounds. The pacing is at times so gentle and relaxed that you might be forgiven for thinking the director has forgotten he has a story to tell. But the esoteric and memorable characters help ground the film in reality, even when the subject matter itself deals with off-the-scale weirdness. In short, what makes the films so powerful is the input of Miyazaki himself. It’s reported he personally supervised some 80,000 images in Mononoke, every image of the fire sprite Calcifer in Howl’s Moving Castle was drawn by him, and his perfectionist touch is apparent in every aspect of the creative process.
He hasn’t released an autobiography as such, but the books Starting Point and Turning Point collect many of his essays and interviews from over the years. Aside from his insistence that it’s the backgrounds that make the films so successful and memorable, he also talks about the time and attention spent on ensuring each character moves in a style that is unique to them. Even in his early, pre-Studio Ghibli days that’s apparent.
I recently tracked down a children's TV series that Miyazaki worked on before his feature film career, Future Boy Conan. Even though it was clearly produced on a low, low budget and the animators were working to a punishing schedule, the main character just leaps out at you. Every time he runs and jumps and scrambles across the screen, you can tell it’s the work of Miyazaki. It’s also worth checking out his work on one of the popular series of animated films starring the master criminal Lupin – Miyazaki worked on his adventure The Castle of Cagliostro. It’s even rumoured that Steven Spielberg singled out the car chase sequence in that movie as being possibly the greatest ever filmed.
I met and interviewed Miyazaki about a decade ago for Japanorama, a series in which I shared my love for most things Japanese with a small but essential BBC3 audience. He was polite, gentle and perhaps overly generous with his time as I burbled and stammered like a fan boy. Aside from the areas covered above, the one thing I learned about Miyazaki, as a man, was his love of flight – both the concept in fantasy found so often in his films, as well as the reality.
Inside his workshop/office, accessed over a small bridge, was a large but wonderfully detailed model of a biplane hanging from the ceiling. I assumed this was a homage to Porco Rosso, the delightful fable of a First World War fighter pilot so disillusioned with the brutality of war that he opts out of humanity and decides to spend the rest of his life as a pig – you really have to watch it to understand how brilliantly this works. But the truth was that Miyazaki, whose father’s company designed and manufactured rudders for planes, just adored the boldness and courage and genius and imagination that has allowed us to take that ridiculous leap into the air. Which brings us to The Wind Rises (in cinemas now), his latest and perhaps – sob! – last film.
The Wind Rises feels as if it’s an even more personal story. It is based on the life of Jiro Horikoshi, designer of the Mitsubishi Zero plane, many of which were flown by kamikaze pilots. It has inevitably stirred up some controversy. But it’s tempting also to see the film as being largely autobiographical – the gentle bespectacled hero being a perfect stand-in for the young Miyazaki himself. For, at their heart, his films are all about flying – they are incredible flights of fantasy, created by one of the greatest imaginations the world has ever known.
If this is to be his swan song then we must just be grateful he managed to complete so many masterpieces. Of course, if he finds the energy and inspiration to create one or two more then none of us will complain... but, either way, let’s just give thanks. The Wind Rises is as beautiful and memorable and transporting an experience as you could possibly hope for, but please make the effort to see it on the big screen if you can. The detail, the lush backgrounds, the masterful use of space in the composition of each frame, the sound and Joe Hisashi’s beautiful score, all add to the impact of this truly wonderful film from the greatest animator the world has ever – and probably will ever – know.
The Wind Rises is in UK cinemas from 9 May