Miyazaki’s “The Wind Rises” — a hell of a lot of smoking for a cartoon … and vague politics

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“The Wind Rises.” Check out the ashtray


This is going to be an odd critique of Hayao Miyazaki’s “The Wind Rises,” but I was glad to see that the L.A. Times several months ago made some points similar to the ones I’m going to focus on.

Miyazaki is probably the most famous animator in Japanese history. His famous movies include “Princess Mononoke,” “Spirited Away,” “My Neighbor Totoro” and “Howl’s Moving Castle.” He won an Academy Award for best animated film (Spirited Away) and about a million awards in Japan.

“The Wind Rises” is supposedly Miyazaki’s last film. It’s an odd film, with very little real conflict. There’s no real bad guys. It has a story, but not really a plot. It’s also incredibly beautiful, Miyazaki is a genius in a dying art form — the hand-drawn motion picture. Even in Japan, fewer and fewer anime are being done by hand in this day and age as computer animation is far less labour-intensive.

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Jiro in “The Wind Rises”


The movie was controversial in both Japan and America because it’s basically about the guy who designed the Zero. You know, the planes that bombed Pearl Harbor. The Zero at the time was considered the most advanced fighter plane ever designed, and it took the U.S. two or three years to catch up with equally well designed fighter planes.

Anyway, that aspect of the film is a bit jarring, but I actually get it (More on that later.).

What I noticed with my one-track mind is that there is a buttload of smoking in “The Wind Rises.” I mean a lot of smoking — ashtrays stuffed full of cigarettes, restaurants clouded with smoke, etc. That really blew me away. I’ve never seen so much cigarette smoking in a cartoon before.

Yubaba in Miyazaki’s “Spirited Away”


The film is rated PG, but it’s also a Japanese film. You would never see this much cigarette smoking in an American PG movie in this day of age — thank goodness. (And I would like think without blowing my horn too much that I played a small part in helping to make that happen.)

Two things to keep in mind. The Japanese have a somewhat different view of smoking than Americans. They aren’t as down on it as Americans. Japan is one of the few developed countries that has no nationwide smoking ban and few rules on where people can smoke. As near as I can tell, the most strident smoking rule in Japan is no smoking on trains and subways.

The second thing to remember is Miyazaki very much does things his way. He makes his movies the way he wants without being told how to make them. Thus, a lot of his films don’t really fit easy molds that Americans are used to seeing from American animation. His films can be morally ambiguous (as I think “The Wind Rises” is) where it can be hard to identify who are the good guys and who are the bad guys.

Porco Rosso in Miyazaki’s “Porco Rosso”


I thought it was just me being anal about seeing so much smoking in a movie in the this day and age, but the L.A. Times actually wrote about the controversy over the smoking in the film.

According to the L.A. Times:

The Wind Rises should also come with a health warning, according to Japanese doctors who have criticised the director for his frequent portrayals of smoking.

In an open letter to Miyazaki’s production company, Studio Ghibli, the Japan Society for Tobacco Control said the gratuitous depictions of smoking gave the impression that the tobacco habit was socially acceptable, even among minors.

In Miyazaki’s defence, the film’s many smoking scenes are at least a nod to the social mores of the times. The Wind Rises is set in the 1920s and 30s, before the harmful health effects of tobacco were fully known and when Japanese, among others, were enthusiastic smokers.

Despite Miyazaki’s attention to historical detail, the physicians were particularly unhappy about a scene in which the lead character smokes as he holds the hand of his bedridden wife, who is suffering from tuberculosis.

“Why did smoking have to be included in a scene where the objective is to depict the couple’s relationship, especially the woman’s state of mind?” the letter said. “There must have been another way to express that.”

I would have to agree that the depiction of smoking in the movie appeared “gratuitous.” That is the word I would have used. Sure, everyone smoked back then, but then guys also tended to smack women and kids around a lot more back then, and I didn’t see any of that in “The Wind Rises.” You don’t have to show every bad habit from history to make a “historically accurate” film.

“Granny” smoking in “Howl’s Moving Castle”


The other thing to remember about Miyazaki is there is a lot of smoking in most of his films. There is smoking in the “Castle of Cagliostro,” “Porco Rosso,” “Spirited Away” and “Howl’s Moving Castle.” Again, I come back to Miyazaki isn’t going to take smoking out of his films just because some people disapprove and the Japanese attitude toward smoking is different from the American attitude. These are all kids’ movies geared toward children aged 6-12, and in all of them (especially “Spirited Away”), there is a lot of smoking. I didn’t plow through all of Miyazaki’s movies to see if I could find smoking in “Laputa” or “Valley of the Wind” or “Princess Mononoke,” but I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s smoking scenes in those movies.

Now, that I got that rant out of my system, let’s return to the idea of moral ambiguity of “The Wind Rises.” What is jarring for a lot of people is that this is a sympathetic film about the real-life person who designed the Zero.

But, there is a clever dual plot going on here. Our protagonist Jiro, loves aviation and loves designing beautiful airplanes (Miyazaki, a pilot himself, has been obsessed with flight and airplanes and unusual airplane designs during his entire career). He wants to come up with the perfect fighter plane. This film takes place a few years before the horrors of Nanking and Bataan and Okinawa, so Jiro is blissfully ignorant of the atrocities to come, though he is given cryptic warnings that Japan is about the “blow up” from a German visitor.

Jiro also falls madly in love with a young woman, Naoka, but she quickly warns him that she is seriously ill with TB. Jiro doesn’t care, he plunges straight ahead into his doomed love affair with Naoka, knowing full well she will likely not live long and that his love for her will not end happily. In the same way, Jiro plows straight ahead in designing his beautiful fighter plane, all the while likely knowing his love of aircraft design will not end happily. The parallels are clear. When you love something deeply, you can’t let go of it, even if you know full well your love is doomed.

As far as Miyazaki’s politics, let’s make it clear. He loves airplanes and admires the Zero, but is no fan of militarism or Japanese nationalism (and truthfully, his political views are not very apparent in “The Wind Rises.”). He’s an avowed socialist and environmentalist. Miyazaki got slammed pretty hard in both Japan and America about the vague politics of “The Wind Rises,” but his response is pretty awesome.

Again, I quote from the L.A. Times:

But they (Japanese Nationalists) were most angered by an essay Miyazaki had written to coincide with the film’s release in which he condemned Japan’s modern-day drift to the right, including plans by the prime minister, Shinzo Abe, to revise the country’s pacifist constitution (to allow a stronger military).

“It goes without saying that I am against constitutional reform,” Miyazaki wrote in Neppu, Studio Ghibli’s in-house monthly magazine. In a thinly veiled reference to Abe, he went on to accuse Japan’s modern-day politicians of attempting to sanitise the country’s wartime conduct.

“I’m taken aback by the lack of knowledge among government and political party leaders on historical facts,” he said. “People who don’t think enough shouldn’t meddle with the constitution.”

OK, I’m slightly befuddled by the nuances of “The Wind Rises,” but I’m secure that Miyazaki is not romantic about returning to an Imperial Japan.

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