The Wind Rises: Understanding the Miyazaki Fanbase and the Oscars

I sometimes don’t get Hayao Miyazaki fans.

It’s interesting saying that, since I’m a fan of his work myself. Big fan, actually, as he was one of the reasons I became as interested in anime as I am. But a truth is a truth, and in this case the truth is directed at his most fervent fanboys and fangirls. Because, honestly, they’re so enamoured with the director’s films they forget to give others a chance. Or, if they do give them a chance, they call them inferior without stopping to think if they really are.

Perhaps the best example of this is the 12th Best Animated Feature race at last year’s Oscars. As expected, The Wind Rises was nominated, as were three other films no one thought stood any chance of winning. The only competition was Disney’s venture, the 2013 CGI-animated musical Frozen. Disney had yet to take home that particular gold statue, but with Frozen being a return to classic form for Walt Disney Animation Studios the odds were in their favour. So it came as no surprise that Disney, in a well-deserving outcome, took home the trophy, leaving Miyazaki’s swan-song as another reminder that the man’s only film to ever win was Spirited Away.

I’m not one to say the negative backlash was entirely underserved. It wasn’t. It was a cruel reminder that The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has its fair share of infuriating biases, preferring to give award to whatever was the easiest and safest choice to make. For all its flaws and issues, The Wind Rises was no doubt the more ambitious and daring movie. It was a biopic, true, but it tackled heavy-duty themes and ideas not normally discussed in its Western counterparts. Particularly, its biggest hook was its neutral stance on war, preferring to paint its protagonist, legendary Mitsubishi-A1 fighter pilot designer Jiro Horikoshi, in an innocent and impartial manner. Ergo, it was the more unusual and bold film.

But here’s where I put my foot down and play Devil’s Advocate; true, Miyazaki’s final movie was daring and complicated, there’s no denying that. But I think Frozen was the better film. It was more conventional, yes, but conventionality is one factor in the bigger picture. Despite being a Disney musical, something the studio is no stranger to, Frozen is also daring and interesting in its own right. Simply brushing it off does a disservice to its strengths and, subsequently, its competitor’s weaknesses. Here’s why:

(By the way, spoilers.)

For one, the stories. On one hand, The Wind Rises falls into the same category as Howl’s Moving Castle when it comes to big themes with no coherent stance. In the latter’s case, the theme was how war is bad, war is evil, war is pointless, and so on. In the former’s case, the theme was how people manipulate brilliant machines and turn them into weapons of war and destruction. True, Howl’s Moving Castle was also a bloody mess narratively, but that doesn’t mean The Wind Rises is free of guilt; in fact, it couldn’t make up its mind about how far to go with its anti-war message, so it kept refining it during each of Jiro’s conversations with Caproni until it gave up. And I get it: life is complicated, not everything turns out how you want. But that doesn’t mean that being gutsy is having a stance that isn’t consistent.

On the other hand, Frozen never falls into that trap. What’s it about at the beginning? Discrimination. What’s it about at the end? Accepting that that discrimination is wrong. The middle connects the two. And yes, there are wonky parts, and I don’t care for the third-act twist, but it even then found a way to correct that with a clever subversion of one of Disney’s most tired clichés: true love. If that’s not good writing, I’ll stop talking.

Besides, The Wind Rises refusing to stay consistent is actually problematic thematically. It almost reads as follows:

“Yeah, war is evil, and my inventions should never be used for them. Except for when I have to make a living, in which case maybe I should still make weapons under the guise of art. Except that-wait, lemme start again: war is evil, but I have to make planes, and those planes are gonna be used to-hold on, if war is evil and I have to make planes, I guess I should make them-wait, that doesn’t make sense either. Ah, forget it!”

This problem, admittedly, is overcome by the main character being interesting, but if this were strictly about its stance on war…it’d be terrible. Because it has no official stance, it merely claims to have one.

Moving on, Frozen also has the advantage over The Wind Rises simply because all of the important and recurring characters play a part in the story. Sure, you can argue that Prince Hans’s turn in the third-act was forced. Sure, you can argue that The Duke of Weselton and his men were generic. Sure, you can even argue that the rock trolls were more a device than characters! But at least they did something, at least they contributed to the plot!

