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EXCLUSIVE: Behind the Scenes at Studio Ghibli and Miyazaki’s Oscar-Contender ‘The Wind Rises’ (TRAILER)

EXCLUSIVE: Behind the Scenes at Studio Ghibli and Miyazaki's Oscar-Contender 'The Wind Rises' (TRAILER)

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.

How would you characterize the innovations in the animation?

Wexler: As
someone who has spent a lot of time with these films and hearing some of the
troubles they went through, I can talk about two things: one is the incredible
level of detail. Today I was noticing things I had not noticed before, really
wonderful small details. Secondly, the sound. The airplanes, trains, all the
cars, the earthquakes were voiced by a human, one guy, our lead sound mixer and
sound coordinator. Miyazaki wanted to do it himself, but his staff said no.
Upwards of half the sound effects are vocalized sounds. The sound is mono, one
speaker, one channel. Miyazaki wanted a cleaner, simpler sound.

What’s the balance between Miyazaki films and films by other directors? How many a year does Studio Ghibli put out?

Wexler: We usually do a film every year for 2 or 3 years and then we take a year off. But it’s been almost every year. There has not been a Miyazaki film every year. He’s not supervising all of our films. Most, but not all. We have several directors he wrote part of the story but it was not directed by him, his son directed “Up On Poppy Hill,” we have the Takahata films and other films by other directors. Half of our portfolio is Miyazaki films.

Miyazaki likes to go back in time to portray other periods in Japan, and he likes to focus on the beauty of rural Japan before industrialization.

Wexler: A lot of his films take place in a fantasized Europe. Think of “Howl’s Moving Castle.” It doesn’t really seem like China. He does have a view of how things are, or were, or should have been, or could have been. A lot of the behaviors of the characters are how he would view how people should be. Many characters don’t speak in slang, you don’t have a lot of heys and ums and ahs. This is a big challenge in dubbing because it’s really easy to put a “so” or “um” or “ah” in there to make it match, and one of my jobs is to say no. For example in “My Neighbor Totoro,” the kids’ clothes are folded up next to their bed for the next morning because that’s what kids should do before they go to bed. In “Poppy Hill,” we had high schoolers, no slang, not one bit of slang, they spoke properly. It’s hard to express in English but there are many levels of formality and informality in Japanese and the characters tend to speak how people should talk.

Give us a sense of the biggest hits of Studio Ghibli within Japan and outside of Japan.

Wexler: If I think about them by the numbers at the box office, they won’t match what you think of as our hits. “Totoro” was a smash hit that evolved over time. “Spirited Away” is by far out biggest success. I hate to do any film any injustice — there are only 20, so they are all greatest hits — but I would say the Miyazaki films “Spirited Away” and “Howl’s Moving Castle.” If I meet men, maybe 40 or older, who don’t think animation is for them, I encourage them to watch “Porco Rosso.” People guessed this film would be a “Porco Rosso 2” which it is not. But there are lots of airplanes. “Kiki’s Delivery Service” is an absolute delight, “Castle in the Sky.” I’m a huge fan of “My Neighbor the Yamadas,” which uses a whole new style of animation. It’s breathtakingly clever and witty, and just way out there.

Will this truly be Miyazaki’s last film?

Wexler: From
everything I’ve heard, this will be his last full length animation. It has been
a huge hit in Japan. We have a very long theatrical run before we go to home
video. We’re doing an awards run in November in New York and Los Angeles, that
will be subtitled, and in February we’ll have our dubbed version. 

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This is absolutely infuriating. THE WIND RISES is playing at only one theater in Manhattan for only seven days and it's the most out-of-the-way theater in the borough. I took the day off yesterday so I could go see the film and then do other errands in Manhattan. It takes me four trains to get to this theater (the Landmark Sunshine). I was one subway stop away five minutes before the film was to start and waiting for the fourth and last train I would need and it didn't arrive for ten minutes. Afraid I would miss the beginning of the film, I decided to abort the trip. Now I only have tonight and tomorrow night to try and make it to the film, which has a 7:15 evening showing, which means I don't get out of the theater until 9:30 PM or so and don't get home until 11PM on a weeknight, which is quite late for me. I may have to wait till the Japanese DVD comes out to see it (the Ghibli films tend to have English subs. nowadays). I always want to see Ghibli films in Japanese first. When it comes out theatrically next Feb., it will be dubbed in English, exactly the way I DON'T want to see these films. Pokemon films are fine dubbed in English (and I see all of those), but I expect better treatment of Ghibli films in the U.S.

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