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So long and thanks for all the films

2014 May 6

On a—somewhat—more positive note, I feel like I ought to take a moment here to say thanks and farewell to the brilliant Hayao Miyazaki.

I made a brief comment to the same effect on Twitter after seeing his yes-for-real-this-time last film, The Wind Rises. But a recent story by The Guardian has prompted me to return to that theme one more time, at somewhat greater length, as well as chew through the multiple fascinating tidbits in the article a bit.

I was aware of some controversy surrounding the film before seeing it, and could certainly understand the criticism. I’m not sure it’s what the movie is about, per se, but the spine of the plot is at any rate the development of the Mitsubishi Zero. Which was not only an instrument of war, but, at least here in America, has remained one of particular “infamy.” The Wind Rises finds awe and beauty in this process of creation, and while I wouldn’t by any means describe the film as celebrating either war or weaponry, it did strike me as noticeably elliptical about what the Zero was for “down at the sharp end.”

So I was intrigued to read that, per The Guardian, “It has also proven politically contentious both in Japan and America; at home for being anti-war and ‘anti-Japanese’ and abroad for apparently absolving Jiro of guilt for his actions.” The story elaborates, later, noting

Amid the domestic controversy over The Wind Rises, there was a sense that Miyazaki had been out of step with contemporary Japan (He rarely does interviews). His movie was accused of preaching pacifism just as prime minister Shinzo Abe was looking to revise a pacifist clause out of the Japanese constitution. Miyazaki responded typically, devoting the entirety of Ghibli’s house journal to a rebuke of militarism. It only earned him more rancour.

I’m not entirely sure how to parse this. The popular notion that “we get criticized by both sides so we must be striking the right balance” generally makes my eyes roll nearly right out of my head. I do think that there’s definitely some significance here, though, probably about context and cultural distance. No work stands entirely independently. Aside from the clear antiwar perspective Miyazaki has expressed through his career, World War II is not exactly obscure so I felt that it was at least a reasonable creative choice to gesture toward its events instead of engaging them more directly; I don’t think this was perfect, but I concluded that it was reasonable. It’s difficult to avoid finding some support at least for such an understanding of the film’s choices upon reading that, in the cultural context of its origin, many people actually found it provocative.

(Meanwhile, speaking of contexts, though The Guardian does not mention it, I also read that some audiences took offense at the film’s portrayal of tobacco use, which actually was pretty much celebratory. I mean, characters were puffing away like chimneys. I found this mostly amusing, myself, probably in part because of the context of watching it in an America where, though some people will probably go on thundering about “Big Tobacco” forever, compared with my youth smoking seems to be so close to extinct that “glamorizing” it is scarcely comprehensible as a relevant concept.)

Another element of The Guardian story that interested me was the perspective of how shabby the Studio Ghibli facilities struck the author. Described as “an almost laughably humble campus…. It’s not quite Pixar’s sprawling California HQ with its scooters and complimentary breakfast bars.” A couple of things strike me, here. One, though it involves straying a bit from my original intent here, is the contrast between Miyazaki and the late Steve Jobs. Aside from the fact that Jobs owned Pixar, which for various reasons is often associated with Ghibli, both are/were remarkably talented and influential creative visionaries… despite being, from what I can tell, very different people in certain ways. This is just the latest in what has been, at least for me, a gradual but steady re-evaluation of Jobs. I don’t know if it’s simply coincidence or if his famed “reality distortion field” shut down along with him, but I’ve concluded that while Jobs was a genuinely Great Figure, he was in fact a fairly bad person. I don’t know whether there’s any serious prospect that, as one person suggested, his still-generally-intact reputation sends a message to young entrepreneurs that “being a ruthless a-hole is essential to making it to the top” … for those receptive to such a message there are probably plenty of other examples … but I do find it too bad that a general “it’s fine to play hardball as long as you win” perspective is still so widespread.

Likewise, I find it refreshing that Miyazaki offers at least something of a contrary model. Perhaps I will learn something to the contrary some day, but for the time being I suspect that his legacy will age very well.

Meanwhile, returning to the positive, I also found some personal resonance in the notion that Ghibli’s gorgeous, breathtaking epics are not only drawn by hand but produced in somewhat drab, anonymous surroundings, at least compared to the corporate cathedrals that… anyway. As I live and work in a one-bedroom apartment in humble little Lakewood, Ohio, I enjoy seeing validation of the notion that “where the magic happens” need not involve millions (or billions) of dollars of steel, glass and chrome.

It’s a particularly happy thought in this case, given that Miyazaki is not only an artist whose work I’ve enjoyed, but a bit of an inspiration. I won’t go into the story at length just now, but about 10 years ago, I had a moment when I looked at the work of Miyazaki and a few of his peers, and at where I was, and… I still remember the almost vertiginous feeling of how far I was from where, I thought, I ought to regard as a standard to aspire toward. To some extent, I shook it off and went on with life, but perhaps that moment stayed with me a little bit thereafter. At all events—without comparing what I’ve accomplished with the career of this great sensei—I feel like I have since raised my game in ways that at least allow me to recall that moment and feel like “okay, this is a bit more like it.”

Thanks for everything, H.M.

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