If you haven’t lived in Japan, it’s hard to appreciate just how beloved are anime maestro Hayao Miyazaki and his creative hub, Studio Ghibli.
Annual surveys of Japanese consumers often find that Ghibli is their favorite domestic brand, ahead of stalwarts such as Toyota and Sony. Miyazaki’s animated epics regularly top the domestic theatrical market. “Kaze Tachinu” (“The Wind Rises”), his latest film — loosely based on the life of engineer Jiro Horikoshi, designer of Japan’s wartime Zero fighter plane — soared above its box office rivals for seven consecutive weeks after its July release. Meanwhile, his Oscar-winning “Spirited Away” (2001) remains the top-grossing film in Japanese history, knocking aside Hollywood live-action contenders such as “Titanic” and the “Harry Potter” films.
In August, during a Japanese TV rebroadcast of Ghibli’s first full-length feature film, 1986’s “Laputa: Castle in the Sky,” viewers set a new Twitter world record for the number of tweets per second — easily surpassing the pre-existing tally set by fans of Beyoncé and her pregnancy announcement.
But the rest of the world has been catching up. Miyazaki’s retirement announcement last month reverberated globally. Over three decades, beginning with 1979’s “Castle of Cagliostro,” he has emerged as the greatest animator of his era, and some would say of all time. Audiences and journalists at the Venice Film Festival, where “The Wind Rises” received its worldwide premiere, were reportedly stunned into silence when Koji Hoshino, the president of Studio Ghibli, first revealed the news at a press conference. One prominent American critic likened the announcement to “an unexpected death notice.”
All of which makes this summer’s nationalistic backlash in Japan against Miyazaki and his colleagues’ remarks on Japan’s political and historical conundrums that much more startling — and revealing.
The July issue of Neppu, Ghibli’s free self-published monthly booklet, featured a special section on Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his administration’s campaign to revise Japan’s pacifist Constitution. Miyazaki declared his unequivocal opposition to revising the war-renouncing Article 9. He also said that Japan should apologize for the so-called comfort women, the Imperial army’s corps of wartime sex slaves that remains a highly sensitive matter, especially between Japan and South Korea. And he argued that some sort of compromise must be sought over Japan’s escalating territorial disputes with China and South Korea, either by dividing the territories by mutual consent or administering joint control over them.
Anyone who has paid even passing attention to Miyazaki’s history of leftist postwar positions — and his willingness to speak out or act on them — might have anticipated this. After the earthquake, tsunami and meltdown disaster of 2011, Ghibli hung a banner from its rooftop announcing that it would “make movies with electricity that did not come from nuclear power.” And back in 1963, one year into his first job at Japanese animation giant Toei, Miyazaki got involved in a labor dispute and soon became chief secretary of Toei’s labor union.
But the reaction to Ghibli’s anti-war, anti-revisionist essays was ferocious, especially among Japan’s so-called netto uyoku, or right-wing Internet users. Japan’s most famous, popular and revered visual artist was called “dim-witted,” “a traitor” and “anti-Japanese.” Some said they would never see another Ghibli film. Others were sarcastic, with one commentator wondering if Miyazaki would pay for comfort women from the profits of his film.
There are deep generational tremors afoot. At 72, some of Miyazaki’s first memories were formed during wartime, and the extreme poverty and suffering of the aftermath. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, 58, and his peers are better acquainted with a more recent (albeit far less violent and destructive) national trauma: the collapse of Japan’s bubble economy of the 1980s and the nation’s slow slide since then into financial and global irrelevance. The need to feel a resurgent national pride may be exacerbated by the double-whammy of a rising Asia and decline of Japan’s main ally, the United States.
“I can’t help thinking that this is a watershed time for Japan, and that the election of Abe has stirred up a lot of painful emotions,” says Susan J. Napier, professor of Japanese studies at Tufts University in Massachusetts and author of a forthcoming book on Miyazaki. “A lot of Japanese are mainly concerned about the economy, and Abe at least gives the impression of finally trying to make some radical changes. I think people are both hopeful and scared to hope.”
Anime, and its print cousin and forebear, manga, are primarily products of postwar Japan. The medium’s first superhero, “Astro Boy,” was created partly out of artist Osamu Tezuka’s desire to see nuclear technology used for peaceful purposes after the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Its first giant robot, “Tetsujin 28-go” (“Gigantor” in the West), was often depicted in original versions stomping through the New York City skyline. “Battleship Yamato,” one of the original series broadcast on American television, reimagined Japan’s sunken naval vessel as a retrofitted high-tech spaceship.
Ironically, “The Wind Rises” examines the complex and self-contradictory life of the engineer who created one of Japan’s most fearsome weapons — reflecting Miyazaki’s own contradictions. His father worked at Miyazaki Airplane, which made parts for Zero fighter planes, and Miyazaki has long been enamored of the mechanics of flight and aircraft.
At the film’s premiere screening at the New York Film Festival two weeks ago, I was struck by the story’s sustaining narrative tension. Every moment of Jiro’s dreamlike bliss about beauty is bombed to Earth with a brutal thud. Images of flight and transcendence, the artist’s reveries, are followed by scenes of wreckage and death, the artist’s nightmare. Jiro remains a cipher throughout — so devoted to his visions of possibility that he can’t see the horror burning at the periphery. At the moment of his greatest achievement, he loses the love of his life.
Author and translator Frederik L. Schodt, who has translated Miyazaki’s interviews and essays, believes that Miyazaki’s role is critical in uniting Japanese generations amid the country’s current identity crisis.
“At his age,” Schodt says, “and with his status among youth, (Miyazaki) can be an important bridge between younger generations, whose historical knowledge of World War II is limited, and an older, fading generation, for whom it remains a searing and real memory.”
“Kaze Tachinu” (“The Wind Rises”) is now showing in cinemas nationwide. Roland Kelts is the author of “Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture has Invaded the U.S.” He is a visiting scholar at Keio University in Tokyo.
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