Unlike live-action movies, no noise you hear in a cartoon is actually generated by the action you see on screen. Instead, the filmmakers have to record, generate, or otherwise find sounds to make the physical reality they’re depicting seem real: when characters are walking through a forest, we hear birds chirping, trees rustling, the ground crunching underfoot, and so forth. This is, in other words, not incidental, but always a deliberate choice, and animators can choose to make these sounds more or less realistic. They almost always choose, however, to be realistic, or at least convincing. Since TIE Fighters do not exist, they cannot be said to have a realistic sound, but the sound that accompanies their appearance on-screen sounds convincingly like what we’d think a thing that looks like that would sound like. It does not sound like the combination of “an elephant call with a car driving on wet pavement,” even though that’s what the sound is made from. Even when being unrealistic, sound designers strive for verisimilitude.
In The Wind Rises, however, the sound of mechanical things does not sound at all realistic or convincing. Instead, it is very obviously made by recording human beings making motor sounds with their mouths. The sound designers have put microphones in front of people and had them imitate an engine revving up in the way kids do when playing with their toys, then layered a number of those recordings until they sounded something like engines, but still like people. Though unusual, it makes absolute sense within the context of the movie. While we instinctually see mechanical objects as alien or inhuman, they are always designed and made by specific people for specific needs. All that metal and clanking noise seems like the domain of anti-humanity; men are opposed to machines in the iconography of industrialization, and mechanization is thought to block human effort. But by having the motors make the sound of the human voice, Miyazaki echoes the narrative, which is careful to show us how machines are designed and constructed by human hands. (Guns don’t kill people; guns made by people kill people.) It’s hard to think of a more poetic evocation of the social construction of technology.
(The earthquake early in the movie makes the sound of human voices as well, which confused me until I remembered that the real disaster sprung not from the ground moving but the subsequent fires. The disaster came from cooking fires, building materials, the arrangement of buildings: it was man-made.)