Science and Magic: Wind in Seven Hayao Miyazaki Films

Many critics note Miyazaki’s fascination with planes and flight, but something much simpler and more visceral lies at the root of both of these: wind, the most elemental aspect of flight and the machines used to achieve it. In Miyazaki’s films, the idea of wind appears in many forms, technological, magical, physical, and emotional. While Miyazaki’s first and last feature films associated with Studio Ghibli, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984) and The Wind Rises (2013), proclaim their emphasis through their titles, wind plays a part, minor or major, even in the Miyazaki films that ostensibly have nothing to do with wind. Through his many representations and uses of wind, Miyazaki explores the multifaceted nature of our human relationship with wind.

1. Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind

In Nausicaä, wind weaves with every aspect of life in the Valley of the Wind: transportation (gliders), energy (windmills and turbines), and the health of both forest and people. In name, in livelihood, and in spirit, the wind is inextricably bound with the identity of the valley’s people. When Lord Yupa meets an infant girl born in the valley that year, the women ask for his blessing so that “fair winds are sure to favor her.” The dominant physical feature of the Valley is its numerous windmills, and though it is never addressed in the film, it is likely that these windmills are what allow the residents to bring clean water up from their wells. The wind protects the people, too, by blowing toxins away. More than these tangible and identifiable benefits of the wind, the people of Nausicaä’s valley rely on the wind for comfort and peace of mind. It is part of their emotional well being.
The most poignant statement on the importance of the wind comes when the winds disappear from the Valley, something we are told has never happened before. Even the small children notice, and they tell Obaba. One of the villagers says, “The wind has died.”

Its absence is a death, no different than losing a loved one, or even a vital organ. The wind strings and the windmills stand still. It is as if the sun had stopped shining. To Nausicaä’s people, the wind is almost more necessary than the sun. To grow a forest, “it takes the water and the wind,” not the water and the sun, a hundred years.
When the wind returns to the Valley, it comes in the form of Nausicaä resurrected from the dead, in a windy, golden field. A moment later, the people cry: “There’s wind! The wind has come back!” It is a religious moment akin to being saved and redeemed. The wind is the resurrection and the life. It is as important a character as Nausicaä herself.

2. My Neighbor Totoro

Miyazaki’s most magical use of wind occurs in My Neighbor Totoro (1988). Wind first makes a very ordinary appearance onscreen as Satsuki and Mei ride in the moving truck on the way to their new home. When they stick their heads out the window, the wind blows their hair and their father’s hat, conveying the freedom and excitement of travelling to a new place. Later, wind takes on additional meaning: it comes to represent a test of one’s mettle. As Satsuki goes outside to get firewood from the woodpile, a strong wind blasts her off her feet, taking her firewood away. The moment captures the experience of being in an unfamiliar place with unfamiliar sights and sounds. Satsuki responds by gathering more wood, then running inside, where she shelters with her sister and father as the wind howls, rattling the house and peeling the roof up. Instead of being afraid, the family show they can’t be intimidated. They pass the test. But already the wind shows that it has agency, and it is on its way to realizing its potential.

The wind by the woodpile is the first sign that wind is a magical force in Totoro, an emotional and spiritual element that has no relation whatsoever to science or technology. Wind does not power anemometers or lift human-made flying machines. Instead it is the realm of magical tree spirits, who seem to create the wind, as we later see when Totoro’s catbus flies across the landscape, leaving gusts in its wake, or when Totoro climbs onto his spinning top. In his action, Totoro displays the root of the word turbine, from the Latin turbo or turbin, which means spinning top. The wind from Totoro’s movements, his Totoro-powered turbine, and his subsequent roar flatten everything in the vicinity. As Satsuki and Mei become airborne with Totoro, Satsuki shouts, “Mei, we’re the wind!” Only the children are able to become a part of this magical force; for their father, the only sign of Totoro is a breeze that flows through the study, riffling the pages of the books, and a faint whistle coming from outside. Totoro, through wind and magic, makes acorns grow, similar to an idea voiced in Nausicaä: that the wind and the rain, more than the sun, make the forest grow.
In Totoro, wind weaves its way into daily life, but also into dreams and emotional experiences: fear, excitement, and happiness. It also expresses what cannot yet be explained by science, things like intuition or making it through a frightening event unscathed. Sometimes we call these miracles, and Miyazaki associates them with wind.

