Two of my last three entries were devoted to classic American TV shows, which means I’ve been neglecting one of my main interests—classic Japanese TV shows! There has been so much good stuff coming out on DVD in the last few years, both animated and live-action, that I’ve been building up an impossible backlog of shows. The big difference between my interests in classic American TV and Japanese TV is that the Japanese continue to turn out shows that engage me, so that the backlog includes shows from the 1960s to the 2010s! (My most recent American TV box set is probably “Police Story” Season One, from 1973!) The earliest Japanese TV show I have is the animated “Astro Boy,” which began its run in 1963, and the earliest live-action Japanese TV show I have is “Ultra Q,” which began its run in 1966. The latest in my collection is Volume 1 of “Ressha Sentai ToQger,” the latest sentai show in Japan, which began its run on Feb. 16 of this year, a month ago today! (More on sentai in a moment.) In between, I have dozens of shows, some complete and some in only a single volume of episodes, some on VHS, many on DVD, mostly animated, but many live-action as well. Most of the live-action shows in my collection fall into the tokusatsu category, a term for live-action special effects shows in the vein of “Ultraman” and “Kamen Rider.”
In every film by Hayao Miyazaki up to THE WIND RISES, there was something at stake. The hero (or, more often, the heroine) was involved in a life-or-death struggle (NAUSICAA OF THE VALLEY OF THE WIND, CASTLE IN THE SKY, PRINCESS MONONOKE) or faced some coming-of-age challenge that was of immense importance to their maturation (MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO, KIKI’S DELIVERY SERVICE, SPIRITED AWAY). There were hints of love stories in some of these films, but romance was never a priority.
In THE WIND RISES, Miyazaki’s latest film and his purported final directorial effort, the protagonist is Jiro Horikoshi, a young engineer who lives, breathes, and sleeps airplanes and, after college graduation, goes to work for Mitsubishi Industries and, not surprisingly, gets the opportunity to design a plane of his own. Since it’s the 1930s and Japan is already waging war on China (something barely hinted at in the film), it’s no surprise that Jiro’s plane will be a weapon of war. So, what’s the challenge in THE WIND RISES? What’s at stake for Mr. Horikoshi? He’s given the assignment and he follows through on it. Does the fact that it’s going to be used as a weapon of war represent a moral dilemma for him? Not much of one, it turns out. There is some tentative questioning, but he still plunges into the assignment with relentless zeal even though he knows full well what the end result will be. Which begs the question of why we, the audience, should care. Or why viewers in America, a country that lost men to those planes, shouldn’t be outraged.