The Wind Rises (2013) by Hayao Miyazaki

Jiro Horikoshi is a  young man with a passion for aircraft, beginning with childhood dreams of designing his own flying machines. In his dreams he is visited by Caproni, an Italian aircraft designer, who shows him the delight of being an aircraft engineer. His childhood is also marked by a devastating earthquake, during which he meets a young girl, Nahoko Satomi, whom he meets again when they are adults. Jiro’s immense talents for design and love of aircraft land him a job at Mistubishi, creating several aircraft for them, including bombers and fighters. As the 1930’s wear on, Jiro is increasingly concerned about the connection between aircraft and warfare. He hopes that one day he will be able to create beautiful aircraft that will not be used as weapons.

Hayao Miyazaki’s love of aircraft can be seen all the way back with the flying machines of Nausicaa, and “The Wind Rises” allows him to fully explore his passion. Jiro Horikoshi is portrayed as a paradigm of good, whose only wish is to create beauty in an ugly world. Less fantastical than many Ghibli works, “The Wind Rises” plays like a wartime epic whose focus is not on the war, but on the people and aircraft that populated those times. There are numerous crowd scenes that give a genuine sense of society and community. People rushing by, packed together on trains, or scrambling in terror following an earthquake. These vignettes all show a society that is variously shifted by fate in unknown ways, and the idea that the community is a whole rather than a collection of individuals. Jiro’s own life is guided heavily by fate, in particular the wind. The first example of this comes when his hat is blown off and caught by Nahoko. The film shies away from an exploration of war as seen in traditional “war” films. The characters visit Germany in the 1930’s and there is a brief glimpse of the terror that was then engulfing that country, but for the most part discussions of Nazism and Japan’s own wartime exploits go unstated (the film does end before getting into the outbreak of war). We do see Jiro’s final creation, the famed Zero fighter aircraft, as a thing of tragic beauty, appreciating it with the designer’s eyes, while the voice-over explanation that none of these planes returned from conflict offers a grim counterpoint. Where the film triumphs is in its understated message of hope against adversity. Jiro is utterly committed to designing aircraft, and shows a dedication that few will ever be lucky enough to experience. His love for Nahoko is likewise a point of motivation for him. While the world seems to be falling apart through war and natural disaster, the film expresses the importance of fixing your sights on a passion and absolutely dedicating your life to it. An exceptional film that delivers on action and emotion.

Roujin Z (1991) by Hiroyuki Katakubo

Haruko is a student nurse working as a carer for the elderly, bed-bound and incontinent Takazawa. The government department in charge of looking after the aged members of society has developed a new machine, the Z-001, which it promises will revolutionise the care profession. The machine is a giant bed that includes television, telephone, games, and will wash, feed and clean the patient. It even has a special vacuum for dealing with toileting. The government remove Takazawa from his home and place him inside the prototype machine to test and promote its effectiveness. Haruko sets out with her friends to rescue Takazawa from the government’s clutches. However, things soon spiral out of control when the machine develops unknown capabilities.

“Roujin Z” was written by Katsuhiro Otomo (Akira) and shows many similarities with the director’s other works. This includes concepts of transhumanism, human-machine interfacing, and corrupt government departments that do not have the citizens best interests at heart. Director Hiroyuki Katakubo who worked with Otomo on Akira does a great job with the mix of tones in “Roujin Z”. The film leans heavily on the comedy and jokes, particularly early on, which helps get the audience onboard with the somewhat out-there premise. There is also a lot of action and the breakneck pace leaves little time for reflection. Once the plot kicks into gear there is barely time to consider as it moves from one action sequence to another, with helicopter chases and robot fights. Haruko is a sympathetic protagonist, the personification of the kindness and hardwork of the medical profession. The artwork and style includes some excellent backgrounds, packed with details and the robots are well-designed, stretching the concept of a sentient robotic bed to its limits.

This film is packed with ideas about the future of the medical profession, the problems associated with technological progress, the corruption inherent in corporations and the military. Haruko’s job is threatened by the emergence of this new technology, and the film raises concerns about what society loses by relying heavily on computers or robots, positing that such progress may lead to a diminishment of compassion and human contact. The treatment of the elderly is at the heart of the drama. Although there is comedy to be gained from Takazawa being tossed around by the robot, the complete lack of care shown to him by the head of the department for welfare shows a dark side to how society sidelines their elderly. There are more far reaching concepts such as how humanity is increasingly becoming tied up with technology. Takazawa becomes able to converse through the machine and likewise people are able to hack into this system. An excellent science-fiction film that touches on many important ideas concerning the future of humanity, with an action-packed script and lots of humour.

