Famed director criticised for smoking scenes in latest film

This file picture taken on Nov 20, 2008 shows Oscar-winning Japanese animator and film director Hayao Miyazaki at a press conference after the release of his new animated movie "Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea" at a theatre in Tokyo. The Japan Society
This file picture taken on Nov 20, 2008 shows Oscar-winning Japanese animator and film director Hayao Miyazaki at a press conference after the release of his new animated movie "Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea" at a theatre in Tokyo. The Japan Society for Tobacco Control on Aug 15, 2013 criticised Mr Miyazaki's recent animation film "Kaze Tachinu" (The Wind Rise) as the film has lots of scenes with characters smoking. -- FILE PHOTO: AFP
Director Hayao Miyazaki's latest animated feature Kaze Tachinu (The Wind Rises),  about the designer of Japan's WW2 Zero fighter jet, was released in Japan on July 20, 2013. -- ST PHOTO: KWAN WENG KIN
Director Hayao Miyazaki's latest animated feature Kaze Tachinu (The Wind Rises),  about the designer of Japan's WW2 Zero fighter jet, was released in Japan on July 20, 2013. -- ST PHOTO: KWAN WENG KIN

Japan’s anti-smoking lobby has taken award-winning Japanese film director Hayao Miyazaki to task for being too realistic in his latest animated feature Kaze Tachinu (The Wind Rises).

Mr Miyazaki’s apparent sin is the inclusion of scenes in the movie showing the protagonist – the designer of Japan’s well-known World War II Zero fighter jet – puffing away, sometimes in situations that would raise eyebrows these days.

In an open letter dated Aug 12, the Japan Society for Tobacco Control (JSTC), the country’s non-profit smoking watchdog, said the offending scenes were “too numerous to enumerate”. But this did not stop it from listing a few: a classroom, an office where most of the employees are seen puffing away and a high-class restaurant in a hotel.

It noted that there was even a scene showing the protagonist lighting up in a hospital ward while squeezing the hand of his tuberculosis-stricken wife.

In registering its concern, the JSTC took pains to point out that it was neither finding fault with the production nor demanding that the movie be banned. It only wished to make two points, the JSTC said.

One, the film violated an international treaty adopted by the World Health Assembly that calls for a complete ban on tobacco advertisement in the media.

Two, the smoking scenes have a significant impact on children who make up a large proportion of the film’s audiences.

Mr Miyazaki’s fault, it seems, lies in sticking too faithfully to the war period in which the story is set.

In 1920s and 1930s, four in five Japanese men were smokers. Cigarette sales were said to have been an important source of revenue for financing Japan’s war effort. It would therefore have been very odd for Mr Miyazaki to have eliminated all smoking scenes from his movie.

An article on the NewsPostSeven website quoted Mr Koichi Sugiyama, who heads a society of cigarette lovers, as saying: “Miyazaki no doubt thought that if cigarettes were eliminated from all scenes in the movie, it would not convey the real image of the times.”

Critics even defended a scene in which a student was shown bumping a cigarette from a friend.

Cigarettes were a luxury item during the war era and its use in the scene is said to be Mr Miyazaki’s way of expressing the close bond between the two young men.

Netizens are divided over the smoking issue.

Social critic Yohei Tsunemi wryly applauded the JSTC for its blatant self-promotion using a vehicle that was the talk of the town in the first few weeks of its release.

“If they had lodged a protest against a minor movie, they would not have received this much attention. By protesting against a national hit, the Society itself became the talk of the town,” he wrote.

However, the JSTC made a mistake by voicing opposition to a movie set in a period when the values of society were quite different from those today.

Only 32.7 per cent of Japanese men smoke now, down from a peak of 83.7 per cent in 1966, according to the latest figures.

And smokers are finding it increasingly difficult to do so in public places in Japan.

The smoking scenes did not perturb reviewers of the movie, which was released in mid-July. If they found any fault at all, it was that, unlike Mr Miyazaki’s past creations, this one failed to convey a strong social message.

In many of his earlier movies, including the multiple-award winning Spirited Away, Mr Miyazaki had dealt with recurring themes such as environmentalism, pacifism and feminism.

Perhaps some reviewers had expected The Wind Rises to be an anti-war film.

The director had said in a monthly publication put out by Studio Ghibili, his animation studio, that the more he read about 20th century Japanese history, the more he came to realise that Japan had done a lot of bad things in the past.

Reviewers scanned the movie for clues of Mr Miyazaki’s anti-war sentiments but in vain. In fact, many reviewers apparently could not quite make out what he was trying to convey through the story – which is part fiction – about an airplane-loving young man and his love story with a girl who was devoted to him to the end, despite being stricken with tuberculosis.

Professor Kiichi Fujiwara, a political scientist and a film buff writing about the movie in the Mainichi Shimbun daily, thought the film’s depiction of the protagonist rather unrealistic.

“Fighter planes and war are two sides of the same coin. But the movie shows his infatuation with the beauty of planes as something divorced from the realities of war,” said Prof Fujiwara, of Tokyo University.

wengkin@sph.com.sg