Miyazaki’s final vision

The animator-auteur Hayao Miyazaki has announced his retirement many times before, most famously after the success of Princess Mononoke (1997). Unlike most retired people, he has continued to make films, winning an Oscar for Spirited Away (2001) and receiving a nomination for Howl’s Moving Castle (2004). He has claimed that his latest, The Wind Rises (out in the UK on 9th May), really will be his last. “This time I am quite serious,” Miyazaki told theAssociated Press last year. By some counts, this is his seventh retirement.

Since that interview, his friend and co-founder of Studio Ghibli, Isao Takahata, has hinted that Miyazaki may find another project. He will be forgiven if he does decide to break his promise again—Miyazaki is no self-promoting cynic. His films are about people who are trying to do the right thing: to prevent disaster or to save a loved one. His female characters, young and old, are more human than almost anything Hollywood serves up. Even his villains are not as bad as they seem—they often end up getting on pretty well with the other characters.

This sounds worthy, and a recipe for commercial disaster. Yet Miyazaki’s animations are not only hugely popular, they are regarded as some of the greatest films ever made. Part of the appeal is the observational detail that he brings to every scene. The critic Roger Ebert once noted the “gratuitous motion” in his films, which Miyazaki likens to the Japanese concept of ma or emptiness—those little reflective pauses in which we notice an animal shaking itself free of water, or a colleague straightening his waistcoat. These moments create a kind of visual poetry, a celebration of the beauty in the everyday, like the graphic novellas of John McNaught. Miyazaki is a master of these moments. His films would rather make each moment beautiful than cut to the chase, and Miyazaki has no one to curtail his vision: he writes the scripts, designs the storyboards and draws thousands of key frames himself.

The Wind Rises is ostensibly the biography of Jiro Horikoshi, a pioneering aeronautical engineer who was responsible for designing the Mitsubishi A6M Zero Fighter used by the Japanese Navy throughout the Second World War. Although a real historical figure, Miyazaki presents Jiro as a Harry Potterish everyman and tweaks his life story to accommodate his own preoccupations.

When Miyazaki was a child in the 1940s, his father and uncle owned an aviation company that made parts for the Zeros, ensuring that no one in the family was conscripted to fight. Planes appear everywhere in Miyazaki’s work: the ominous shadows passing over the city in Howl’s Moving Castle before an air raid; the possessed paper planes inSpirited Away; the young neighbour’s toy plane in My Neighbour Totoro. And then there’s Porco Rosso, which is about a pig who is a bounty hunter and pilot. There are almost as many planes in that film as there are people.

The Wind Rises begins with a plane. We first meet Jiro as a sleeping child. In his dream, he climbs up onto the roof of his house and gets into a plane with feather-tipped wings, rising up vertically with perfect dream logic. But up there, in the sky, are monsters, loitering on bombs like the shadowy pilots in Howl’s Moving Castle. Jiro falls and lands… in reality.

He has woken up. The mosquito netting around him is blurred. He puts on his glasses and the room comes into focus. Here we are introduced to one of the most surprising elements of Miyazaki’s final film: it is set in the real world. His final challenge to himself has been to create a film without strange creatures or transformative curses. This world is governed by normal physics, so much so that the (animated, fictitious) camera has a depth of field and is susceptible to lens flare. Many of Jiro’s conversations concern the precise aerodynamics of the plane he’s designing. We see drawing board diagrams and designs in other Miyazaki films such as Porco Rosso and Totoro, yet in The Wind Risesthere is a new attention to physical reality. We watch over Jiro’s shoulder, like a supervisor, as he notes down the calculations on his slide-rule.

Jiro is an underdog, determined to make a plane to rival the industrial powerhouses to the West, despite Japan’s poor resources. Through his nightly dreams, and days of hard work at his desk, he renders a whole new reality. It couldn’t be a more literal analogy for Miyazaki’s work. Later, the engineer marries a painter—another fitting metaphor. The film is full of painterly skies and sunlit fields, sea and mountains. We see a cherry tree blossoming, moths gathering around lamps, the smoke from a cigarette or a cold breath curling into the air. We watch dappled light move over Jiro’s body on a woodland walk, and even see the shadows of objects offscreen, the silhouette of an unseen tree running across the floor and up the side of a building.

