Why Does Miyazaki’s Final Film Have Such Terrible Female Characters?

With the exception of a limited New York/Los Angeles run in November, Hayao Miyazaki’s latest — and final — movie won’t go into wide release in the United States until February 2014. This weekend, however, I was lucky enough to catch a screening of The Wind Rises at the New York Film Festival. As one would expect from the filmmaker who brought us Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke, the fictionalized story of Japanese engineer Jiro Horikoshi is stunningly beautiful and deeply moving, although unlike most other Miyazaki films, the universe it depicts is largely historical reality rather than fantasy. There’s another major difference between The Wind Rises and Miyazaki’s other work, however: it’s completely missing three-dimensional, complex women — precisely the type of character the animator, director, and screenwriter has focused on in the past. [Warning: spoilers abound after the jump.]

It goes without saying that Miyazaki’s entitled to focus on a male protagonist if that’s what he wants to do. And it’s understandable why Horikoshi’s story appealed to him: as the designer of Mitsubishi’s A6M Zero plane, he’s a brilliant creator whose talents landed him at the epicenter of a bloody global conflict and left him with a legacy that’s complicated in the extreme. In addition to the engineering-as-artistry metaphor, which The Wind Rises tends to lay on a little thick, Miyazaki also has a personal connection with Horikoshi through his father, who owned a munitions factory that manufactured parts for the Zero. So before I transition fully into feminist killjoy mode, I’d like to clarify that I don’t have a problem with Miyazaki opting to put a male character at the center of his film. Not every movie can have a hero like post-apocalyptic environmentalist Princess Nausicaa; not every movie should.

But free as Miyazaki may be to put the spotlight on a male protagonist, that prerogative’s no excuse for how flat the film’s female characters turn out to be. The Wind Rises‘ problems begin with Jiro’s love interest, who he first meets when she’s just a child, as he’s traveling to his university via train. It’s 1923, and the Great Kanto Earthquake strikes while they’re still en route. Jiro leads the young girl, Naoko, and her injured governess to safety, then nobly walks away without so much as introducing himself. It’s the sole interaction Jiro and Naoko have until the two are reunited by chance years later at a mountain resort. Just a handful of encounters later (Jiro catches Naoko’s parasol; Naoko tearfully thanks him for saving her all those years ago; Jiro tosses Naoko a paper airplane, with entertainingly disastrous results) and the two are happily engaged.

The engagement scene is The Wind Rises‘ most cringe-worthy, setting off alarm bells from the moment the audience sees that Jiro’s confession of love isn’t even directed at Naoko. Instead, he addresses her father; Naoko happens to be conveniently waiting in the wings, appearing out of nowhere to let Jiro know that the feeling’s mutual despite their extremely limited time together. She’s also totally game for marriage. There’s just one problem: she has tuberculosis, a revelation that’s so over-the-top melodramatic I literally laughed out loud. Obviously, “I have tuberculosis” is code for “I will tragically die before the end of this movie,” and so it goes. Naoko doesn’t even get her own death scene, simply floating away in the breeze in one of Jiro’s dreams.

It’s indicative of the way Naoko’s character is treated throughout The Wind Rises: except for the fact that she has a wealthy father and enjoys painting, we know almost nothing about her outside of her relationship with Jiro, a lack of depth that’s particularly strange given The Wind Rises‘ marketing as equal parts fictional biography and love story. The same goes for the rest of the film’s women, precious few that there are. Jiro’s own mother is a model of traditional motherhood, calm and nurturing. A higher-up’s wife is the archetypal housewife putting up with an irritable husband.

And that’s it, with the notable exception of Jiro’s sister Kayo, a fiercely outspoken doctor. Though she’s head and shoulders above Naoko in terms of character development, Kayo isn’t without her problems; she displays something dangerously close to the one-note, slightly condescending feistiness Sophia McDougall decried this summer in her excellent “I hate Strong Female Characters.” She burnishes Jiro’s feminist credentials (“I think you’d make a great doctor!”) and occasionally acts as his voice of reason (she calls him out for failing to notice that Naoko’s putting on a front as she’s slowly dying), but she also gets barely ten minutes of screen time. Chihiro she’s not.

That’s what’s so disconcerting about the female characters in The Wind Rises. Coming from almost any other filmmaker, this would be just another solid movie that fails to pass the Bechdel Test. But Miyazaki’s body of work has consistently put complicated, interesting women at the forefront. There are the obvious examples: Spirited Away‘s Chihiro, a ten-year-old trapped in the spirit world struggling to rescue her own parents; Princess Mononoke‘s San, an orphan who fights to protect the forest animals that raised her; Sophie of Howl’s Moving Castle, a teenager cursed with old age and caring for an eccentric wizard. All of these protagonists are dynamic, multidimensional, and other descriptors that don’t apply to even Kayo, let alone Naoko. Even female villains have historically received better treatment in Miyazaki movies, particularly Mononoke‘s Lady Eboshi, an industrialist whose negative impact on the environment is counterbalanced by the ex-prostitutes and lepers she takes under her wing.

I didn’t exactly walk into The Wind Rises intending to measure Naoko against Nausicaa. But it’s impossible to watch Jiro’s wife gazing adoringly at him as he perfects the Zero without thinking of just how much more fun her predecessors were to watch, or how much of a joy they were to relate to as a kid raised on a steady diet of Disney princesses. The Wind Rises still delivers — the dream sequences where Jiro bonds with Italian engineer Giovanni Caproni over the magic of flight pack in all the surreal visuals a Miyazaki fan could want — but it’s hard not to watch without Kiki’s Delivery Service or Ponyo hovering in the back of one’s mind. This is supposedly Miyazaki’s last hurrah. It’s a shame Naoko, Kayo, or any other female character didn’t get to be a real part of it.