A couple of hours ago, I watched ‘The Wind Rises’, famed animation director Miyazaki’s last film as he goes into retirement. Here are some of my thoughts. This is not a film review.
The film is raw in its unflinching, unwavering focus on the pursuit of creative vision. The story of Jiro, was in many ways, the story of Miyazaki’s career.
Coincidentally, only a few days prior, I watched ‘My Neighbour Totoro’ which Studio Ghibli released in 1988, which could be appropriately termed as the studios most accessible work. The binge of Ghibli’s films continued with Whisper of the Heart and Kiki’s Delivery Service. These are films I have seen and will continue watching till the day I die.
The Wind Rises is the story of a boy who aspired to be an aircraft engineer. The story is deceptively simple but the film is ingeniously complex and rich. Anyone who walks into the film expecting a standard Ghibli affair will quickly find themselves lost, and ultimately bored.
The film offers nothing spectacular visually. No outlandish CGI to impress the viewer, any mysterious characters or even any dream-like, surreal landscapes seen in other films. The dream is established very early in the film, that Jiro aspires to be an aircraft engineer, and relentlessly stays with that pursuit throughout the rest of the film. Every thing else were cast aside as if they were insignificant footnotes that shouldn’t be dwelled upon.
Some have commented on the lack of exposition given to the romance between Jiro and his wife, the war against the rest of the world that Japan and Germany are involved in at the time. It is a film set during the years leading up to the war and yet there isn’t a single scene of actual battle. All the destruction that happens in the film is told from Jiro’s perspective In any traditional narrative structure that might have been important but not here.
The film is about the journey of Jiro and the way the film progresses very accurately portrays the mental state of the central character, which is the true hallmark of a great director. There are no crossfades and title sequences to indicate the passing of time nor were are any montages to artificially push the story forward. Any such attempts would have betrayed the film and the director’s vision.
The Artistic Process
Jiro’s problematic eyesight is established as an obstacle very early in the film, but also foreshadows his narrowed field of vision for the rest of it. The way he walks alone around town, focusing intently on the shapes and sounds around him, ignoring everything else. When he has lunch with his friends, they complaint about having the same mackerel for lunch day in day out. Jiro, on the other hand, enjoys eating something he wholeheartedly admires. He picks up the bone of the mackerel and notes the beautiful curved shape.
The artistic process is also about having focus. Not just focus in implementing an idea, but also focus on the small things in life that enriches our experience of it. The smell of leaves in the morning. The subtle shade of blue as the sea stretches over the horizon. The gentle gust of wind as a person walk past. The wrinkles of an old woman’s hands and the thousands of stories for each one of them.
Life, and the world we are contained within, is the most glorious experience there is. With all the wonders of nature, feats of human achievement, death, destruction, disease, joy,pain, and everything else that life has to offer, life is beautiful.
In a conversation with another character who shares the same dream, they talk about how every dream will be repurposed into something grotesque by human beings, driven by their greed and ego. No matter how beautiful either Marconi or Jiro would design their aircrafts, it will still be purposed for destruction and war. The idea is further exemplified with scenes showing a German passenger plane repurposed into a bomber. The outcome of the creative vision does not influence the process. Even knowing that the planes he design will be used in war, he continues to focus on simply designing a really, really good plane. When he presents the designs to the military, every personnel in uniform were foaming at their mouths with ideas and feedbacks but Jiro never listened to any of them. He simply nodded and went on with his work.
I produce works in the field of filmmaking, photography and writing. Countless of times, I have faced a similar situation where the client tries to dictate the creative process. The client wants to have a say in the edit. The client feels the need to approve(creatively) the process at every single stage, that the project becomes a labour of hate. Along the way, I have reacted towards such situations in a myriad of ways. I would smile in the meeting room and scream my lungs out in the edit suite. I’ve slammed on the table numerous times and thrown things across the room. Most recently, I simply got up and left midway through.
Industry colleagues had many thoughts to spare.
“Oh, clients are always like that. Just deal with it.”
“Just make your money and then later you can do whatever you want.”
But I really don’t have to. Everything that I do, is ultimately a choice. It’s a choice for me to hold on to my principles or to let them go. To pursue my vision or that of someone else. I knew I was angry because the situation was wrong. It might have been acceptable to anyone else but it was wrong for me. If I told myself to just accept it, then am I not compromising on my own principles? Am I not simply slaving away my time, wearing the body while the soul dies slowly inside?
Jiro is reminded to make full use of his youth. It is said that a creative person has ten full years to function optimally and in that span of time, should do everything they can to fulfil their vision, whatever that may be. You never know when or how those ten years would pass, but it would be such a waste to give it up in exchange for the illusion of financial security. If Miyazaki had given up those creative years to something other than his true passion, the world would be a very different places. I thought about all the films he had drawn, written, and directed. I thought about all the time he must have spent sitting at his desk, drawing and redrawing pencil traces over a sheet of paper, striving for the perfect shade of blue for the sky or making sure the colour of the ground is the right colour.
In the film, both Jiro and his idol, Marconi quite literally share the same dream. It shouldn’t be preposterous to dream, and hope, that many, many people across the world actually do share the same dreams and aspirations. In the film, multiple languages are exchanged but never once was it established how. While the Japanese are visiting in Germany, the German guards are speaking Japanese while Honzo, Jiro’s colleague speaks German to the technician on board. In the same vein, the film never establishes exactly how Jiro travels between Germany and Japan, for the simple reason that it does not matter. This is established, also very early on, when as a young boy, Jiro borrows an English aviation magazine and exclaims that translation won’t be a problem as he has a dictionary. It is clear in both Jiro and Miyazaki’s mind that physical and linguistic boundaries can be easily overcome in the pursuit of ones vision.
Just like in all the previous films, Miyazaki openly shares his dreams, passion and ambitions for the world to see. He inspires us to follow our hearts and to always do the right thing, regardless of where the rest of the world is headed. To find happiness from within and to fill our thoughts with good intentions towards others. To respect and live in harmony with nature as a living force, not an enemy that needs to be defeated or exploited. To be curious about the world, be it flying over the clouds in a floating castle or to fall into the roots of a tree onto a snoring Totoro. To not judge others from the way they look or behave for each of them have their own stories to tell.
All the wonderful films that have put smiles across a billion faces the world over, both young and old, with its wonderful imaginary landscapes and unique characters, each one of them started out as a vision. It started as a dream. It might have sprouted from an overheard conversation, or the quiet sound of the forest, or ancient folk-tales or simply plucked out of thin air, but each inspiration entered a creative mind and enriched it further.
The desire to create is a universal trait in all human beings. A lonely child shares a game with an imaginary friend. An unseen face sprays paint across an empty wall in a back alley. A bored person writes a status update on Facebook. An old woman starts talking to a random stranger. A couple decides to have a child. An artist turns clay into a vase.
We are all creators at heart.
The Wind Rises might not have its quota of action or adorable characters be remembered as a crowd favourite but to those who have ever aspired for anything in their lives, it will be like soaring high on the wings of an albatross. The film is a masterpiece, a bittersweet sign off from the master of storytelling. I couldn’t help but feel as if I was standing on Miyazaki’s shoulder, looking out to the beautiful world ahead of us. He looks at all of us and says
“I’m done telling my stories. Now go out there and tell yours.”