Weathering With You (2019) by Makoto Shinkai

16 year old Hodaka has run away from his home and caught a ferry to Tokyo. Arriving in the rain-drenched city streets he finds it difficult to get a job or a place to live. He decides to contact Kei, a man who saved his life after the ferry was caught in a storm. Kei runs a small magazine with his partner Natsumi, publishing bizarre stories on urban legends. Hodaka agrees to help out and is soon writing articles for them. After researching a piece on Sun Girls and Rain Girls (who have the ability to control the weather), Hodaka runs into a real life Sun Girl, Hina, who is able to make even the rainiest day turn to clear skies by wishing it. Realising the potential for this ability in a city where the rain never stops, the two turn her powers into a business opportunity, renting out their services for people needing a sunny day, either for a flea market or a wedding. However, Hodaka soon realises that this gift comes at a price and that her connection to the weather will lead Hina to making a terrible choice.

Makoto Shinkai’s success with his last feature “Your Name” has garnered the director a huge amount of publicity and placed on his shoulders the burden of expectation. In following up that incredible film, he has created a work that again showcases his considerable artistic and storytelling talents. The characters are all likeable, especially our protagonist Hodaka, whose family troubles are never fully explained, but whose status as a runaway throws him into the world of the story as something of a blank slate and surrogate for the audience. All of the supporting cast are enjoyable, though often written more as comic relief, such as Hina’s younger brother and Natsumi. The relationship between Hodaka and Hina works well, with both being isolated and finding purpose through each other.

The film blends magic with a real world drama and it is easy to suspend disbelief for the more fantastical elements. The film drifts close to darker themes at times too, such as Hina’s near-miss with a group of unsavoury club owners and Hodaka’s family situation. It is partly this mix of genuinely emotional and difficult themes with the fantastical elements that make the film so compelling. The art and animation team have so perfectly rendered the streets of Tokyo, with every detail covered, that any sense of artifice is stripped away and you are fully immersed in this world. The animators recreated real world locations and the attention to detail in every aspect is truly amazing. Weather effects have always played a large part in Shinkai’s work and here the team seem to have perfected the techniques of visualising every element of the climate. The use of computer-aided animation also means there is more scope for camera movement, with sweeping or spiralling shots creating a great sense of space and fluidity to the action, and perfectly complimenting the traditional hand-drawn animation.

There is definitely a move towards a more action-oriented story than Shinkai’s earlier films. This includes the introduction of guns, an explosion and high-speed chase. There is also an expressive cat to tug at the heartstrings and later played for laughs, that seems to suggest an awareness of a broader audience for his work than films such as “Voices of a Distant Star” or “5 Centimetres Per Second”. That is not to say that this doesn’t work, far from it, but what the film gains in pace and humour it perhaps loses in those contemplative moments of character development that typified earlier films. The music, again by RADWIMPS, lacks the memorable tunes of “Your Name”, but the score as a whole is beautiful and in keeping with the stunning animation work.

“Weathering With You” touches on many themes familiar to fans of Makoto Shinkai’s filmography. At the heart of the drama is the romance between Hodaka and Hina and their love blossoming slowly as the story unfolds. Weather has always featured heavily in Shinkai films, and here it is elevated to a central importance in the plot. We see how weather impacts everyone’s lives, determining what they can and cannot do and even how they think. The relationship between cloudy skies and gloomy outlooks is evident in the relief of characters when the skies clear and sunshine reappears. One of the main messages of the film seems to be that of getting through rough times rather than simply wishing them away. We are reminded in the film that Hina’s powers only offer temporary reprieve and lead to the weather returning stronger and more dangerous after such a delay. There is a suggestion here that it is better to let things run their course naturally than attempting to avoid something perceived as bad, or perhaps running away from your problems (as both Hodaka and Hina do). Surprisingly, the film seems to have little to say about the current climate crisis, although this clearly provides an inspiration and backdrop for the setting. The film is an excellent example of Makoto Shinkai’s work despite minor imperfections. The animation is spectacular, there is plenty of humour and action for the casual viewer, and lots to enjoy for long-time fans.

