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.
THE WIND RISES is also a romance and much more of one than we ever got in previous Miyazaki films. Therein may lie the real challenge confronting Jiro Horikoshi. The initial courtship, though, happens pretty easily, guided more by fate than by whatever romantic impulses the two leads might have. Satomi is an impossibly angelic young woman who is, quite literally, blown into Jiro’s life by the wind (a point hammered pretty repetitively throughout the film). The big challenge for him turns out to be the fact that Satomi has one of those movie illnesses that turn romantic dramas into tragedies. Not that you’d know it from Jiro’s demeanor throughout. Some tears fall on a page of his engineering notebook as he’s juggling numbers while taking the train to see her after he’s been notified that she’s suddenly taken ill. That’s the most emotional it gets. He has to juggle seeing her and staying in contact with her as she spends time in and out of the sanatorium, all while he’s working steadily on the plane. At one point, he insists on marrying her against his boss’s wishes, saying he’ll give up his work if he has to, so the boss agrees. That’s the extent of the romantic challenge placed in his path.
Designing the plane ultimately takes greater priority. The navy needs it. Why? So they can bomb Pearl Harbor and kill Americans in a surprise attack that will pull the U.S. into a three-year-and-nine-month war that ultimately devastates Japan. But the film shies away from telling us that much. All we’re told is that Jiro’s designs result in a fighter plane that makes his bosses very proud and his co-workers very happy. The plane is the infamous Japanese Zero, but we’re not told that it becomes Japan’s favored weapon in the Pacific War, one that kills many Americans (including men my father, a Marine Corps drill instructor during the war, trained for combat in the Pacific).
It’s clear that Miyazaki’s love of aviation is what drew him to this character, not to mention his love of characters who are dreamers. (Flying machines figure prominently in LUPIN III: CASTLE CAGLIOSTRO, NAUSICAA, CASTLE IN THE SKY, KIKI’S DELIVERY SERVICE and PORCO ROSSO.) Miyazaki clearly admires Jiro’s desire to make a beautiful plane, a perfect flying machine. That only a company with a Navy contract would give him such an opportunity is pictured as a minor inconvenience. There are occasional dark hints of Japanese government malfeasance and impending doom for Japan, and a direct threat to Jiro when special agents come looking for him, but it wasn’t enough to satisfy me that Miyazaki understood the implications of the story he’s telling. If the government was sending the Japanese equivalent of the Gestapo after Jiro (“thought police” as the subtitles tell us), why does he continue to work on the plane, even in hiding? Why doesn’t he react?! No hard facts ever seem to really penetrate his dreamer’s consciousness. Miyazaki may find Jiro’s tunnel vision endearing, but I found it infuriating. And then the whole plot thread of impending arrest is dropped entirely. When Jiro comes out of hiding to test the new plane, where are the agents who were seeking him?
When I think back to PRINCESS MONONOKE, I recall how each of the characters has an extraordinary stake in the outcome. There are clear villains but we are made to understand their motives and their goals and even the good that comes out of what they do. Lady Moroboshi has built an ironworks in the middle of a pristine forest and is ravaging the landscape for raw materials. But she provides work for women who’ve fled prostitution, poor laborers who’ve left their farms, and a whole colony of lepers employed to design and make the guns Moroboshi’s men use to fight off the enraged animals of the forest (most notably boars and wolves, but also some apes) as well as the samurai army that comes seeking to reap the benefits of Moroboshi’s enterprise. Ashitaka, the young hero, comes to this forest after being wounded by a cursed animal from the forest who passed the curse to him and he needs to find the source of it and a possible cure. San, the young girl who happens to be the Mononoke of the title, feels fierce loyalty to the wolves who raised her and the other animals of the forest and considers Moroboshi her mortal enemy. She and Ashitaka are drawn to each other and become allies. Ashitaka wants to keep the various factions from fighting each other, so that the cycle of curses can come to an end. Everyone has a stake in the action and we the audience understand each position. NAUSICAA has a similar range of warring parties and people caught in the middle. CASTLE IN THE SKY operates in a similar fashion, although the lead villain is more of a classical bad guy whose motive is pure greed.
