Hayao Miyazaki has a strong cult following here in the States, as the animation filmmaker's work tends to draw critical raves without bringing in boffo returns at the U.S. box office. However, over in Miyazaki's native Japan, it's another story altogether, with three of the directorial efforts - Spirited Away, Howl's Moving Castle and Princess Mononoke - ranking in the top five all-time highest grossing titles in the country.
Miyazaki's new feature, The Wind Rises, has sat atop the Japanese box office for over a month, well ahead of its updated theatrical run in the U.S. (with Disney once again distributing). The film is a fictional biography of Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighter aircraft designer Jiro Horikoshi, and early word of mouth from those who've attended a screening of the traditionally-animated (read: 2D) project - at either the 2013 Telluride or Venice International Film Festival - is largely positive.
The 72-year old Miyazaki announced his retirement from feature-length directing, in a press conference at the ongoing festivities in Venice. Similar to when Miyazaki entered semi-retirement after he completed Princess Mononoke, the filmmaker will continue to work at Studio Ghibli in what is expected to be a supervisory capacity. However, given his age and legacy, there is a better chance that Miyazaki will stick to his promise to step away from the filmmaking spotlight than there was some 15 years ago (though short film directing is an option that remains on the table).
Question is, will Disney now give Wind Rises an Oscar-qualifying limited theatrical run in 2013? The studio has additional incentive to push the film during this year's impending awards season, since it's poised to be the swan song to Miyazaki's esteemed career. Spirited Away secured the Best Animated Feature Oscar back in 2003, but Wind Rises' chances of bringing its director his second Academy Award have improved significantly following his retirement announcement.
Having said that: it was inevitable that Miyazaki would step aside from directing, but the news is disappointing to hear regardless. The filmmaker's animation output from the past three decades - My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki's Delivery Service and so forth - has truly been one of a kind, with memorable characters (including, several multi-faceted female protagonists), imaginative world designs, rich storytelling, gorgeous impressionistic animation, and having adult thoughtfulness blended with a childlike sense of wonder and innocence.
It's always important for an artist to know when to put their (figurative a/o literal) paintbrush down, so if Miyazaki feels that it's his time to step aside then good on him for recognizing that. Moreover, if the Wind Rises trailer is anything to go by, then the filmmaker will conclude his career on a note of integrity and creative accomplishment that he can be proud of.
The Wind Rises doesn't have an official U.S. theatrical release date yet.