3. Kiki’s Delivery Service

Wind is thematically present in Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989) as both an emotional component and a rational/scientific one. Miyazaki’s films abound with flying machines, and Kiki is no different. The film features airplanes, a dirigible (The Spirit of Freedom), and Tombo’s do-it-yourself machine, all powered by wind or the harnessing of wind and air through propellers or turbines. An anemometer whirls on Tombo’s patio, unremarked upon but communicating a central idea of the film. The word anemometer comes from the Greek anemos (wind). In sound, it is similar to animus (motivation) and the Latin anima (life, soul). Embodied in Miyazaki’s portrayal of wind are all of these senses.

For Miyazaki, wind and magic are interchangeable, as are wind and science because it is the science of airflow and currents that allows machines to fly. “Was it your magic that made us stay up?” Tombo asks after he and Kiki crash his copter-bike. “I’m not sure! Anything’s possible,” Kiki answers. Through this exchange, Miyazaki communicates the complex and wonderful idea that what we don’t yet understand, what we can’t yet explain, is magic, just as people once believed in spontaneous generation or God’s wrath in the form of plague. When science can explain a phenomenon, the magic falls away.
Wind is also one of the main characters in Kiki’s Delivery Service. It affects Kiki’s life as much as a mentor, friend, nemesis, or love interest might. In the film’s opening instant, we see and hear the wind. The grass and flowers rustle and sway. Clouds travel across the sky. The surface of a lake ripples. Then the voice on the radio goes from faint to audible as the announcer relays the weather forecast: “Mild winds will be blowing in from the west, pushing the clouds out by this evening. There’ll be a beautiful full moon lighting up the sky, so if you’ve been planning something special, tonight might be the night.” The wind incites the action, creating the conditions for Kiki to begin her adventure. She wants a clear night with a full moon as she leaves her parents and sets out to begin training as a witch. Later in the film, wind is an obstacle to Kiki’s flight, becoming adversary in addition to instigator. Wind begins the film and also brings the film to its climax, when Madame, Kiki’s elderly friend, remarks, “Midsummer is always when these winds come,” and it is “these winds” that upend the dirigible and tug it from its moorings. Just as in the opening moments, Kiki can’t ignore the wind’s call. She goes. Thus, wind is both important to our senses and to the story, operating on many levels to create our experience of the characters and their world.
During the course of the film, Kiki must master the wind, which means becoming one with it, even creating it, as displayed visually when Kiki sets out to rescue Tombo on the janitor’s push broom. Her concentration lifts her hair and powers the broom. In her final act of mastery, Kiki flies the cantankerous broom and saves Tombo. Earlier, birds are masters of the wind: the gulls move on air currents with ease, and the geese intuit shifts and gusts. Yet even the geese get buffeted about; they are not immune to the wind’s caprices and power. Kiki admires the geese, and essentially comes to possess their abilities after the greatest crisis of losing wind—the ability to fly—entirely. Therefore the wind affects not only plot but also character.

4. Spirited Away

Even going beyond some of these early Miyazaki films with Studio Ghibli, the wind’s emotional and magical properties surface again and again. Wind marks entry into other worlds, as in Spirited Away (2001), when Chihiro follows her parents toward a tunnel, where the wind gusts. When they reach the other side, Chihiro says, “Did you hear that building? It was moaning!” Chihiro’s mom does not understand the language of the wind, and she dismisses it as “just the wind.” But wind is both warning and healer. Later, Haku lifts paralysis from Chihiro’s legs by commanding, “In the name of the wind and the water within thee, unbind her!” Following this bit of magic, Chihiro is able to run like the wind. Wind is a theme that never leaves Miyazaki’s work from early to late.