Mirai (2018) by Mamoru Hosoda

Kun is a feisty two-year old, obsessed with trains, living with his parents and their dog. When his parents arrive home with his baby sister Mirai, Kun is initially ecstatic about the prospect of a new member of the family. However, he soon realises that the attention he was receiving is now being given to his sister. Feeling left out, he begins acting up, with angry or tearful outbursts at the unfairness of his situation. When he goes out into the garden he is whisked away on flights of fancy, meeting various figures from his family in different guises or at different stages of their life. These figures each teach Kun a valuable life lesson.

Director Mamoru Hosoda (Wolf Children, The Boy and The Beast) is no stranger to stories about the pain of growing up. In “Mirai” he takes a look at a very young character, Kun, and how children can often feel ignored or side-lined with the arrival of a younger sibling. The situations shown in the film will be familiar to those with siblings, or parents raising young children, with temper tantrums and everyday problems running a household. The film itself seems to be aimed at a younger demographic, both in its sense of humour and in the instructive adventures Kun goes on. It has something of a fairytale feel, with the young boy going on a journey of discovery and coming back more mature and enlightened. The animation is enjoyable and the team capture the motion of children and animals well. It is interesting to see the majority of the film take place in a single location, the family home, and as it goes on you get a real sense of place and almost come to know the house as well as the characters. There is also some excellent use of computer graphics and modern techniques, such as in rendering steam on a windowpane, or the expansive birds-eye view of the city where the family live. The fantastical moments are a welcome break from the mundane everyday routines of the family. I found the most affecting moment towards the end of the film, when they bring what has until then being a series of seemingly unrelated occurrences together into some semblance of structure. The film may be less enjoyable for older children or adults as the lessons Kun learns all boil down to something fairly similar and obvious, although the film does have some creative scenarios for the fantasy sequences. The film also often feels as though it is a collection of interesting ideas and moments without a cohesive narrative to hold it together.

Mirai does an excellent job of portraying the emotions of its young protagonist. The arrival of his sister leaves Kun feeling neglected and unloved. In order to cope he escapes into his own world in an attempt to understand what he is feeling. It is a journey of discovery for Kun as he attempts to understand that he is part of a larger whole, and to accept that kindness and co-operation are better than selfishness. It also has important lessons for children about never giving up and perhaps how to deal with difficult emotions by distancing yourself from them and attempting to rationalise your feelings as Kun does. The film also touches on the notion of fate and the impact that small acts can have on the future.

Mary and the Witch’s Flower (2017) by Hiromasa Yonebayashi

Mary Smith is a young girl living with her mother and grandmother in a remote rural area. She is feeling isolated without any friends her own age, except for Peter, a young boy who delivers letters to her grandmother. One lazy afternoon, Mary follows two cats into the woods where she discovers a mysterious blue flower. She finds herself able to fly on a broomstick and is whisked away to the magical Eldor College, managed by Madame Mumblechook and Doctor Dee. Mary is told that her red hair, which she hates, marks her as a prodigy and adept magic user. At first pleased with her new status, Mary soon discovers that the school harbours a dark secret, with experiments in transforming animals and humans.

Based on the book “The Little Broomstick” by Mary Stewart, the film is directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi from a screenplay by Yonebayashi and Riko Sakaguchi. The story is a straightforward adventure, with a small cast of main characters, but succeeds in making its characters expressive and memorable, particularly Mary, who is a likeable heroine. She is flawed, often caught in a lie and with a complex about her unruly red hair. These insecurities are balanced with traits such as resourcefulness, inquisitiveness and humour. Doctor Dee and Madame Mumblechook are well designed as fantastical, humorous caricatures. The film was produced by Studio Pontoc, with several animators from Studio Ghibli on their staff it is clear to see the influence both in story and animation. The magical nature of the world allows for creativity in the design of the college and it is interesting to see the English countryside rendered in this style, with the green rolling hills and woodlands captured perfectly. The action beats of the film are exciting and the score is thrilling.

“Mary and the Witch’s Flower” is a coming of age story about a young girl who is somewhat lost and alone, dealing with her anxieties, becoming confident and able to take on the world. When we first see Mary she is stifled by boredom, but her inquisitiveness leads her to a fantastical adventure. In the story of Madame Mumblechook and Doctor Dee we have a simple morality tale about the dangers of lusting after power. There are actually darker undertones regarding the morality of scientific enquiry, with the transmogrification of animals being used as an example of experimentation with questionable motivations. Overall, the film is a fun adventure tale for children, with an enjoyable magical world to get lost in. It does not over-complicate itself, but has a charming central character that young audiences will relate to.