The World War II biopic sparks an animated debateBy Sam Byford
Hayao Miyazaki's The Wind Rises is a lot of things. It's the final feature-length film from one of the all-time greats of Japanese animation. It's a gorgeous, Oscar-nominated work that brings prewar Japan to life in ways that have never been seen before. It's Miyazaki's most pointedly adult movie, with a slow-burning tragedy replacing the magical realism and cute characters that have made Studio Ghibli's films appeal across generations. And it's the most controversial animated movie in recent memory.
That's because The Wind Rises is a sympathetic biography of a man whose work contributed to Japan's brutal campaign of imperialist aggression during World War II. Jiro Horikoshi designed the Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighter plane that Japan used in Pearl Harbor and countless other assaults; the Zero was feared for the unparalleled range and maneuverability bestowed by Horikoshi's considerable engineering skills. Although its subject matter is linked to a violent past, The Wind Rises follows in the tradition of Japanese works that eulogize artisanal passion and dedication to one's craft — it could almost have been called Jiro Dreams of Fighter Planes.
Why would Miyazaki choose to end his career on such a contentious note? He told a magazine in 2011 that he was drawn to Horikoshi's alleged statement that "All I wanted to do was to make something beautiful." The aircraft designer "also embodies many of Miyazaki's own contradictions," says Roland Kelts, author of Japanamerica, who has interviewed the director. "[Miyazaki is] a pacifist whose father earned his income during the war working for a fighter plane parts manufacturer, and a committed artist who also tried to appreciate the realities of life, including a family he feels he often neglected. At times, Jiro seems inured to the suffering, corruption, and the needs of those around him as he pursues the realization of his dream. The results, of course, make for a great tragic drama."
Miyazaki, for his part, is one of the most prominent Japanese public figures to speak out against the country's imperialist past. He has been branded a "traitor" by Japanese nationalists for arguing against reforming the country's constitutionally enshrined pacifism — currently being pushed by right-wing prime minister Shinzo Abe — and saying that reparations should be paid to wartime sex slaves from Korea and China, euphemistically referred to as "comfort women." These issues, along with a series of territorial disputes, continue to be a source of tension between Japan and its Far Eastern neighbors.
"Including myself, a generation of Japanese men who grew up during a certain period have very complex feelings about World War II, and the Zero symbolizes our collective psyche," said Miyazaki in an interview with the Asahi Shimbun. "Japan went to war out of foolish arrogance, caused trouble throughout the entire East Asia, and ultimately brought destruction upon itself... but for all this humiliating history, the Zero represented one of the few things that we Japanese could be proud of." Despite the Zero's status as a fearsome war machine, Miyazaki was more concerned with the inspired mind behind its design. "It was the extraordinary genius of Jiro Horikoshi, the Zero's designer, that made it the finest state-of-the-art fighter plane of the time... Horikoshi intuitively understood the mystery of aerodynamics that nobody could explain in words."
Miyazaki's feelings for Horikoshi make more sense when you look at the director's filmography, which is filled with fantastical depictions of the magic of human flight. Movies such as Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, Laputa: Castle in the Sky, and Kiki's Delivery Service see characters take to the skies with such joy and beauty that they could only have come from the mind of an artist so enamored with the concept. But those movies were set in fantasy worlds, with little to no historical context in the minds of the audience. The Wind Rises is different, bestowing the same sense of bewitchment and wonder on notorious war machines without spelling out what they were designed for. Given the setting, did Miyazaki have a responsibility to address Japan's wartime exploits more explicitly?
"The point is that the film still accommodates Japanese society's willful amnesia about World War II," Kang tells The Verge. "My problem is the 'pussyfooting' around war crimes I refer to in my piece. It's possible to make great, moral art out of problematic subjects." Kang notes that "no Japanese pilot is ever seen shooting at an enemy" in The Wind Rises, while the film's allusions to war see Chinese fighters and Japan's shaky alliance with Nazi Germany contributing to a creeping sense of dread.
Kelts, on the other hand, finds "the mini-brouhaha" around The Wind Rises "specious and self-serving," arguing that Miyazaki has no obligation to preach about the past. "If the film were about a pilot or general or army grunt, references to Japan's brutal colonization of Asia might be apt. But Jiro is working on the home front, designing what he believes will be a thing of beauty." And even if the movie touches a nerve among some viewers, it's clear that the director intended quite the opposite. "Miyazaki the man is open about his disgust at any hint of militarism in Japan and his abhorrence of politicians who ignorantly stoke its embers today," says Kelts. "Critics who focus their understandable anger over Japan's disposition 70-plus years ago on an artist whose every fibre agrees with them are wasting their words."
Moreover, the absence of bloody, consequential violence arguably supports the anti-war message that Miyazaki meant to send. At its core, The Wind Rises is about what happens when people forsake what really matters when pursuing their goals. "Jiro dreams of flight, and his dreams are often dragged to the ground by the corruption of real life," says Kelts. "It's as if Miyazaki wants to drive home the harsh difference between the two; the tragic near-impossibility of combining dreams and reality, and of living in both. If you choose one, you sacrifice the other." Jiro appears to sweep the ugly reality of his work into the far-off corners of his mind, concentrating on the nuts and bolts of aircraft design at the tragic expense of his partner, Naoko. This can be read as Miyazaki's indictment of the powers that turned Japan to brutality in its quest for global significance.
Whatever your take on The Wind Rises, there's nothing quite like it. "A film about a complex personal and national past that [Miyazaki] has long reflected upon, a meditation upon the joys and demands of art and craftsmanship, and a heartbreaking love story," summarizes Kelts. And even if some take issue with the way Miyazaki has handled its themes, the movie is an undeniable tour de force of animation — its rendering of the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake in particular must be seen to be believed. "Just aesthetically speaking, I thought it was a beautiful film with some severe pacing issues," says Kang. American audiences will no doubt have a multitude of reactions when The Wind Rises sees wide release next month, but they shouldn't miss it. Hayao Miyazaki's final film is a provocative, wondrous work of art that won't soon be forgotten.
The Wind Rises will be in US theaters on February 21st.