Oral Expulsions & Traumatic Explosions

Hayao Miyazaki's The Wind Rises

published in Film Comment Vol.50 No.3, New York 2014

Why did Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki employ a human voice to mimic the sounds of devastation in The Wind Rises? It’s a choice that certainly left many of the film’s English-language critics dumbfounded. But much can be teased from this seemingly incongruous audiovisual conceit, which orients both the film’s poetic tenor and its political sentiments

The Wind Rises is nominally a poetic evocation of the early life of Jiro Horikoshi, the aeronautical engineer responsible for Japan’s Zero fighter plane. The story follows Horikoshi along parallel paths of love: one in pursuit of beauty as he designs the Zero, the other in his relationship with his wife, afflicted with tuberculosis—plain enough ingredients for a melodramatic tale of a visionary man parsing his energies between work and life. But as with much of Miyazaki’s oeuvre, the film’s terse psychological realism is assimilated by fantastical visual flourishes.

Despite its colorful pastoralism and sense of innocently dreamy reverie, it’s a fascinatingly dense film that deals with with the ethical stoicism of someone attempting to create a weapon of war during Japan’s nascent Showa era, with its growing militaristic fervour. But its “inscrutability”—so typical of Japanese postwar culture—is less a manifestation of what lies beneath than what’s right at the film’s surface. The use of vocalized sound effects to convey destruction constitutes a sonic haiku, wherein the condensed utterance of a phrase goes beyond literal signification.

To be sure, it is unsettling when this device is introduced during the ominous rumbles of the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923. Up to this point, The Wind Rises reaffirms the mastery of Studio Ghibli’s animation. But in the earthquake sequence the film is disrupted by the sound of a voice gurgling into a microphone. Suddenly Miyazaki’s “magical” film is flattened, the spectacle deflated, the wonder extinguished. The highlighting of imperfect construction (wabi sabi) exists in traditional and modern Japanese aesthetics. It can be found in the visible black-clothed operators of bunraku puppetry, the flat painted backdrops of kabuki theater, the plastic appearance of scaled dioramas in kaiju monster movies.

The apparent anomalies of Miyazaki’s sound design expresses a nuanced aural logic. Disembodied human breathing in a film is at once a corporeal presence, close to our ear, and a ghostly absence due to its lack of a visual correlative. It’s an instant reminder of the body’s physicality. Portrait photography captures a person’s outward appearance, but a recording of breathing captures something that issues from within the Self—the sound that escapes from the body to become an acoustic presence beyond it.

Miyazaki does away with the dehumanizing, assaultive sound effects deployed in the depiction of catastrophic destruction in most modern Hollywood spectacle. Signalling it through voices instead, he subliminally calls up the human dimension of such events. In this way the film simultaneously evokes the childlike fixation on destruction that blockbuster cinema indulges, and diametrically opposes it. The breaths, grunts, and gurgles in The Wind Rises elicit a conflicted reading as we struggle to digest each unsettling audiovisual moment.

This use of breathing also suggests another aural stratum in the film. For The Wind Rises not only draws on the life of Horikoshi but also that of the novelist Hori Tatsuo, whose 1937 story provides Miyazaki with his film’s title. Tatsuo’s novel is centered on a young woman suffering from tuberculosis in a mountain sanatorium in late Thirties Japan—essentially replaying Tatsuo’s own battle with TB. Of course, tuberculosis sufferers were acutely aware of the sound of their own breath heaving through their infected lungs, and so the sound of air is imbued with a tragic poetry. Miyazaki deploys this symbolic aural device to align the ravaged oral expulsions of TB sufferers with the humanity conveyed by the vocalised sound of the war machines created by visionaries whose fateful contract with their own dreams contributes to their own undoing. To uncover its poetic methods, The Wind Rises calls for some deep listening.

Text © Philip Brophy 2014. Images © Studio Ghibli