THE WIND RISES is evidently a story on a much smaller scale, without any fantasy elements whatsoever, and is based on a real person. Miyazaki clearly wanted to make a human drama about someone he was drawn to and whose work he wanted to celebrate. But when that work was instrumental in a war that caused such devastation throughout Japan and the rest of Asia and led to a destructive conflict with a country that is now a close ally, maybe you should think a little more about the implications of the story you’re telling and the character you’re glorifying. Especially at a time when the flames of conflict in that region are being fanned all over again. To make the excuse that he just wanted to make a film about Jiro’s “beautiful dream” and to pour so much of his animation genius into the dream sequences doesn’t mitigate the fact that there was much blood on Horikoshi’s hands, no matter how much of an aeronautical genius he may have been. And this blood should have been acknowledged much more forcefully. At the end, Horikoshi laments that not one of his planes returned. And why is that? Because the U.S. Navy and Army Air Corps shot them all down to stop them from killing our boys. Am I supposed to feel sorry for Mr. Horikoshi?
Is it any coincidence that this film is coming out at a time when the current Prime Minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe, who has made notorious efforts in the past to whitewash Japan’s behavior during the war, has been irritating his country’s allies (including the U.S.) and aggravating such neighbors in the region as China and South Korea? The tunnel vision that Jiro displays in the film is all too evident in real life as Japanese leaders seem unable to recognize how their actions are perceived by the rest of the world. I would have had fewer objections to the film if there had been scenes showing the devastation of Japan caused by American bombing raids with the clear message that sending out those Zeroes to attack brought back much greater punishment. Jiro made a perfect plane to wage war and back came all-out destruction. There are consequences to a nation’s actions. Someone has to be held accountable. But at the end, all we see is a vast field of debris, consisting of the wreckage of thousands of Japanese Zeroes piled atop each other and we hear Jiro’s lament. What about the human cost?
I’m further alarmed at the huge volume of glowing reviews the film has received in the U.S. It was even nominated for an Oscar for Best Animated Feature. (It didn’t win.) Are people today so far removed from the war that it means nothing to them anymore? In Japan, the film got some flack from right-wingers for containing what were perceived as anti-war sentiments. To me, those sentiments never seemed to get in the way of the narrative and seemed like more of an afterthought. If they really meant anything, the hero would have suffered at least some anguish over what he’s being asked to do. But he doesn’t. And it’s not like Japanese filmmakers haven’t dealt with these issues before in some depth. Kurosawa’s NO REGRETS FOR OUR YOUTH (1946) features a major character, the husband of the female protagonist, who sacrifices everything for his opposition to the war. Kon Ichikawa’s THE BURMESE HARP (1956) focuses on a Japanese soldier who survives the war but gives up everything and becomes a monk to try to make amends. I have big problems with I BOMBED PEARL HARBOR (1960), but at least it doesn’t gloss over the Japanese military’s blunders during the war, the way it brainwashed its soldiers and pilots, and the lies that were told to the Japanese people to keep up the war effort.
Fortunately, after I made my views known on the Mobius Home Video Forum, other participants posted links to reviews that dared to critique this film on the grounds discussed above. For the Village Voice, Korean-American journalist Inkoo Kang wrote, “The Trouble with The Wind Rises,” with the subhead, “Hayao Miyazaki ends a brilliant career on a shameful note.” Here’s the link:
And here are some key quotes:
But there’s no reason why critics and audiences outside of Japan should be morally complacent in the animator’s concessions to his countrymen’s egos. The Wind Rises perpetuates Japanese society’s deliberate misremembering and rewriting of history, which cast the former Empire of the Rising Sun as a victim of World War II, while glossing over — or in some cases completely ignoring — the mass death and suffering its military perpetrated. Critics who fail to observe or protest Miyazaki’s “pussyfooting” around a regime that caused more deaths than the Holocaust aid and abet Japan’s continued whitewashing of its war crimes.
In The Wind Rises, Miyazaki uses real-life aircraft engineer Jiro Horikoshi as an extreme example of ordinary Japanese citizens’ indifference to the atrocities committed in their name. Jiro, as he’s referred to in the film, finds such beauty in airplanes and flight that he feverishly pursues the next level of killing machines for Mitsubishi, justifying his work by comparing his planes to the pyramids. The reference to the pharaohs might allude to the fact that Mitsubishi used Chinese and Korean slave labor to build Jiro’s Zero planes. But the character never considers whether the slaves who died making those pyramids might not believe the results were worth their lives.
In The Wind Rises, the alliance between Germany and Japan — the original Axis of Evil — is conveniently forgotten, as scene after scene shows the Japanese bombarded by Teutonic suspicion, condescension, and hostility. Reframing the Japanese as the victims of Nazi racism deflects attention from the heinousness of the Japanese Imperial Army. But Miyazaki’s elevation of his own countrymen as morally loftier to the Nazis is only credible when the viewer forgets (or is unaware) that the Japanese military justified killing 30 million people across Asia with its own ideology of ethnic superiority.