There are no serious antagonists in The Wind Rises. The most important relationship in the film is the love affair between Jiro and Naoko. When she was a child, Jiro saved her and her nanny from the chaos of an earthquake, carrying them from a railroad as burning detritus blew overhead from the city. Now she is a beautiful woman, Claude Monet’s Woman with a Parasol come to life, and she has found him—but, like the mother in My Neighbour Totoro, she has tuberculosis. Jiro and Naoko love each other devotedly, and decide to marry despite her being almost bed-bound, and his being wanted by the interior ministry. It would be hard not to smile at their courtship, watching them throw paper planes onto each other’s balcony, or make youthful declarations to one another.

The central conflict in the film comes from the plane itself. It is the perfect meeting point of the opposing forces that shape Miyazaki’s attitude towards technology: freedom and destruction, one sometimes necessitating the other. In Princess Mononoke, which echoes the earlier film Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, Ashitaka fights against a human society obsessed with building ever more efficient guns. Miyazaki is always careful to show how technology consumes. The candle that powers the steam boat in Ponyo runs outand there is a constant stream of coal in Kamaji’s boiler room in Spirited Away. Technology can also, sometimes, provide us with a seemingly limitless freedom, captured so well by his vehicles: the magic Cheshire Cat bus in My Neighbour Totoro, which bounds across landscapes in an instant, or the famous moving castle whose doors open onto different cities. In The Wind Rises, the plane embodies all of these qualities at once, belching exhaust fumes, describing perfect ellipses in the sky. It can kill even as it fulfils one of humanity’s great dreams, to fly among the clouds.

Some critics, both in Japan and in America, have criticised the film for supposedly glorifying Horikoshi’s contribution to the war. In fact, Jiro suggests during a design briefing that they remove the guns and, at one point, even finds himself strolling through the wreckages of crashed Zero fighters. If the film had come on any stronger with its anti-war message, it would have been patronising. Perhaps the criticism stems from the claim by Jiro’s role model, Caproni, that “aeroplanes are beautiful dreams.” The criticism is presumably that we mustn’t gloss over the brutal devastation of war; that every film set during a war should strive to imitate Schindler’s List. But in Miyazaki’s work, no one sets out to do evil, even if the result creates conflict. In Princess Mononoke, the humans are not making guns because they are malicious, but to protect the vulnerable and their livelihood. Every character is simply trying to further their own cause, or to perfect what they already do well. If only Jiro would play the villain, we could all condemn him, refuse to understand why he lived the way he did, and learn nothing.

Jiro is certainly not perfect, and his dogged quest to produce something beautiful puts a strain on his relationships with those around him. Caproni understands this impulse perfectly. He has been a kind of spirit guide through the film for Jiro, and ends by reassuring him that his work is over, and that “artists are only creative for ten years.” All that remains is to be grateful for the time that he had.

Miyazaki has been making films for far longer, of course, and his most recent have been among his best. It seems hard to believe that he will retire now. He is getting older, of course, and his artistic process is immensely demanding. But the real clue as to why Miyazaki has declared The Wind Rises his last film may lie in his childhood.

In 1945, when Miyazaki was four, the city where he lived with his father the aeroplane engineer, was bombed. The family was evacuated to a railway bridge. The sky was pink with flame. They got hold of a truck and, as they escaped the city, a woman and a child asked for a lift. But Miyazaki’s family drove on without stopping. It was an apparent failure of kindness, and he wondered later if it could have happened differently. Soon after the war ended, his mother contracted spinal tuberculosis, and underwent treatment for the next eight years.

Watching The Wind Rises, it feels as though this is the story Miyazaki has been coming round to all these years—the final, realist vision to resolve all those recurring images of planes, burning skies, the woman and child in need, the debilitating tuberculosis of a loved one. Over three decades, this raw material has provided fuel for his gorgeous fantasy. Now, at last, it has been transformed back into reality.

Departing from reality

A year or two ago I had a brief affair with early film. In a marked and productive change from watching YouTube videos containing words like “fail” and “vs,” I started to look up silent films. I was amazed by Buster Keaton’s famous train scene in The General, which is not only a virtuosic performance but, with its dangerous stunts, could have been his last. As I clicked back through history, I discovered that the train was already cemented in film tradition at that early stage: one of the first pieces of footage ever shown to the public showed a train—that great Victorian symbol of the future—approaching from the distance. The first audiences screamed as the image rushed past the camera, unable to separate film from reality.

