The Wind Rises (Disney, Blu-ray, VOD) – Hayao Miyazaki is a national treasure in Japan, the director of beloved animated features and a filmmaker dedicated to preserving the art of hand-drawn animation. The Wind Rises, which was released in 2013 and earned an Oscar nomination as Best Animated Feature, was a passion project for the director and a fitting swan song. The grand old man of Japanese animation has retired and this film, not a fantasy or mythical adventure but a delicate biographical drama about an idealistic engineer devoted to making “beautiful airplanes” for a country he knows will use them as instruments of war, is his final feature. Jiro comes of age in 1920s Japan and through him we experience the 1923 earthquake, the great Tokyo fire, and the crippling depression, as well as the growing militarism that takes hold of the country and the culture; at one point, the pacifist Jiro comes close to becoming a victim of Japan’s version of the communist witch-hunt.
The film was both celebrated and criticized in Japan, where some accused the film of whitewashing the militarism that sent the country into occupying Manchuria and then into World War II. Perhaps they felt that Miyazaki wasn’t more strident in his condemnation of that culture but he does surely confront and criticize it, albeit with a tone of regret and resignation. Jiro, who works in the aviation division of Mitsubishi, is an artist who dreams of flight (his eyesight prevents him from becoming a pilot) and channels his love into creating the next generation of airplanes, but is trapped in a military culture that demands he design a fighter plane. Somehow he never loses his idealism and his humanism.
Is Jiro complicit in the war because he designed one of Japan’s most effective war machines? Is he so driven to become part of the evolution of aviation that he ignores the use to which his designs will be used? Does the beauty of his creation (and Miyazaki does indeed express the beauty of flight that Jiro feels in his imagery) justify the compromises he has made? And are they indeed compromises in a time of war, or are they duty, regardless of one’s personal feelings? These questions hang in the air, suggested but never actually stated or answered. Perhaps he leaves that us to imagine as Jiro surveys the destruction in the aftermath of the war.
There’s a love story here too and it is beautiful and tragic. The beauty who will become his wife is already ill with tuberculosis as they court and their romance is almost disconnected from the world around Jiro, taking him (and us) out of the city to the bucolic, sunny countryside, removed from the politics driving Japan to the destruction of war. The entire film is beautiful—could this be the last masterpiece of old-school hand-drawn animation? I sure hope not—and Miyazake applies his visual imagination to a realistic drama, giving it the romanticized imagery of Jiro’s hopeful perspective with the shadows of war and death around the edges. It has the feeling of remembrance, of memory elevating the experience to romantic ideal and shuttling the rest aside. And when we take flight the experience is exhilarating. Miyazaki is a master of both the delicate and the awesome and applies both to this lovely work.
Features the original Japanese soundtrack and a well-produced English language version featuring the voices of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Emily Blunt, John Krasinski, Martin Short, Stanley Tucci, Mandy Patinkin, and William H. Macy, plus the short featurette “The Wind Rises: Behind the Microphone,” Miyazaki’s complete original storyboards (set to the movie soundtrack), press conference footage of the announcement of the completed film, and Japanese trailers and TV spots.
Along with the American debut of The Wind Rises, Disney releases two of Miyazaki’s best on Blu-ray for the first time. Princess Mononoke (Disney, Blu-ray) was the film that introduced most American viewers to Miyazaki when Disney (prompted by Pixar’s John Lasseter, a devoted Miyazaki fan) struck a deal to distribute Studio Ghibli films in the U.S. and create new English language versions to widen the audience. Mononoke was the first film to receive wide distribution and in retrospect it may have been the perfect introduction, at least for the adult audience: an environmentalist epic as and blood and thunder fantasy adventure on an apocalyptic scale. Set in the era of Japan’s Iron Age, it’s a time when the foundries first start to poison the forests and rivers around them and the weapons they produce—from fine samurai swords to primitive cannons and guns—give humans the advantage in conquering the natural world. Grounded in a rich and complex animist mythology, it is painted not as absolutes of good and evil but in moral shades of gray, a yin and yang within both man and nature. His figurehead is Mononoke herself, a wolf child as original eco-warrior leading the charge against her blood kin, the humans, in an elemental world of animal tribes and spirits and Gods imagined as magnificent giants and enchanting imps. Every frame is filled with an awesome sense of wonder and magic, and for all that is lost, he instills the ending with hope and healing.
Features original Japanese and the excellent American dub soundtracks (featuring Claire Danes, Gillian Anderson, Billy Crudup, Minnie Driver, Jada Pinkett Smith, and Billy Bob Thornton, and translated script penned by Neil Gaiman), plus storyboards, two featurettes, and original Japanese trailers.
Kiki’s Delivery Service (Disney, Blu-ray), which takes place in a magical variation of our own world, is aimed at a younger audience. Strong, plucky young heroine Kiki has turned thirteen, the age when witches leave the nest for a year of solo training. She’s ready to take on the world with her broomstick and her best friend Jiji, a cautious but supportive black cat (a tiny wisp of a feline) if she can only get her flying under control. Miyazaki’s gentle rhythm and meandering narrative capture the easy pulse of real life and Kiki and her flight obsessed pal Tombo are marvelous models of courage, drive and self-confidence. Their adventures have as much to do with real world situations, such as fear of failure and blows to her self-esteem, as with the lyrical flights among the birds and over the forests and city streets. It is a wonder to look at and a joy to experience and it doesn’t speak down to kids or up to adults.
Features original Japanese and American dub soundtracks (with Kirsten Dunst, Janeane Garofalo, and Phil Hartman), an introduction by Pixar director and English language producer John Lasseter, a short “Behind the Microphone” featurette on the voice cast, Miyazaki’s complete original storyboards (set to the movie soundtrack), and original Japanese trailers.