More than once during The Wind Rises, Hayao Miyazaki’s final film, I found myself getting choked up for reasons I couldn’t quite explain. Or rather, they weren’t necessarily connected to what was happening on the screen. For every melancholy or touching moment woven into the film proper, another memory would keep pace with it: “the first time I saw a Miyazaki film (Spirited Away) it was in a theater like this, and now I’m able to watch his last work in the same way”; or, “the last time Studio Ghibli touched on World War II (Grave of the Fireflies) was the first time I’d ever seen my mother so profoundly affected by a film, let alone taking anime seriously as art.” It was nigh impossible to see the film as an object unto itself, and perhaps it’s detrimental to try to. It’s more than that. The Wind Rises is a master thesis and a swan song, a tribute and a lament. It is a memory of one of the 20th century’s greatest directors, whom I can never forget.
For those unawares, The Wind Rises is Miyazaki’s only foray into the biopic genre (as well as one of his rare films, alongside The Castle of Cagliostro and Porco Rosso, to feature a male protagonist) centering around Jiro Horikoshi, the man who would eventually design the Zero fighter plane used by Japan’s kamikaze pilots in WWII. But it would be incorrect to say that this is a portrait of Jiro’s life – it’s a study of his dreams and ideals, about the struggle of the artist to create something pure and beautiful in a world where such things are simply not possible.
The profoundly sensitive topic the film is centered around has been berated on both sides of the debate – there’s those who call it a white washing of Japan’s actions in WWII and Japanese critics who call it traitorous to the nation. In some ways, it seems only fitting that it should come out that way. One of the defining characteristics of Miyazaki’s films is that there are very rarely true villains. Even the antagonists are well rounded people set upon by the world they must live in, motivated by complex and understandable desires. It’s only fitting that his gentle touch would come at last to the subject of history, a plain that begs for the simple understanding of winners and losers but is often by and large made up only of the same flawed and multifaceted humans that go on existing today.
Perhaps it would be easier to declare the film problematic, insensitive, or a failure if it were About WWII in even the same way that Ghibli masterpiece Grave of the Fireflies is. By Miyazaki’s own admission it’s less a film about one of history’s most brutal wars as it is about the people who lived it, and the scenarios that led them to such terrible actions. The line “Japan will blow up” is a recurring line throughout the film – the characters look on the poverty that surrounds them (Japan is currently in a painful state of economic deflation), the technological difficulties caused by their many years of isolation (with conservative, nationalistic legislation making quite a push in Japanese politics), and the turmoil of the world, and find that all they can do is go on living their lives.
There’s a constant subtextual pressure to Jiro’s life and that of those around them, and yet the film very pointedly stays with his perspective and as such skirts many of the great evils perpetuated by this time in history: Jiro visits Germany to study planes and sees a young man being chased by the SS, but doesn’t follow; he goes into hiding from government spies in his own country, but doesn’t ask; he befriends a German ex-patriot, but has no contextual understanding when his friend flees suddenly; and his planes are being built for war, yet Jiro can only lament how beautiful his designs would be if they carried passengers and not bombs. In one of the film’s most painful moments (at which time it had the full attention of my sniffling) shows Naoko (suffering from incurable tuberculosis) departing wordlessly from Jiro’s life in a sequence intercut with the successful flight of his plane designs. “She wanted him,” we’re told, “to remember her as she was.” For the beauty of an ideal Naoko separated herself from the love, connection, and experience she might’ve had in her last hours. For the sake of his beautiful dream, Jiro created a plane that would end thousands of lives.
Blood stained art – just because a metaphor is obvious doesn’t mean it isn’t powerful
The blind eye is not the film’s but the protagonist’s. You know these things have happened, the film tells us, and they did so because no one was looking at them (with no small jab at Japan’s self-censored retellings of their involvement in the war also implied). Can’t you do better, looking at the parallels between then and now? Can’t you look, and make a future of less bloodshed?
It’s a film built on parallels, but not on hopelessness. There’s a real sense of global togetherness and the musicality and harmony of languages coming together – be it the French poem the title originates from, Jiro holding dream-conference with the Italian designer Caproni, or the camaraderie of two Japanese men singing along to a German piano tune, there’s a sense of art bringing people together (even literally, when Jiro rescues the painting supplies of his future-wife Naoko).
Pure white idealism. I see what you did there, sir
At the core of the horrors of the outside world is a beautiful dream, one Miyazaki is determined to protect the beautiful fragility of without absolving its effects. It’s even reflected very consciously in the artistic design. Not since the borrowed designs of my beloved Cagliostro have the characters seemed to apart from the landscape, smoothly designed and simple actors on a stage rendered with beautiful painted grandeur far beyond their comprehension. Only in the final scenes, when Jiro looks back on the wreckage of his planes in a dream, do they join the painted style of the landscape in angry reds ad charcoals – for they are now a part of history, indelible to the human consciousness and what it has made of its world. By the same token, the tiny paper plane that represents Jiro’s purer, platonic ideals of flight has its chance as well – it becomes a glint in the cloudy blue sky above, a beautiful and far-off goal that humanity might still continue to reach for from their place on the earth. In that shot, watching the simple lines of the plane in movement become part of the grandeur of the landscape, you can see Miyazaki’s dream as an artist. It’s his own little contribution, reaching above for what is pure while knowing that the landscape upon which we stand isn’t ready to exist within that yet. But to even dream of attaining it is beautiful and worthwhile, so long as we continue to learn from the mistakes of the past.
It might make me a bit old and cantankerous to say so, but to me Miyazaki was the achievement of what anime could be. Not his love of planes or rolling green hills and environmental metaphors (for every auteur has themes to which they love returning), but for the sense of honest wonderment and scope. For characters who lived and breathed and whose actions felt real, and whose relationships were always honest. For worlds that were unique and enthralling even when he stepped into the works of others, and for female characters that were dynamic and varied and strong without having to be Strong Female Characters. The man gave me my favorite film, and a language to speak about animation with passion before I knew such a thing was possible. I will miss him dearly as a viewer As an artist, I’ll try to carry his dreams into the future.