The latest anime film from Japan’s Hayao Miyazaki, “The Wind Rises” may change the landscape in box-office viability for adult-themed animated features. Since it opened in Japan, the film has held the #1 spot and grossed over $56 million dollars at the box-office. This has surprised early projections regarding the film’s themes of war, based on the true story of Jiro Horikoshi, a chief engineer of Japanese fighter planes during World War II, most famously the Mitsubishi A6M Zero used in kamikaze missions.
Aside from the fantastical elements inherent to all of Miyazaki’s anime features, the film has been called a solemn departure from his spirited works for children and families. Though any fan intimately familiar with “Spirited Away” or “Princess Mononoke” know that Miyazaki has a beautiful way of exploring human nature’s darkest places. When a film, such as “The Wind Rises,” brings to life a true story, these darker places conjure unease when not cloaked in fantasy. This unease is certainly true in the bitter debate that has targeted Miyazaki in Japan.
Miyazaki has accomplished a reaction that only great artists can do: inspire and enrage opinions on both sides of an argument. On one side, the filmmaker was criticized for glorifying the life of a weapons maker. Imagine if Disney had made an animated film about J. Robert Oppenheimer, the physicist who helped build the atomic bomb. On the other side, Miyazaki has come out in a written essay and in interviews, with an outspoken anti-war message, claiming that the film is inspired by a tormented engineer who saw his dreams of flying corrupted into weapons of war.
The film’s adult tone lends to the surprise of success at the box-office, as even in Japan’s anime culture, animated adult films don’t perform like this. More surprising to the success is the criticism for being a tempered meditation, rather than the visual eye candy that Miyazaki fans are accustom to. The box-office turnout in Japan may partly be attributed to Miyazaki’s public decry of the governments military expansion plans, as noted in The Economist.
Miyazaki has answered his pacifist critics who question his choice to humanize a weapons maker, stating: “One day, I heard that Horikoshi had once murmured, ‘All I wanted to do was to make something beautiful.” Such profoundly regretful words easily inspire, and echo Oppenheimer after testing the atom bomb in New Mexico, famously quoting Shiva: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”
The film has finally received english subtitles in its trailer, after weeks of buzzing controversy crossed the seas. This has come with announcement of the film’s North American premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. Not since Miramax distributed “Princess Mononoke,” Miyazaki’s first theatrical release in U.S., has the director seen this much anticipation overseas.
Met with even more anticipation for many animation artists, is the viability of successfully distributing an animated feature with adult-themes. Such films are typically obscured into cult classics, or only find audiences as shorts on the festival circuit, or in the wee-hours of cable programming. Miyazaki’s “The Wind Rises” tackles serious themes that have resonated across generations. Surely an inspiration for American animation studios, such as Worker Studio, and development of the animated documentary “John Ross: American,” about the recently deceased, World War II photo reconnaissance pilot.
Shameless plugs aside, there is a great deal of reasons to anticipate a U.S. theatrical release of “The Wind Rises.” It has been noted as a deeply personal film for Miyazaki, as his father ran a factory that produced parts of Horikoshi’s planes during World War II. While filmmakers can claim all their work is personal, most studios, even Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli, cater to audience denominators. It is rare that a filmmaker can touch this wide of an audience with such personal themes, as well as resonate with historical significance in light of current events – rare indeed.