Soon, people were quite used to the apparitions projected by the likes of the Lumière brothers, depicting workers leaving a factory, and other similar scenes of which the best that can be said is that they were true to life. Cinema had already promised something better, a vicarious thrill, a way of putting the spectator in the apparent path of a train without the risk, of visiting extremes without leaving your seat.

And so, even in its inception, cinema was a departure from reality, a proving ground for the imagination akin to dreaming. George Méliès’s famous Voyage Dans La Lune imagined a spaceship landing on the moon (or rather, in his eye), while HG Wells’s visual, proto-cinematic writing explored the same issues of temporal and spatial contraction that were being ironed out in this new medium. Science fiction (SF) and film were born in the same moment, and you can’t tell the story of one without the other.

Projecting Tomorrow: Science Fiction and Popular Cinema (IB Tauris, £14.99), the new book by James Chapman and Nicholas Gill, takes pointedly against the “fashionable cult of Deleuze,” and opts for a historical reading of some of the key SF films. The authors reject “voguish trends in cultural theory,” arguing that the imagined future of each film sheds light on the anxieties of the times in which they were created. This may be a truism, but it is still a fascinating lens through which to look at 12 of the genre’s best-loved films—some global successes, others simply interesting examples of the genre. In each of the book’s essays, they look at the production history of a film with reference to the commercial successes and failures of the time, and the implications of the inevitable big studio chess moves. They tell the story of each collaboration leading up to the filming and release, and enjoy teasing out the implications of a promotional logline.

2001: A Space Odyssey marks a watershed, for the authors, as the first SF film to become a blockbuster, and to bring the genre into the mainstream. I first watched it a couple of years ago on holiday in a Welsh cottage. All I knew was that this was the film in which a computer called Hal tried to kill everyone. Neither I nor my girlfriend was prepared for what we saw. Particularly challenging was the part after Hal was shut down and the plot ended, but the film carried on. My girlfriend got up to “make tea” and didn’t return.

Reading Projecting Tomorrow, I finally know why I was so baffled by that final section. I had very much enjoyed the cat-and-mouse game with Hal, and yet I had absolutely no idea how the last section could have been allowed to exist, particularly by a director whose other films were obviously the work of a genius.

For a start, the authors point out that “there was never a definitive shooting script.” They track Stanley Kubrick’s collaboration with Arthur C Clarke closely, digging up variances between script drafts and quoting from correspondence to reconstruct their often differing opinions on how the project should progress. Kubrick was more preoccupied with “formal properties” than Clarke, who was concerned about “narrative comprehension.” Clarke had wanted a relatively clear ending where the main character, Bowman, meets aliens and brings some of their wisdom back to earth. Instead, Kubrick decided to end with a sort of weird LSD trip, landing abruptly in a floorlit Louis XVI-style apartment with an old man eating some carrots and that massive domino thing from the opening. The fatal cable from Kubrick to Clarke came in November 1967: “As more film cut together it became apparent that narration was not needed.”

The disagreements between Kubrick and Clarke are, like many other moments in the book, evidence for the authors of “the essential difference between SF literature, concerned as it [is] with ideas and philosophy, and SF cinema, in which visual spectacle is paramount.”

In changing some of the fundamental rules of the fictional world, filmmakers had to take some things for granted—you can’t be radical about everything at once—and one of the genre’s historical failings, discussed without much depth by the authors, was its presentation of women as sex objects. In SF musical caper Just Imagine, Mars looks much like a tropical hotel lobby full of scantily clad show girls who try to undress the heroes; far more pleasant than their Earth, where by their own admission they “hate these modern women.” In Forbidden Planet, the main female character Alta serves no purpose beyond providing a focus for sexual desire. At one point the Captain chides her outright for her short skirt, which is likely to provoke a sexual assault from one of his randy crew, if he doesn’t get there first (he does). Later, in Logan’s Run, the eponymous character is utterly baffled when, wearing a sleazy kimono, he materialises a woman in his flat, says “let’s have sex,” and is refused (don’t worry, she does end up having sex with him, and also getting spontaneously nude in an ice cave). After decades of SF films pandering to male fantasy, I was pleased to see the authors note the appearance of Princess Leia in 1977 with thoughts and actions all of her own, though they see her relative lack of sexualisation as being “repressed: a breach with tradition in the genre… Star Wars was scant female liberation.” I’d say it’s worth considering what came before.