As for The Wind Rises? It tries, but ultimately suffers from having characters that it can’t figure out how to juggle. Perhaps the best example is Kayo, Jiro’s younger sister. Despite appearing in four scenes, having an interesting occupation and having spunk to her personality, she’s a wasted opportunity. She shows up, criticizes Jiro for being inconsiderate, has a small chat with him about her life and leaves. Like that. To paraphrase a famous e-celeb who shall not be named, “Perhaps you’d have more time to develop [her] if, y’know, you actually DEVELOPED [her]!”

The movie also relegates a lot of its side characters to a back burner, so much so that you never know what to think of them. And perhaps you shouldn’t need to, it’s Jiro’s story, but…dammit, I wanted to learn more about Kastrup’s history with the Nazis, and why he was intent on fleeing Germany! I wanted to learn more about Mr. Satomi’s business, and why he became rich! Even Caproni deserves more than his conversations with Jiro! And yes, you can only fit so much character development in 126-minutes, but these characters are written like real people, so why not develop them like real people?

Anyway, inconsistent themes and poorly-developed characters. Where else does Frozen beat out The Wind Rises? Surprisingly, its music. And don’t get me wrong, I love The Wind Rises’s soundtrack. It’s Joe Hisaishi, even his minor works are gold. But the movie makes the same mistake Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood does, in that it repeats the same two or three tracks over and over to the point of overkill. It’s Howl’s Moving Castle all-over: I like these songs, but couldn’t Hisaishi have thought up more compositions?

Frozen doesn’t have this problem. For one, it’s Disney, meaning that, even if they were terrible, it has plenty of tracks, vocal and non-vocal alike. But that aside, Frozen’s soundtrack is awesome! Every tune, every composition, every song, it all works regardless of its importance to the movie as a whole. And while people constantly complain about how “generic” “Let it Go!” is, be honest: how many Disney movies have had a “Fuck society!” message that’s also a coming out moment as their big show-stopper? Say what you will, but that’s gutsy!

And finally, there’s the structure. I’m normally an advocate for the “content dictates length” camp in film, as I’ve seen lengthy masterpieces (The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, The Ten Commandments, Schindler’s List) and short disasters (Movie 43, Super, Oliver & Company) a-plenty, but at 126-minutes The Wind Rises feels too long. Not unbearably, but considering the film’s decision to make the movie a “a best of” story there are parts that could’ve been cut in the first hour. Simply remove a few conversations about war politics and airplane specs, i.e. the ones that go nowhere, and the movie would still work.

Additionally, the movie’s story becomes sappy whenever Nahoko enters the picture. To be fair, she provides the movie’s heart, and I don’t fault how she’s written considering that she’s sick with Tuberculosis for the majority of her scenes. But her relationship with Jiro, from the dialogue to the way they behave, feels ripped straight from Hollywood’s Golden Age. By that, I mean it’s schmaltzy beyond belief. They share genuine chemistry, don’t mistake me, but it’s hard to take seriously when I’m reminded of Gone With the Wind each time they interact.

And then there’s the last 15-minutes, which feels so ambiguous that it’s not even clever. Simply put, Nahoko is seen walking in the distance, we cut to Jiro sensing something strange in the wind during a test flight of his latest creation, and then we fast-forward to the end of WWII and Nahoko is dead. The movie and music try to sell me on it, and I get its intentions, but I’m not convinced that this was an effective way to portray Nahoko’s death. Because the average person isn’t intuitive enough to pick up on that, it feels forced and incomplete. Perhaps an image of Nahoko fading away as she walks to the sanatorium is stronger?

Again, Frozen doesn’t have those structural issues. Being more family-friendly, it avoids being too long or disjointed because, well, Disney would lose box-office revenue. Everything also fits into place thematically, and its message, while simple, doesn’t backtrack or contradict itself to prove a point. It’s the smaller and less-grand reaching movie, and I think it benefits from that. Being fun also helps.

If it sounds like I’m biased, keep in mind that I still love The Wind Rises and recognize that Frozen isn’t perfect. I’m only criticizing one and praising the other because Miyazaki’s die-hard fanboys and fangirls do the same. According to them, Disney died when it switched to CGI animation, while Hayao Miyazaki can do no wrong. And that’s a problem because you neglect the humanity of both. Personally speaking, I don’t even consider The Wind Rises to be in Miyazaki’s top 5 best, while Frozen is one of my top 10 favourite Disney movies. And this is after having seen the former twice and the latter once. That’s the kind of impact they’ve both had.

