The Wind Rises (Kaze Tachinu): Written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki. Starring: Hideaki Anno, Miori Takimoto, Hidetoshi Nishijima, Masahiko Nishimura, Steve Alpert, Morio Kazama, Keiko Takeshita, Mirai Shida, Jun Kunimura, Shinobu Otake, Nomura Mansai. Running Time: 126 minutes. Based on the manga by the same name by Hayao Miyazaki
**spoiler warning- there’s a lot I want to say about this movie, and much of it will require me to delve into the content of the entire film. Not that it’s really a “story movie” anyway, but for those of you who avoid any spoilers on principle, here’s the fyi**
If you had taken a census of Miyazaki’s most devoted fans, critics, and all-around cinephiles that have followed his career over the years and asked them to opine on what they would envision his last film to be like, The Wind Rises would not be it. Ironically, that makes it, in many respects, a quintessential Miyazaki film, because what else has drawn us to his work over the decades, other than the fact that his films are never quite what we thought they would be? Each one has been something refreshingly new, often something at complete odds with what came before. In this aspect, The Wind Rises is no exception. Whether or not it will have the staying power of his earlier works, and whether or not there is more than in some of his other films to actively criticize, remains to be seen.
The Wind Rises is a heavily fictionalized account of the early life of Jiro Horikoshi, the designer of the Zero fighter plane, a huge technological leap forward for the Japanese air force during WWII that temporarily outstripped all other planes in the world, and which were later made infamous by their use as suicide vessels by kamikaze pilots towards the end of the war, often to devastating and horrifying effect. When the film opens, however, none of that dark future exists yet for Jiro. He freely dreams of a bright, sunlight-and-color-filled sky, through which he flies his own imaginary plane as the morning sun streams over the hills. It’s the ultimate escapist fantasy, flying over house and field as the people look up in wonder and awe. However, even at that age, premonitions of a dark future start creeping in to his consciousness- a massive zeppelin adorned with the Iron Cross looms suddenly out of the clouds, armed to the teeth with bombs and muttering shadows that will remind many of the night spirits in Princess Mononoke. A large, undulating torpedo strikes his craft, shattering it, and he falls.
It is a scene meant as a premonition for what is to come. Since his own eyesight is too poor for flight school, Jiro eagerly decides to pursue studies as an engineer so that he too can one day design the planes he loves so much. Beginning then and continuing throughout his life, he is encouraged by the Italian aircraft designer Caproni. Or rather, by his imaginary version of Caproni. Every so often, usually when Jiro is at a low point in his life, Caproni visits him in his mind, the “kingdom of their dreams,” as he puts it, where they straddle the wings of planes in flight and ponder why they are driven to build machines that they themselves will never use, especially machines utilized for war.
Later, on his way to the university to pursue his higher studies, the train is stopped by what is now called the Great Kanto Earthquake, which utterly devastated Tokyo in 1923. A shadowy wave approaches the coastline, and the houses and ground rise and fall like bedsheets being shaken out in the morning, while the Earth groans like some monstrous beast waking after centuries of sleep. Trying to make sense of the disaster after leaving the train, he stops to help the mother of Naoko, a pretty young girl who happened to catch his hat earlier as the train sped over a bridge. They will eventually be reunited, at a mountain resort where they fall (rather quickly) in love, and soon after marry, even though she is suffering from incurable tuberculosis.
Before their reunion and marriage, however, Jiro finishes his studies and begin work at Mitsubishi, which at that time was feverishly churning out new airplane designs in the hopes of winning much-desired government contracts for the military. For most of the rest of the movie, we follow the various events and experiences that eventually inspire Jiro to create the Zero. As his vision approaches reality, however, Naoko grows sicker and sicker, eventually dying the same day as the first test flight of Jiro’s plane. The conjunction of these two moments (although said death is not depicted on-screen, but rather heavily implied) seems to be a sharp and biting allegory for what the birth of the Zero plane signified- its creation may have been inspired, impressive, and technically ingenious, but it also heralded in an even more deadly phase in the Sino-Chinese war, and would be responsible for an immense amount of destruction and death in the wider World War just over the horizon. As it touches down, the technicians and military higher-ups exuberantly celebrating, a person of beauty, innocence, and purity leaves the world forever. Jiro’s much longed-for convergence of dream and reality brings in destruction on an unimaginable scale, and pushes out love and joy. The war that has haunted Jiro since his childhood has caught up to him at last.
