Pilots of Hayao Miyazaki's Films

By Casey Lee

Flight; a constant theme in the films of Hayao Miyazaki.

If there's a reason for the reverence given to Japanese master animator/director Hayao Miyazaki, other than his imaginary visions and beautifully hand drawn frames, it would be the deeper themes found in all of his films. Apart from the humanistic messages against war and destruction of the environment, Miyazaki's films have been a constant showcase on the dreams and powers of flight. Despite not being a pilot himself, Miyazaki's fascination and fondness of flight is strongly evident in all but two of his films ("Princess Mononoke" and "Ponyo"), with some of the most elaborate and moving sequences taking place in the skies, whether the characters are taking lightning evasive actions or having solace epiphanies.

Although "The Wind Rises" has landed into controversy for telling the semi-fictional biography of Jiro Horikoshi; the man to be known for designing the feared Zero fighter planes used by the Japanese army in World War II, not all those who had wings in his films used them for ill, if not quite the opposite. Whether "The Wind Rises" would truly be Miyazaki's last film, its ties to aviation is so deeply rooted in the Miyazaki canon that we wanted to take this opportunity to recall the pilots and those bestowed with the 'liberty from gravity' (as Miyazaki puts it), and send them off for one final flight in our cinemas.

Nausicaa in "Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind" (1984)

Brave, resourceful, and undauntedly selfless, the princess from the Valley of the Wind is a far more capable pilot in whatever cockpit she finds herself in, whether on her trademark glider, (called the 'mowe', which means gull, as in seagull, in German), or the fast two-man gunship that she races in to save her people from the impending stampede of the Ohmu. Even with guns armed on her aircraft, Nausicaa only resorts to pacifist methods to end violence. Going so far as to let herself be an open target with arms wide while her plane charges straight into the sights of a machine gun.

On a side note, the idea of Nausicaa's glider had inspired a Japanese aviation company to build a similarly engine powered glider, which has had a successful test flight as of 2013

Pazu in "Laputa: Castle in the Sky" (1986)

When we are introduced to this miner apprentice after rescuing the lost princess Sheeta from the sky, we would think that he was comfortable being holed up in the ground, digging for coals and firing up steam engines. But Pazu, as we soon learned, is the son of an air explorer who has far greater sights to take to the skies and rediscover the floating fabled city of Laputa, that his father had once glimpsed in the eye of a storm. It's hard to miss clues of Pazu's dream with the prototypes laying around in his house, even though he would never get to fly them.

Pazu would eventually get his chance to fly when he is 'kidnapped' by the sky pirate clan of Dola, and prove that he belonged in the air and flying as his second nature. Pazu would be the first instance of a child pilot introduced in Hayao Miyazaki's films; defined by their goggles, perilous spirit for adventure and a natural knack with machinery that would be seen in other similarly aged pilots in Miyazaki's films.

Totoro in "My Neighbor Totoro" (1988)

While clearly not a creature of the winds (except when blowing pipes on a breezy moonlit night), this lovable mascot of Ghibli Studio is entered into the list for having the most imaginative aircraft of them all; a spinning top.

While the bulk of the feel-good adventures of its main protagonists, Satsuko and Mei, are found in their little discoveries of their sprite-ly neighbour, the exuberance truly takes off in the moment when their giant fluffy guardian takes them on a ride through the night sky, balancing on a tiny flying top with umbrella in hand, that transports us into the moments of childlike awe and wonder from the magic that is a Miyazaki film.

Kiki and Tombo in "Kiki's Delivery Service" (1989)

Kiki, the little witch-in-training, comes to a port town far away from her rustic countryside, where she must learn to live alone to complete her training. While navigating the difficulties of finding a job that requires her peculiar magical abilities, she meets with Tombo; a boy of her age, who is fascinated at first by her ability to fly without the 'sophisticated' machinery that he is designing to fulfill his own dreams of flight, but being more drawn to her, as boys do at that age.

In "Kiki's Delivery Service", flight is used as an analogy of growing maturity. When Kiki's is made to realise of the loneliness in becoming an independent woman, she is quite literally 'grounded' by the responsibilities and anguish one has to go through in understanding that adulthood has its thorns among the roses. However, with despair comes longing and love when Kiki regains her powers in an uplifting moment to rescue the hanging Tombo after an accident involving a dirigible.

Porco Rosso and Fio Piccolo in "Porco Rosso" (1992)

Once a human pilot (then known as Marco Pagot), the pork-nosed Porco Rosso is a force to reckon with on the Ardriatic Sea, where he preys on the sky pirates who are hapless against his ace dogfighting skills. Presumably disillusioned by the changing political climate of his home country prior to the outbreak of World War II (making this one of the closest set on Earth stories with political undertones by Miyazaki), Porco absconds from the Italian airforce after witnessing a soul-moving and curiously vague event of fallen planes and pilots ascending towards the heavens, which would be the only explanation for Marco's transformation.

Porco would later meet young Fio; a budding but undeniably talented aviation engineer, who makes for a terrific wing(wo)man, both on air and on land, aside from building his plane from scratch. Their partnership would make up for one of the best pilot partners in this love letter to aviation, its history and the romance of flight.

Just as Totoro was the mascot of the Ghibli Studio, Porco would be the somewhat representation of Miyazaki when it comes to his love for aviation. In his 2002 short film "Imaginary Flying Machines", a 'pork-ified' Miyazaki narrates the history of flight and aviation. Porco's human name Marco Pagot is said to be an homage to the Italian animation pioneer Nino Pagot, whose sons named Marco and Gi, had worked with Miyazaki during his early days in animation.

Haku in "Spirited Away" (2001)

Interned for an apprenticeship but tricked into servitude by the evil Yubaba, Haku was an unsuspecting kind soul that helped Chihiro find her feet when she mistakenly steps into the spirit world. When Chihiro witnesses a mighty white dragon being doggedly attacked and badly injured by paper 'planes', she finds out that the dragon is Haku, and labours to care for him in gratitude and perhaps more.

There are relatively few flight sequences in "Spirited Away" than the rest of the films mentioned on this list, but in that final flight with Haku and Chihiro when she recalls her memory and the revelation of Haku's true name and nature, it is an endearing sight to finally see Haku flying with freedom at long last.

Howl in "Howl's Moving Castle" (2004)

Playful, free-spirited and childish, the wizard Howl still just as easily stole our hearts, as he did with plain Sophie's, when he was introduced to us in one of the most lovely Miyazaki flight sequences of literally walking on air. As war breaks out between the two kingdoms, Howl's services are requested at the behest of their respective kings, but Howl has no interest in joining a war if he isn't forced to.

Instead, Howl tries to end the war by fighting against both sides, intercepting bombers and dueling with hack wizards who have long given up their humanity, that Howl struggles to return to each time he morphs into his bird-like form.

Cinema Online, 22 April 2014

Related Links:
Studio Ghibli on hiatus, not closing
"Spirited Away" director steps out of retirement
Studio Ghibli is building a park for Totoro

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