May has been christened by FilmScene as “May-azaki” in honor of Hayao Miyazaki, and they will screen four of his masterpieces: My Neighbor Totoro, Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle and The Wind Rises. It goes without saying that Miyazaki is the greatest animator in film history. He’s also one of the greatest filmmakers, period.
His latest movie, according to Miyazaki himself, is his last imaginative flight. The Wind Rises—screening at FilmScene beginning May 24 — is a fitting summation and final goodbye to his art, akin to Shakespeare’s Tempest (a title also suggestive of rising wind). It tells the story of Jiro Horikoshi, the maker of the Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighter, the plane that initially had a 12-to-1 kill ratio against the Allies and was used for kamikaze missions. The plot evokes the inner life of an artist: his education, his inspiration, his love, his tragedy.
All makers know how someone they’ve never met, someone who may speak a foreign language or has been dead for centuries, can be one of their most intimate and formative associates. The Wind Rises is the only movie I know that captures this mystery of artistic influence. The Italian aeronautical engineer Gianni Caproni appears to Jiro in various exquisite dream sequences to inspire and guide him at crucial moments in his life.
Caproni also delivers the central paradoxical message of The Wind Rises and ultimately Miyazaki’s art. Jiro’s plane will be used for horrible acts of war, but it’s part of the beauty of the world for him to make it. All products of human ambition, including art, will be used for evil, yet we’d ultimately rather live in a world where human ambition is expressed than in a world where it’s absent.
What’s so distinctive about Miyazaki’s art is his vision of this lovely, tragic world, in both the sense of his ability to evoke the observed world in its inner mystery and the sense of his overall worldview.
Though I don’t know enough about the history of Japanese art to draw subtle connections, I do see a profound link between Miyazaki and Hokusai, the most famous Japanese artist, who famously spoke of progressing from his youthful mania for drawing figures to deeper and deeper abilities to evoke the visible world until finally, at the age of 110, his every dot or line would jump to life.
Miyazaki’s movies have that astonishing ability to make things jump to life, to animate things in the truest sense of that verb. He shows how water gushes from a pump, or wind blows through a field, or clouds drift in the sky, in ways that evoke the lived experience of those things, just as Hokusai makes it seem like there’s a real wind blowing the hats off the heads in his drawings.
But equally moving to Miyazaki’s animation is his ability to evoke the inner mystery of human nature. His vision of humanity is, for lack of a better word, saintly. He sees in us more suffering but less evil than the overwhelming majority of us do.
My Neighbor Totoro
Though Miyazaki never rubs suffering in our face, it energizes everything about his movies. In Totoro, to take his most innocent and profound movie, every wondrous encounter with the forest spirits takes place against the backdrop of a mother who’s desperately ill in a sick ward.
Our imaginations are used to picturing evil, the source of our suffering, as something monstrous and foreign. If we grow out of such cartoonish conceptions (we often never do), we tend to picture evil as something “banal,” to use Hannah Arendt’s word to describe how normal people thoughtlessly carry out the most heinous crimes. But Miyazaki’s vision of evil goes beyond the monstrous and the banal. It’s close to that of Socrates or the Buddha. On this view, evil is our own ignorance about the great order that sustains us, and every human action is to be regarded with compassion.
The title of The Wind Rises comes from a line by the great French poet Paul Valéry, “Le vent se lève! … il faut tenter de vivre!” (“The wind is rising! . . . we must try to live!”). The wind in Miyazaki’s movie symbolizes not just Jiro’s desire to fly but all human aspiration to transcend our condition. This fundamental aspiration is beautiful, irresistible and ultimately the source of misery. Has Miyazaki turned away from the suffering of the world, even inflicted it, in order to make his majestic works? C’est la vie, as the French also say.
It’s often remarked that Miyazaki’s movies are important for children to see because they show a more complex picture of good and evil than what they’re used to. They’re just as important for adults. To see the world through his eyes, with such understanding and compassion, is to feel the wind rising, is to know in our bones that we must try to live.
Scott Samuelson teaches philosophy at Kirkwood Community College. His new book is The Deepest Human Life: An Introduction to Philosophy for Everyone.