Hayao Miyazaki, the renowned animator of critically acclaimed films like My Neighbor Totoro, Spirited Away, and Howl's Moving Castle, is courting controversy in Japan and drawing the ire of the aggressively nationalist supporters of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
Miyazaki's latest movie, Kaze Tachinu (which will be released in English as The Wind Rises), his first since Ponyo, five years ago, is a marked departure from his usual stories about spirits and magic. The new film is a fictionalized biography of Jiro Horikoshi, the inventor of Japan's World War II workhorse fighter, the Mitsubishi Zero. Japan's role in World War II has always been a fraught topic, but has been a point of contention since Abe's election (or rather, reelection; he was prime minister briefly in 2007) earlier this year. Abe has tried to reframe Japan's role in World War II: He's questioned "whether it is proper to say that Japan ‘invaded' its neighbors" and questioned the 1995 official apology to "comfort women," the conscription prostitutes provided to Japanese troops during the war. Abe is currently pushing for a revision of the Japanese constitution that would not only ease the country's prohibition on military aggression, but would also enshrine the emperor as the head of state and compel "respect" for symbols of Japan's pre-war heyday.
Miyazaki knew that his new film would stir mixed feelings. In fact, he welcomed it. "[A]t a time when social systems and ways of living are going through huge changes," he told Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun, "it's impossible for anime alone to remain the same as before and produce fantasies. It is time for us to move into a new direction."
His animation company, Studio Ghibli, released a promotional issue of its Neppu magazine for the film, in which the 72-year-old director reminisced about growing up in the shadow of Japan's defeat and how it shaped his own beliefs about his country. "If I had been born a bit earlier, I would have been a gunkoku shonen (Militarist Youth)," Miyazaki writes, according to a translation by Matthew Penney at Japan Focus. But instead, he grew up in a family in which his father went from building airplane components during the war to opening a jazz club to cater to American soldiers during the postwar occupation. Removed from the "hysteria" of the war years, Miyazaki writes he "had a strong feeling in my childhood that we had ‘fought a truly stupid war'."
"It goes without saying that I am opposed to revising the constitution," he writes. "That is something that should never be done."
Kotaku notes that his comments have drawn backlash online from Japanese nationalists. "I don't get this old coot," one commenter writes; others single him out as "anti-Japanese," another called for the movie to be banned. The controversy hasn't hurt ticket sales, though. Variety reports that it opened atop the Japanese box office this past weekend, setting it on track to be the most successful film of the year in Japan.