The Wind Rises continues this blame evasion throughout, evincing an ideal of pacifism while positioning Japan as the target of Chinese and American assault. We see Japanese planes downed by a Chinese foe in a mid-film reverie — a shockingly insensitive image given that Japan was invading China during this time, not the other way around. Later, an American bomber floats above a graveyard of burned-out aircraft over the defeated Japanese empire. In contrast, no Japanese pilot is ever seen shooting at an enemy, even though Jiro’s most famous invention, the Zero plane, was designed and used solely for military purposes. The consequences of his work — that is, corpses — are likewise absent. In the film, Jiro never expresses sympathy for the people his people killed. His grief is strictly reserved for the deaths of his planes. His preference to mourn his Zeros, rather than the planes’ victims, illustrates his soft-handed callousness. The bloodlessness of the film contributes to its whitewashing of an incredibly bloody history.
And in the MetroTimes, Detroit’s free alternative weekly, two reviewers offer differing views of the film. The second one, by Jeff Meyers, offers a critique similar to that of Ms. Kang. Here’s the link to the page with the two reviews:
And here are some key quotes:
But if Miyazaki is claiming that an artist cannot be held responsible for how his art is abused, his film makes a poor case of it. The fact that Jiro’s beautifully designed machines will be used to massacre others is never once questioned. He isn’t just incurious about this, he seems morally apathetic. In one scene, Jiro shows off his designs for a fast and graceful plane that, unfortunately, won’t work with guns mounted on it. Laughing, he discards the plans for those that will accommodate bombs and machine-guns.
It could be argued that Miyazaki is subtly attempting to demonstrate how Japanese nationalism blinded Jiro to the implications of his designs, how governments corrupt the passions of the naive for their own militaristic purposes. But the message is hard to discern since his protagonist rarely encounters conflict and the film so assiduously holds the specifics of WWII at arm’s length.
This detached view of Japan’s behavior during the war is in sync with the country’s official stance — often denying its darker history — but contrasts greatly with movies like Howl’s Moving Castle, Princess Mononoke, and Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. In those films Miyazaki argued openly and passionately that harmony, compassion, and understanding were needed to achieve peace, and that war was poisonous to both the victims and the victors. The Wind Rises is neither persuasive as a plea for peace nor a criticism of war.
I’ve been a fan of Miyazaki since 1990, when I took my daughter (then seven years old) to see LAPUTA: CASTLE IN THE SKY (1986) at the Film Forum in New York. I’ve been promoting his films in print since 1994, when my first review of a Miyazaki film (MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO) appeared. I even interviewed him in 1999 when he came to the New York Film Festival for a showing of PRINCESS MONONOKE. I consider the four features he made in the 1980s (NAUSICAA, LAPUTA, TOTORO, KIKI) plus MONONOKE to be unimpeachable masterpieces. (His aviation adventure, PORCO ROSSO, is much more lighthearted and in some ways a spiritual predecessor to THE WIND RISES.) But his films have been getting more and more abstract since MONONOKE. SPIRITED AWAY is compelling, but the nightmare world in which it plunges its young heroine, Chihiro, was harder for me to penetrate. The worlds in it and the two subsequent films, HOWL’S MOVING CASTLE and PONYO, were more actively surreal, less inviting and less interesting to me. I haven’t wanted to revisit them the way I’ve revisited the earlier ones. But they didn’t actively alienate me the way this new film does. Miyazaki has been threatening to retire since MONONOKE. I wish he’d done so after SPIRITED AWAY, so I wouldn’t have had to write this.
In the comments section below, I’ve added the text of an email from a colleague at the City University of New York who’s a fan of the film and someone from whom I sought a reaction to the Village Voice review quoted above. He defends the film quite eloquently, but focuses on the more subtle and intricate details of the film and how they speak to deeper concerns on the part of Miyazaki. I think it’s reasonable to allow these smaller details to make a case for the film, but I’m unable to be swayed by them. In a case like this, I’m much more concerned with the bigger picture (as you may have gathered from many of my previous pieces here) and prefer to raise questions about the moral positions represented by Miyazaki’s choice of subject matter in the first place. Which is why I quoted so extensively from those two reviews.
P.S. I should point out that the version I saw at the Landmark Sunshine Cinema in New York was the Japanese-language, English-subtitled version. The translations may be different in the English dub and the protagonist’s ambiguity may come off a little more clearly in that version. I need to see it and compare.