The book fares much better with issues of race representation, pointing out the disconcertingly Aryan population of Logan’s Run, though omitting to mention how much the Carrousel ceremony looks like the Ku Klux Klan Winter Olympics. The authors even beat me at spot-the-minority in Just Imagine; their winning hand reveals a lone Japanese-looking man in a crowd scene. They also draw interesting parallels between the caste system of Planet of the Apes and the American Civil Rights Movement. In an early draft of the script, an underclass of baboons had been protesting with placards saying “Down With Discrimination.” Perhaps even more interesting is Charlton Heston’s chilling observation of the extras on location:

At lunch, the ape actors lunched separately, since their makeups limited them to liquid foods taken through a straw. But beyond that, they self-segregated by species: gorillas at one table, chimps at another, and orangutans at still a third.

It’s in these moments that the value and attraction of historical research outweighs theory.

The authors run through a kaleidoscope of influences on Star Wars, drawn from a huge array of different cultures. George Lucas lamented the lost mystique of the Orient, with its promises of an exotic other. He originally considered casting a Eurasian Princess Leia, an African American Han Solo, and even using an entirely Japanese cast. His debt to Japan was clear, and many other cultures went into constructing the world around them: a keen ethnographer might notice that the Jawas spoke Zulu and Swahili played in double-time. The human characters in the first film were all white, however, and “the only African-American in the piece was the voice of pure evil.” There was a so-called “black-lash” after its release, though the first person to point out the lack of ethnic mix only noticed after he’d paid to see the film four times.

Through dedicated research, Chapman and Gill chart many other themes: the relationship between the British and American film industries; the primacy of grand visuals over ideas in SF films; the rise of the SF blockbuster. In doing so, they have compiled a book that will satisfy the curiosity of the film student about the little islands of history that bore the final reels. More than that, it’s a surprisingly accessible gold mine of trivia and wry anecdotes, essential reading for the pub quiz master and a reliable reference for SF fans hoping to settle an argument.

The book gives you the plots and twists from the first page, but then almost every SF film I’ve watched has been spoiled in advance. If Planet of the Apes came up in conversation, we’d end up talking about the twist at the end: the buried Statue of Liberty. Until I was 24 I’d never watched the original Star Wars films, but of course I had heard several hundred bad Darth Vader impressions, always croaking, “Luke: I am your father,” like emphysema patients. No one ruined Robocop for me, but no one cares how Robocop ends.

So if this article has spoiled any of these films for you, I’m not sorry. For profit and for society, they aimed to start conversations. They are often more eloquent about the preoccupations of their times than any film directly accountable to the constraints of here and now. They don’t show us the future as a prediction, but as a warning: we are all making the world we will have to live in.

Sport vs spectacle

Pedestrians spill out of Wembley Park station. Lots of men are wearing hoodies and loose fitting jeans, with cropped hair and the occasional scar where hair won’t grow. Blue lights flash past as we converge on Wembley Arena. The UFC, or Ultimate Fighting Championship, has come to town.

The Ultimate Fighting Championship is the best known of the mixed martial arts (MMA) events, which were conceived to answer the old pub dilemma, “Who would have won in a fight between Bruce Lee and Mohammed Ali?” Every martial art claims to be the best fighting style on its own terms, but it had, until MMA, been a matter of dispute as to which might actually win in a no-holds-barred brawl. The answer seems to be a combination of boxing, wrestling, Muay Thai and Brazilian jiu-jitsu.

In the early days of UFC almost anything that might allow a fighter to emerge victorious was permitted. There was no limit to the number of rounds. John McCain, the failed presidential candidate, campaigned against the league in the 1990s, and succeeded in having the event banned in the majority of US states. Las Vegas casino owners the Fertitta brothers then bought the rights to the UFC—the contract included a clause which stipulated that any dispute between the two brothers would be settled in a jiu-jitsu match of three five-minute rounds—and they began the long process of rebranding UFC as a serious sport.

