By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood November 12, 2013 at 11:39AM
A contender for the animated feature Oscar, the subtitled "The Wind Rises" (Disney) is now playing a one-week Oscar qualifying run in Los Angeles and New York in its Japanese subtitled version. Possibly the last film from Hayao Miyazaki, the Walt Disney of Japan, who won the animated Oscar for "Spirited Away," "The Wind Rises" is not aimed at young kids. It's a gorgeously drawn historical true story of the brilliant designer behind the Zero fighter plane that wrecked havoc in World War II. After our UCLA Sneak Previews showing of "The Wind Rises," I interviewed Geoffrey Wexler, a high-ranking Studio Ghibli executive who was in town to start dubbing the English version that Disney will release in February (see Q & A and trailer below).
Miyazaki and Disney/Pixar animation czar John Lasseter share something rare: they are filmmakers in charge of animation giants in their respective countries, Studio Ghibli and Disney Animation/Pixar, respectively. The two men are mutual fans and friends, going back to Miyazaki's visit in the 80s to the U.S. at the time of the now classic "My Neighbor Totoro" (recently made available on Blu-ray, along with "Howl's Moving Castle"). Where Lasseter has developed a strong collaborative ethic at Pixar, he reveres Miyazaki for dreaming up his stories and drawing much of the storyboards and characters himself.
At Comic-Con in 2009, Miyazaki told the crowd the secret behind his artistry: "My process is thinking, thinking and thinking, thinking about my stories for a long time," he said with a smile. "If you have a better way, let me know." When Lasseter interviewed Miyazaki in front of 6000 fans in Hall H, the Disney/Pixar chief praised him for running a "filmmaker-led studio dedicated to making great movies. That's what it's all about." Backstage, Lasseter said that you could watch the films in Japanese with no subtitles and still figure out what was going on. The language only adds subtlety and depth. "I love the positive messages in all the films," he said. "Miyazaki is inspirational. He celebrates quiet moments."
At Lasseter's Academy tribute to Miyazaki, the Disney animator provided commentary on his favorite Miyazaki clips: a rousing helicopter rescue operation in "Castle in the Sky," a bar scene with pig-faced aviator "Porco Rosso," the scary magic of "Spirited Away," and the dreamlike catbus scene from "Totoro," as the giant furry creature waits with two little girls in the dark rain at a bus stop. Miyazaki, who studied politics and worked his way up as an animator while always wanting to write manga comics, admits that he never wanted to make Totoro's origins or powers crystal clear. He was thinking about the images in that film for ten years, he said. He doesn't like spending time drawing villains, so he doesn't do it much.
As in "From Up on Poppy Hill," written by Miyazaki and directed by his son Goro, "The Wind Rises" whisks you into another stylized, hand-drawn 2-D look at Japan's past. Miyazaki has always been able to capture, like no other animator, the forces of nature and the great outdoors.
TOH ranks the top ten Studio Ghibli films here.
Anne Thompson: How did you wind up working in Japan?
Geoffrey Wexler: I have a skill set that's pretty unique. I taught myself Japanese. You just keep on studying, basically. My first experience was in Western Japan, where there were no foreigners around, which was quite a long time ago, and there was no English, either, so I had to learn. But I enjoy the language and communicating very much, and that was part of it, but I also enjoyed the storytelling of Studio Ghibli before I joined the studio. My wife is Japanese and I was in London when she said, "go buy these movies." I respect the films for what they are. Our directors, from Miyazaki to Takahata, make these for the Japanese market. They founded the studio. It's a privately-owned studio started in 1985. They love the fact that people enjoy the films overseas but they make the films for their home market, originally for children and then for families. That's one of the challenges, is to bring films with that integrity out into the world, and I admire Ghibli for protecting the films as they are and not changing them for the overseas markets.
One of the things that Lasseter has done at Disney is to put out versions carefully dubbed into English.
Wexler: We do the dubs. We've done them with Disney and Lasseter is a very supportive part of our world. I was working today on the dubbing stage for this film, the first day of dubbing. We are pretty strict about controlling the dub. It's a real tug-of-war because it'd be easy to polish off some of the edges where people don't catch the cultural meaning, but we want to present the films with as much integrity as the original. We want to present to you the film made in Japan and not a film polished for a certain market.
This is more of a film for adults. This seems unusual even for you.
Wexler: I tend to think of it as family fare. This film is definitely not aimed at kids. Miyazaki wanted to make the film he wanted to make. It's a real departure for him. One of the things that's interesting about this film is that there is a male hero, instead of a little girl from 7 to 14 or 15. Most of Miyazaki's films take place in a very short period of time. It could be a day; it could be several days. Our founding producer, Toshio Suzuki, challenged Miyazaki to make a film that takes place over a much longer period of time. The second to last scene in the film is 1935, and the last scene is 1945 and there is nothing shown in between. Miyazaki wasn't out to show war. We have another film coming out next month by Miyazaki's mentor, you might say rival in some ways, Mr. [Isao] Takahata. He has films with more of a real world slant, with some fantasy in it.
How long has Miyazaki wanted to film this story?
Wexler: There were threads of it in his head over a long time. His father was in the aeronautic industry, he has loved planes and machines of all types for a very long time. But about five years ago he wrote a serialized manga that appeared in a magazine for model-makers. I don't know how many episodes there were, about 8 or 9 issues, and it's several pages of a comic book essentially telling the Jiro Horikoshi story.
This is fiction to a degree, but how true is it?
Wexler: He wrote that and then started to work on it. We have what's called a project proposal or plan, several pages of what the director's view of the film should be. Then they write a conte, which is our version of storyboards, and they write from the beginning, part A to the end, part D, and then make the film just from that. It's very different than a lot of studios that are constantly revising and storyboarding. And so that started in early 2010 and production began, in earnest, in mid-2011 by the time of "Poppy Hill." We focused primarily on the main character, Horikoshi Jiro, who is based on two people. He is an amalgam of a man named Horikoshi Jiro, an aeronautic engineer considered one of the finest of all time, and a man named Hori Tatsuo, a novelist and he wrote a book called "Kaze Tachinu," "The Wind is Rising," a line from a French poem at the beginning of the film. We tweaked that for our title a little bit. The character is a combination of the Hori Tatsuo story and his story, he was a person with tuberculosis, he went up in the mountains to be well. TB was a big part of life at that time in Japan, and the thing about it then was that if you acquired it, you died. The idea that you could recover was very rare, very few did, and that instructs a lot of what you see on the screen. Miyazaki wanted to make something beautiful, so it's a blend of those things, and it's really about living your life the best you can at that time.
He is also painting a picture of pre-modern Japan.
Wexler: It's post Meiji restoration and the country is running to catch up, like Achilles trying to catch up to the tortoise. Will we ever catch up? Even if we get close to where they were, they'll have moved forward. And Japan is not a wealthy country, there are discussions about how poor everyone is, how much they're spending on airplanes. It's very much that era, 1900s through 1935.
Is this story well known in Japan?
Wexler: This story is not. Miyazaki wanted to present a story of this very ingenious genius, and an engineer, and of what was happening in Japan at that time. It's easy to say what Japan wasn't, but it's a lot of what Japan was, and there was a lot going on in Japan at the time.