Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, Castle in the Sky, My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki’s Delivery Service, Porco Rosso, Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle, Ponyo and The Wind Rises. Recognize these films? Well, if you don’t, they happen to be the canonical Japanese animated films of the last 50 years. What do they all have in common? Well, they were written and directed by the same man, one who can and should only be referred to as a titan of modern cinema. That man is Hayao Miyazaki, founder of the famed Studio Ghibli.
At age 74, the recently retired filmmaker allowed director Mami Sunada to film him as he prepared what may well be his last film, the Oscar-nominated The Wind Rises over a one-year period. What we get is beyond fascinating, incredibly illuminating and really quite touching. Having seen many of his films, I must admit that, besides an uncanny resemblance to my uncle Mike, I really didn’t know anything about him. This film changes all of that.
Following the painstaking process that Miyazaki and his incredibly talented group of animators go through to hand-produce his film, we are constantly left in awe at the quickness and precision with which he works. That he doesn’t script his films, but “writes” them in the storyboarding process is all the more damn impressive. That all animated films used to be done this way is mind-boggling, with studios like Disney now eschewing the old tradition of hand-drawn/painted animated films for big budget VFX and CGI. Miyazaki‘s films, while low-tech by today’s standards, have a refreshing look and appeal that are reminiscent of many of the cartoons of my youth. The artisan-like manner with which he produces these films make them more personal and frankly more enjoyable (not to take anything away from VFX/CGI artists who are constantly shit upon by the Hollywood studios).We get almost as much of producer Toshio Suzuki as we do of Miyazaki, a man who as integral of a part of Studio Ghibli as Miyzayaki himself. He has produced nearly every one of Miya-san‘s hit films and we are fortunate that we get to see him in action as he closely follows the production of The Wind Rises and gets out in front of the media to promote it as well as deal with many of the day-to-day tasks of running the other business interests of the studio.Suzuki almost is the de facto narrator of this film as he relates the history of the studio as well as his involvement with Miyazaki and his Miyazaki‘s mentor, director Isao Takahata (who directed the gutwrenching and wonderful Grave of the Fireflies), who was also prepping a film at this same time (The Tale of Princess Kaguya which is nominated for an Oscar this year).
While it is fascinating to see how Miyazaki works, and Sanuda does an amazing job chronicling the ups and downs, the frustrations and breakthroughs of the production, the personal asides that she captures of him engaging with children, talking about politics as well as the future of his studio are even more insightful and paint a more complete picture of such an interesting man. His wavering over the importance of films in this day and age and looking back over his life’s work is a really personal set of clips that are rare. I can only think of one film (Bahr, Hickenlooper and Eleanor Coppola‘s Hearts of Darkness) that even remotely comes close to letting us as viewers into as personal of thoughts of a director. And the only thing this does, really, is make you love him more. When he addresses his staff after they finally screen The Wind Rises for them crying, embarrassed because he has never done so while watching one of his own films, we see how vulnerable he is since this film is such a personal one story-wise (the main character has many traits that he took from his father) as well as professionally knowing that it was likely his last film. Rarely do we see this kind of intimate side of anyone in the film industry, let alone a director.
I’m so happy that I had the opportunity to see this film. It easily slides into my Top 10 documentaries of the year. It is a wholly satisfying experience and you can’t help but fall in love with Miyazaki the man, even though you may have already done so with Miyazaki the director. That he was awarded the Honorary Academy Award for years of contribution to the motion picture industry this year, only the second Japanese filmmaker bestowed with this honor (the other being Akira Kurosawa), is testament to his importance.
This film hit DVD this week. It is streaming on Amazon and iTunes as well. I urge any folks who have interest in seeing how animated films are made or are just huge Miyazaki or Studio Ghibli fans to see this one. It’s tremendous.