There are two major themes in The Wind Rises that I felt to be of paramount importance. One is, rather obviously, wind itself, and all the forms that it can take. The title of the movie is taken from a line in a poem by the French writer Paul Valery, called “The Graveyard By The Sea,” and is recited several times by various characters; “The wind is rising. We must try to live.” And rise the wind does, in many forms and in many ways, representing beauty, kindness, and gentleness, but also the overwhelming tide of events in which an individual like Jiro, no matter how well-intended or idealistic, can become utterly lost.
Sometimes, the wind pulls gently at the grass in the field, accentuating the beauty of the natural world. Other times, it tears at the clothes and rips an umbrella out of someone’s hand. The wind both lifts up the airplanes of Jiro’s dreams and those of his reality, but is also capable of ripping them apart at the seams, and does so quite often. It can lead to beautiful moments, like the wind that blows Jiro’s hat into Naoko’s hand, but like that selfsame wind, it can also herald ruin, blowing the searing ash and embers from the first fires started by the quake in every direction, causing whole swaths of the city to be consumed in flame. The wind is a force inexorable, far beyond any one person’s ability to contain, much like the fate that envelops both Jiro and his country. And yet, as the original poem itself suggests, even when faced with an overwhelming tide, we are still driven by a yearning to go on, to continue even when it seems that all purpose in doing so is lost.
The second major theme within the film is that of dreams, and of where the lines between dream and reality can be drawn. In several scenes, characters refer to life as wondrous, something dreamlike at its best, and it is from such a dreamlike state that Jiro seems to perceive much of that which happens to and around him, as if he is permanently emotionally detached from the world. His sleeping and waking fantasies of flying, both the wonderful and the terrible, are freely interspersed with his supposed waking moments, to the extent that it’s often hard to tell them apart at first. Conversation with fellow engineers will suddenly shift to include images of the plane in flight, and those present react as if they all were seeing the same image. Even the “real” parts of Jiro’s life come across as dream-like; there are no clear transitions from one scene to the next, and sometimes we only learn several minutes into a conversation that several years have gone by. In this sense, the film itself is much like a dream- a scene begins, and we have no idea how Jiro got there, or when, and why- he is simply there, and we must observe what transpires. Perhaps the entire film is a dream, woven out of the fabric of Jiro’s first literal flight of fancy in the very beginning.
That the technical side of the movie- the quality of its animation and the effectiveness of Joe Hisaishi’s soundtrack (not, perhaps, as memorable as his work in other Miyazaki classics, but still fitting for the work’s tone)- is without reproach is beyond question. Where I (and a great many other critics) found fault in the film was more in the specifics of its story and execution. I do not believe I can overstate how much of a slow-burning film this is. I have stated previously that many of the scenes transition with effectively no fanfare. A great number of said scenes are dominated by technical talk concerning the mechanics of aviation. This is not to say that these scenes are bad- I found them fitting in the context of the film- but I cannot blame anyone who finds the film so boring that they mentally check out before the end (which I a shame, because I believe it’s in the last act of the movie that the entire enterprise comes together).
Further criticism can be made of Jiro’s relationship with Naoko, who, it becomes fairly clear, exists simply as an object of beautiful and innocent perfection for Jiro to lose at the necessary moment. This will be particularly surprising for some, given the incredible roster of female characters (both leads and supporting) that Miyazaki has provided us over the years. As stated above, I found her character and their relationship as a whole to be more of a metaphor for the costs of militant nationalism, but again, the implications that that is the intended interpretation are small indeed, so like with the film’s length, I can sympathize with those who found it to be something of a distraction (indeed, my favorite aspects of the film were those that had nothing to do with Naoko).