5. Howl’s Moving Castle

Howling is the sound the wind makes, and in Howl’s Moving Castle (2004), Howl’s magic powers the wind. Howl’s protégé Markl gives a spell to a young girl, telling her, “Dust your ship with this powder, and the wind will favor it.” Wind is therefore a help, but also a hindrance, as Sophie testifies on her journey into the waste: “I’m fatter than ever, yet the wind blows right through me.” In a visual echo of the wind at the woodpile in Totoro, Howl’s emotions create wind in Sophie’s dream, sending feathers whipping toward her. It is a challenge, one she must understand and overcome in order to save Howl and restore his heart.

6. Ponyo

Wind binds people together. In Ponyo (2008), high winds mark Ponyo’s connection with Sosuke, and Sosuke’s mom comments, “This wind is crazy!”

Therefore, wind is a physical manifestation of an emotional bond. Wind also whips up the waves, creating storms and tidal waves, shaping the plot and connecting the characters to one another through shared experience and trial.

7. The Wind Rises

As in other Miyazaki films, The Wind Rises calls upon the ability of wind to connect humans. It connects Jiro and Naoko the way it connects Kiki and Tombo, Mei and Satsuki, Howl and Sophie, Ponyo and Sosuke. In this way, The Wind Rises explores wind from a magical or emotional perspective (What draws two people together?), but also a scientific and rational perspective (How do planes fly?). Wind is the very basis for flight, not only in devices that directly use the wind (gliders), but also in the fact that propellers themselves are turbines that use wind and air to move even giant machines.
Wind is both tangible and intangible, both magical and fully explainable. Conveying this duality, Miyazaki uses the image of wind whirling around Jiro, connecting his abstract ideas to the concrete product those ideas create. As Jiro’s childhood idol, Caproni, says, “Inspiration unlocks the future. Technology eventually catches up.” Miyazaki fuses the two sides of wind by weaving poetry, imagination, and inspiration with science and technology. Wind embodies opposites, it embodies all directions. Wind is war, wind is love. It can kill, but it is also a call to live.
It is this that I love about wind also, how, as Jiro states in The Wind Rises, it is invisible and weightless, yet it has so much power. How, in some form or another, it drives so much of our technology and innovation. Without early windmills and waterwheels, there would be no jets or helicopters. At the same time, without wind, two people would not find each other, and this is something science can never explain. “I’ve loved you since the day the wind brought you to me,” Naoko says, as if wind had agency and purpose, determining life’s outcomes.

The Wind Rises returns to an idea most prominent in Kiki, but also present in the other films: the idea of wind as a call to action, a herald. Honjo expresses the sentiment in a concrete way, saying, “Damn. Wind’s picked up. We need to hurry,” responding to the high winds in the wake of the recent earthquake. Later in the film, the wind has more abstract and metaphorical significance when Caproni asks Jiro, “Is the wind still rising? Then it’s a perfect time to embark on my final flight.” The statement, uttered by a character, could nonetheless be about Miyazaki himself because The Wind Rises was supposed to be his last film before retirement. It could also be Miyazaki speaking instead of Caproni in the final moments of The Wind Rises: “She was beautiful. Like the wind.”
The word wind comes from Old English windan, which means to go rapidly or to twine. It is related to the words wander and wend. I love all the ways in which the meanings associated with the word wind come through in Miyazaki’s tales. He harnesses the wind’s power to create stories. Wind is kinetic energy, and Miyazaki seems fascinated by the way wind can be transformed from a non-usable form to electricity that powers cities. Turbines derive their power from rotational motion, and it is this idea that drives Miyazaki’s stories. It is the idea of turning,
of transforming, of making wind into magic, into science. Wind allows Miyazaki to call on something familiar to all of us. There are many reasons I love Miyazaki’s films, but the primary one is because they recreate experience, times of my life, in childhood and beyond, when I felt a sense of anticipation or freedom or possibility, when I was careening down a mountain on my bicycle, wind whistling in my ears, the scientific laws of the universe propelling me downhill, magic keeping me from falling.

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