Rounds in the octagonal metal cage are five minutes long. There are eight weight classes. But even in an increasingly regulated spectator sport, only the most extreme strategies are disallowed. The rule book’s brief list of fouls includes “putting a finger into any orifice,” “spiking an opponent to the canvas on his head or neck,” and “attacking an opponent who is under the care of the referee.” It explicitly states that you are not allowed to throw in the towel without the referee’s consent.

Notice, too, that the rules say “his.” There are women fighters, but this is a hyper-male sport. Poor Ernest Hemingway might not have known what to make of our modern world, where fishing must be humane and sustainable, bullfighting may be banned and the US president himself is pushing for gun control—but he would have felt at home with mixed martial arts, which harks back to an ancient masculinity.

My brothers and I find our seats and watch English fighter Tom “Kong” Watson knock Stanislav Nedkov to the floor with his elbows, knees and fists. A spot of blood hits the lens on one of the four close-up cameras trained on Nedkov’s fallen body as a referee throws himself between the victor and his opponent. The crowd cheers heartily.

The heaving arena is lit by the glow of roving spotlights and wrestling-style branding, flashing up the UFC logo on the six giant screens at either end. My two brothers are on my right; to my left are two men in their late thirties, also brothers, and their father, who looks a bit like Steven Berkoff. Behind us, in the rafters, is a group of loud Scousers, who remain standing throughout. Everyone has plastic cups of Becks Vier. Glass would be a bad idea. There are seven preliminary fights tonight, and another five on the main card. Ten thousand people have paid a total of almost £900,000 to be here.

As the song “Move” by Thousand Foot Crutch ends, the next fighters are announced. They have their eyebrows smothered in Vaseline and are let into the octagon. My older brother explains the term “ground and pound” while we watch. It means sitting on or standing over your opponent and hitting him in the face until someone stops you. After the first round, the ring girl, Brittney Palmer, to whom a whole double-page spread in the programme has been dedicated, sashays around the eight sides of the cage. There are wolf whistles and some horrible things are said. One of the four cameramen tracks her as she sits back down. She notices him, smiles, gives a little wave with her fingers and mimes a kiss to the viewer.

I turn to one of the men to my left, just as he says, “I want to see a leg get broken.” I ask him why everyone is crowding round a particular spot on the ground near ringside. “People want a photograph with the Freakshow,” he explains. Down there, among the crowd, is Colin “Freakshow” Fletcher, a British fan favourite, who is not fighting tonight. He is known for taking as many punches as necessary in order to get close enough to strangle his opponent. Seven of his eight wins have been by submission. He is also known for wearing clown makeup, and being accompanied in his entrance by men in gimp masks and on leashes. There are people who think MMA is an ignoble sport. But one might argue that it is not a sport; it is a spectacle.

Terry Etim is coming up next. Along with Fletcher, he is among a new generation of British MMA fighters who have followed in the wake of Michael Bisping, the first Brit to headline a UFC card, way back in UFC 78 (we’re now at 157). Etim is from Liverpool, and the Scousers behind us go wild as he is announced. He has a six-inch height advantage on Renée Forte, and glares straight ahead as he enters to “In the Air Tonight” by Phil Collins. The whole crowd is behind him. Forte comes out, short, less angry looking, and they fight tentatively. Forte works Etim’s left knee; Etim has a quick, high push kick that he keeps trying to land. Etim loses on points, by unanimous decision, and the crowd is despondent. There was no grand victory; there were not even good strikes for the slow-motion replays. In three days’ time, Etim will be released by the UFC. Two of the other UK fighters, Paul Sass and Che Mills, will also be dropped. It is Mills’s first loss, but UFC president Dana White is disappointed by his failure to “drop punches, elbows—go absolutely apeshit” in the last round. The crowd must have their broken legs.

We go out to get more beer. There is a long queue for the men’s toilet and no queue for the women’s.

The next winner, James Te Huna, gives a shout out to his young nephew. I hope the nephew was only allowed to watch his Men in Black pastiche entrance, and not the fight itself, when Te Huna took a roundhouse kick to the neck and was repeatedly elbowed into the canvas, requiring two men with towels to clean up the blood.