But it doesn’t matter to the fans, right? According to them, “The Academy done goofed” when it chose its victor, hence the immediate influx of fan-rage and rating bombs on sites like Rotten Tomatoes, Metacritic and IMDb. The situation got so bad that I remember a comment from a now-deleted IMDb thread pointing out that no one would be whining if the reverse had happened and The Wind Rises had won the Oscar. Considering past history with other movies that have won Best Picture over “more deserving” films, as well as the internet’s hipster-ish “fan-wank” for anime and traditional animation, I have a hunch that that’s probably true.

Truthfully, being traditionally-animated or anime-style doesn’t automatically mean that it’s better than CGI animation. Like dubbing, it’s case-by-case. Sometimes it’s true, sometimes it’s not true. And in the case of The Wind Rises, a movie that I listed all the flaws of, it’s not true….Academy voters not having respect for animation be damned! If you want to fight me on that, well…you’d need a better argument than “Hayao Miyazaki > Disney” at hand.

Besides, if it makes you feel better, this year’s Best Animated Feature nominations included The Tale of Princess Kaguya and not The LEGO Movie…despite me, once again, considering the latter far superior. You happy now?!


  1. I still haven't seen The Wind Rises, so I'll refrain from giving an opinion either way as to whether it or Frozen is the better film. That being said, I'll venture a few comments regarding Frozen.

    I don't hate Frozen by any means [I actually like it, and I own a copy], but the more times I watch it, the more its weaknesses show. Its absolutely true that the third act twist regarding Hans could have been better foreshadowed; I love it in principle, but narrative daring is no excuse for a flawed execution. Unlike you, however, I *did* find the movie to be too short. It tried to incorporate two main protagonists, a supporting protagonist, two antagonists, two main character arcs, two evil schemes, and two sidekicks, as well bit parts essential to developing all of those- all in 92 minutes [excluding the end credits]. That's a *lot* of material for such a short film, and much of it is not developed to its full potential. The songs are mostly crammed into the film's first half, giving the finished product an imbalanced feel, musically-speaking. The means by which Elsa manages to thaw the kingdom are poorly elaborated upon; she says the answer is love, but love for what? For whom? Is it love in the abstract, or for something more particular? The film does her character a disservice by not elaborating upon this line further, when the answer is definitely not self-evident. Hans' final scheme doesn't hold water- there's no way the various delegates and/or servants would not have gone to check on Anna's body. Etc., etc.

    In other words, Frozen tries to do too much at once, and winds up not doing enough. In that sense, it reminds me of Howl's Moving Castle, actually. But also like Howl's Moving Castle, its a movie I can still find the good in on repeat viewings whilst still acknowledging the flaws. Its characters -especially Anna- supply a graceful charm of sorts that carries me through the film every time. The climax is delightful, and Olaf is far less annoying than he has any right to be. The soundtrack has been greatly overexposed of late at the expense of other Disney scores, but that doesn't change that it contains good work.

    I'm am grateful I saw Frozen before the hype set in, as it allowed me to form a more honest opinion of it untainted by hype backlash. I think its a decent movie that's worth seeing. But truth to tell, I think its been getting more credit than it deserves- and after more than a year of careful though and multiple viewings, that opinion is pretty much set in stone. As much fun as I had with Frozen, I'm honestly more partial to the likes of "Wreck-It Ralph" and "The Princess and the Frog", both of which I would also hold up as superior efforts. But then, I'm used to sometimes having unconventional views when it comes to discussing Disney's animated movies.

    Briefly, as regards animation styles: I have a mild preference for 2D animation over 3D, but I've definitely been impressed by 3D animation before- for example, Wall-E is one of the most visually resplendent movies I've seen. Frozen's animation doesn't look too shabby, especially where the ice-effects are concerned, but I do think its fair to say that Disney cut a few corners on its character designs in the film.

    P.S: I'm delighted to know you also enjoyed The Lego Movie. Personally, I like it about as much as Kaguya, just for different reasons. But so be it.

