The Wind Rises
Apologies for the lack of work being put into this blog in the past week or so. I have been dealing both with my own sickness and that of a person dear to me. As such, I haven’t had the energy or will to write anything I hope this will rectify any concerns.
Though Miyazaki is a committed pacifist and environmentalist, he has often depicted industrial machinery and even war machines with a kind of awed reverence. His films refrain from luddite moralizing, and rather combine a sense of historical inevitability combined with bursts of optimism. The visual and narrative core of The Wind Rises is the airplane, often described within the film as a “beautiful dream.” Miyazaki dedicates much of the running time his protagonist’s dreams, obsessed with the wonders of freedom and flight. At the same time, this idealistic vision evaporates in reality. Realizing his “beautiful dream,” what becomes the Mitsubishi Zero, takes protagonist Jiro Horikoshi years of painstaking work. When he does complete it, Japan uses it to bring nightmares into the world. By itself, the plane is a work of art, a “castle in the sky,” but the film shows how this pure, even escapist fiction becomes a horrifying reality.
Of course, Jiro is not the sole creator of the Zero. In a critical scene near the beginning of the film, he strides into his new employment at Mitsubishi with a proud stride, happy to perform whatever tasks his boss demands of him as long as he has the resources to realize his ambitions. At the Mitsubishi facility, he is just another cog in the machine, his art a mere means of fulfilling army and navy contracts. His idol, German aeronautical engineer Junkers, finds himself in a similar conundrum doing metal and blood work for the Nazis. This idea, that one’s work exists in a social and material world that is going to use your work in ways you did not intend, probably carries special poignance for Miyazaki, since this film is being accused of essentially that. Indeed, critics have pointed out that the workers who actually built Horikoshi’s planes were Korean and Chinese, that his designs contributed to mass slaughter around the world, and that his idealized view of the man’s work is just as blind as Horikoshi was. In the Japanese dub, anime director Hideaki Anno plays Jiro, adding yet another artist whose own work has taken on the very monstrous dimensions he intended to criticize. Even the idealists are not blameless because their work is affected by gravity. No one owns their work; they are merely producers in a much larger artistic and economic machine.
German film director Werner Herzog contributes a performance to the English dub as Castorp, an outside observer who plays a mean piano and wisely intones that Germany and Japan are going to burn for their militaristic ways. Miyazaki thus positions Japan’s “victimhood,” its wartime destruction by American planes, as penance for the sins it committed in starting the war. While this is certainly a step up from the aggressive, self-pitying nationalism of the Japanese right, it’s still excessively idealistic. When you look closer at the film, you could come to the conclusion that Japan’s primary “sin” was sending such beautiful machines to their destruction. Consider how Horikoshi’s life’s work lies immortalized in overgrown graves in the final scene. As he walks through this vivid dream, he notices his dead wife running at him, telling him to cling to life, to continue living even in the face of such abominations.
That makes for a perfect segue to the secondary plot of the film, the romantic relationship between Horikoshi and Naoko Satomi, the daughter of a wealthy resort owner whom he helps during the Great Tokyo Earthquake of 1923. After years of separation, the two of them agree to get engaged and eventually marry despite her tuberculosis. The two of them live together for a short while before she succumbs to the disease. The parallels between Naoko and the Zero are fairly overtly drawn. Both of them are beautiful dreams that are worth pursuing even if their ends are terrible. Both of them are defined purely in their relationship to Jiro, and even Naoko’s final decision to leave him and retire to a sanatorium is made not for her own health but for his benefit, to spare him from seeing another of his beautiful dreams come to naught. I won’t say that Naoko’s character is reduced to an object or plot convenience; Miyazaki depicts her with enough verve and nuance to make her compelling in her own right. But she is not the focus, and as such plays a secondary role to Jiro at all times. Like the workers who built Jiro’s planes, she gets short shrift even in her own story.
The Wind Rises is not as much a story about the bloody story of Japanese imperialism as it is a personal story about the tragic ambitions of a brilliant young man. Indeed, in dedicating so much time to subjective dream space, Miyazaki tips his hand in that direction. At the same time, the narrative suffers for being so tight-fistedly centered on Jiro Horikoshi. Though we see hints all around that the world we are being shown has more depth and complexity than we are being shown, this film, unlike Princess Mononoke, never explores those dimensions. The Wind Rises is a beautiful, elegiac film, a fitting (probable) end to a mostly stellar career, but falls short of being the most valuable or insightful film he has ever made. I’m biased, but I suspect if Miyazaki had been more of a materialist and less of a romantic, we could have gotten the beauty of the machine and its rampant destruction in a more compelling, less airy narrative.