After three hours, I have begun to think about each fight much more in terms of strategy, though it’s hard to completely set aside the human cost. The fighting is highly technical—more so than boxing, because of the versatility of the fighters—and like chess games, fights tend to move along established pathways of aggression and counter. Jimi Manuwa attacks four-time Muay Thai world champion Cyrille Diabaté. I watch Manuwa try to take Diabaté down to the ground and away from his comfort zone, Diabaté keeping him at bay with quick knees to the body in clinch. At the end of the first round, the referee calls the doctor over to Diabaté’s corner. His leg won’t support him. The fight is called off and the crowd have their broken leg. They boo. Diabaté is helped off and they clap him out. It is not the fighter they object to, since he isn’t allowed to throw in the towel himself; it is the meddling bureaucrat who has called off the fight because of a mere torn calf.

Cub Swanson and Dustin Poirier are up next for the penultimate fight. They look like Orlando Bloom and Elijah Wood respectively, if each actor had shaved his head, covered his upper body in tattoos and started a prison gang. Swanson has a neat line shaved, or scarred, into his right eyebrow. Poirier has one cauliflower ear.

My little brother leans in to talk in my ear. “He looks like a total psycho.”

I don’t know which of the two he means.

Poirier starts scrappy, and Swanson quickly goes for a roundhouse and misses with an uppercut. Swanson seems the more brutal, I think, as he tries to land a flying knee. He was the one screaming, open mouthed, when his name was announced. Swanson kicks again but Poirier has seen it coming and tips up his foot, temporarily downing Swanson, who wrenches his leg free before it can be used in a big takedown. In the second round they box pretty solidly, though Swanson is still trying for more audacious, heavy hits. Swanson is certainly more in control in the second half: he executes a textbook takedown and then, having pinned Poirier to the floor, he grins up at the nearest camera and lifts a hand to his ear to urge on the crowd’s roars. Swanson understands that fighting is only half of his job. He wins by unanimous decision.

The music starts up again: “watching the people get lairy…” After this brief incitement to riot, we are played a teaser video for the title fight. It is the Interim Bantamweight Championship, with favourite Renan Barao fighting Michael McDonald. Both are shown knocking people unconscious in inventive ways, or battering the head of an already unconscious opponent.

McDonald enters to a dulcet song. It’s like a nursery rhyme in a horror film. Barao enters with a brightly glowing gum shield. The stats on the big screen say that Barao has a winning streak of 30 fights. From the start of round one, time seems to speed up. Barao attempts an early spinning back kick but he is out of reach. McDonald surges at him with a flurry of punches. He lands two left hooks and takes Barao to ground. Soon they are up again. It feels as if any second could be the last of the fight.

In the second round, they wear each other down, testing boundaries. Barao bunches his shoulders; McDonald stays lively, bouncing on the balls of his feet. Both are bleeding on their face; McDonald also on his left shoulder. In the third round, out of nowhere, Barao lands a spinning back kick straight in the chest. McDonald stumbles back but, incredibly, keeps fighting.

“At least it wasn’t in the face,” says my younger brother.

We watch the slow-motion replay, and it was in the face. The kick caught McDonald on the chin, a blow that should have knocked his jaw off, but he stayed on his feet, and he’s still in for round four. Barao takes him down and he manages to get back up again, but Barao brings him back down to ground, one knee on his stomach, his right arm and throat caught in a tight arm-triangle choke hold. Seconds pass. The referee asks for a sign that he’s conscious and McDonald gives the thumbs up. He’s weakening, gradually. More seconds pass. He taps out.

The crowd suddenly erupts as Barao jumps up and begins to dance. The interviewer tries not to laugh as he asks questions to an interpreter, who translates the question into Portuguese, receives Barao’s answer and translates it back to English. Blood and choking is a good end to the night.

After just six hours and 12 fights, my brothers and I are back out on the streets of Wembley. Tom Watson receives two £33,000 bonuses for best knockout and best fight, worth multiples of his normal pay. It is a codified sport, but you can only hit the real money if you entertain, and you might lose your place in the roster if you don’t. As Barao said in the pre-fight interview: “I will put on a good show once again.”