    1. To be honest, I was worried someone would slam me for my critique, but that didn't happen.

      It's interesting that I agree with various aspects of what you said about Frozen, yet still prefer it to The Wind Rises. Because for as flawed as the Disney offering was, Miyazaki's offering was even more so. Not to mention, a lot of the common complaints people have about the film (how Elsa got her powers, who ran the kingdom after Elsa and Anna's parents died, etc.) I attribute to Disney logic that doesn't detract from the story. It's no different than, say, how The Cave of Wonders was formed in Aladdin, or how the trees and grass grow back so quickly at the end of The Lion King. You sorta just go with it because it's more fun that way...

  2. I've seen both the praise and the criticism of Frozen. To be honest, a lot of the comments, both positive and negative, seem to indicate that the film's success owes just as much [if not more] to what viewers brought to the film as it does to what the film gave to viewers. Take, for example, the narrative and thematic function of the song "Let It Go". The second half of the film all but screams that Elsa really *does* need to learn to control her powers and use them appropriately in order to be happy and fulfilled. It also all but shouts the message that while society should not violently persecute the individual for going against the grain, said persecution does not in any way absolve the persecuted of their legitimate responsibilities to other people. There are commentators out there who have recognized the film's nuanced take on individual expression, but in my experience, one has to go looking for them in order to find them. From the way many people talk about the film, you'd think they turned it off after "Let-It Go" and didn't bother watching the rest.

    Ah yes, Disney logic. While it can be taken too far, there are definitely times when it excuses certain things. I never cared where the Cave of Wonders came from, because understanding where it came from was not necessary for Aladdin to make sufficient sense. I don't think we necessarily needed to know where Elsa's powers came from, either [though their source could make for a good story premise if Disney ever makes a proper sequel]. I'm still rather frustrated, however, at how Anna's memory wipe wound up being little more than a plot device when the ramifications for her character development [and the narrative and thematic potential that would have come with her learning about it during the film] were gigantic. But that complaint goes under my broader issue of characters and plot threads not being fully developed and/or exploited.

    In the end, I think Frozen is one of those films where I enjoy the characters, the premise, and the thematic concerns, but am frustrated with the actual execution of those elements. The framework for a great movie was there, but that great movie wound up being imprisoned within one that's merely decent. I'm truly happy that so many people enjoyed the film as it is. But oh, what could have been...

    Will I react the same way as you to The Wind Rises when I finally get around to watching it? I don't know. Perhaps I'll swing by and drop another comment here when I've seen it. For now, I'd like to say that I agree in the abstract with your idea that its arrogant and presumptuous to dismiss non-Ghibli animation [or western animation in general] as inherently inferior. Does American animation sometimes suffer as a result of obstacles that Japanese animation doesn't always face? Yes, yes it does. But that doesn't at all mean that American animation doesn't have strengths of its own, or that it hasn't given us many worthy films.

    1. It took me two days to think up a reply, by the way.

      I don't think it's fair to say that people stopped watching after "Let it Go!" Yes, it's true that the movie isn't perfect, but I think it handled its themes quite effectively in the second-half...even with its twist being poorly-handled. In a way, I think of it much like The Little Mermaid in terms of being a stepping stone for better movies in the future, except more over-exposed. I also kinda like Frozen more, as it felt a lot like what Tangled could've been if it'd been more daring.

      As for American animation falling into traps that anime doesn't? I think anime falls into its own share of traps too. But you'll see why in a future article...

    2. You must have had different encounters with the Frozen fandom than I have. Its such a big fandom such a thing is hardly inconceivable. The lyrics of "Let-It Go" are somewhat like those of "Hakuna Matata" in that they contain a measure of truth, but represent said truth being taken to an unhealthy extreme. If more people are picking up on this, than that's a good thing.

      Tangled was arguably more consistent, but I preferred Frozen to it. I kind of agree with the Little Mermaid comparison [and this is coming from someone who respects The Little Mermaid's technical prowess more than he enjoys its story and characters]. I just wish the likes of "Wreck-It Ralph" and "The Princess and the Frog" got more of the credit than they sometimes get for Disney Animation's recent resurgence. Frozen was not at all the first sign of that resurgence, and from what I've personally seen, the majority of the general public is acting like it was.

      My forays into anime began only a couple of years ago, actually. But from what I've seen and read thus far, it does indeed fall into its fair share of traps. I'll be watching for your article, as I'm curious to see what traps you'll be listing.

    3. My forays into anime are fairly recent too, surprisingly enough.

      Also, it's less one article and more a few. But one of them is, in fact, gonna be explored on its own in a few weeks, so be on the lookout for that...


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