Neither of those factors, however, has been nearly as great a source of division and controversy as the simple fact that the overarching aim of the film is to portray Jiro in a sympathetic, and in some respects flattering, light. At this point, I must move away from the film to provide some needed historical context for the piece. At the time that Jiro was working at Mitsubishi and designing the Zero, Japan was not only in the process of militarizing and brainwashing much of its citizenry in preparation for war against the United States, it was already engaged in one of the most brutal conflicts in history, its invasion of Korea and mainland China. The atrocities committed by Japanese forces, which I will not list here, are a point of contention between Japan, China, Korea, and other Asian nations to this day, in large part due to continued efforts by the Japanese government (and by a not-insignificant size of Japan’s population as a whole) to either deny outright or simply ignore many of the worst aspects of Japanese wartime policy. Although Jiro was not directly involved in military policy or wartime operations, his Zero added its own dimension of destruction and pain to the conflict, even before it became the suicidal coffins for scores of young Japanese pilots.
What has inspired so much controversy and passion is the fact that none of the above- the brutality inflicted by the Japanese in China and other places, the militarizing of the society, the repression of dissent and free speech- is directly shown or alluded to in the film. Not that the war is ignored. Jiro’s co-workers refer several times to the winds of war everyone knew was coming. At the resort where Jiro and Naoko are reunited, a German fleeing the Nazis compares the place they are all at to Thomas Mann’s “Magic Mountain,” a place where anything painful or uncomfortable can be forgotten; “The war in China? Forgotten! The puppet government in Manchuria? Forgotten!”
This lack of open, direct acknowledgement of Jiro’s part in the war is, in the eyes of some, exacerbated by the final scene of the movie; he is once again in his dream world with Caproni, except now the ground is littered with the charred bones of his Zero, all destroyed. After commenting to Caproni that the world of his dreams has now become his own personal hell, he says wistfully, “None of my planes returned. Not one.”
For some critics, this is a callous effort to further feed the Japanese tendency of simply not acknowledging the suffering caused by the war outside of that which Japan itself experienced. It can be argued that, through the line, Jiro is expressing his sorrow over the pilots and their victims AS WELL AS the planes, but again, that is very much open to interpretation. Despite that aspect, however, the rest of the film is clearly very anti-war in general. Both the film and its creator very much embody this strange divide. Miyazaki cannot be accused of ignorance when it comes to WWII- he has spoken openly of Japanese wartime policy in the past, and has adamantly opposed Shinzo Abe’s efforts to rewrite Japan’s strictly pacifistic post-war constitution. When interviewed about the film, he stated quite firmly that the Japanese government acted out of “arrogance,” and sowed the seeds of its own destruction. On the other hand, he holds Jiro as blameless, as a visionary whose admittedly impressive creation was twisted by others for dark uses. He says that his primary inspiration for the film was a single line from Jiro’s memoirs, written long after the war’s end; “I just wanted to make something beautiful.”
Miyazaki clearly takes Jiro at his word. Others do not. Audiences and critics, both in Japan and abroad, have been as starkly divided over the film and its subject matter as he is. Some on the conservative end of the spectrum have attacked the film for containing what veiled criticism of Japanese wartime policy it does have, with a few even going so far as to label Miyazaki “anti-Japanese.” Conversely, many on the Japanese left, as well as in countries that suffered the most from Japanese aggression and the abilities of the Zero plane in particular contend that Miyazaki does not go far enough, that he ignores not only the horrors of Japanese aggression in general, but also what aspects of said aggression can be linked directly to Jiro’s life and work; another historical side unacknowledged by the film is the fact that many of the Zero fighters produced during the war were assembled by Korean laborers (read; slaves). One Korean-American critic, Inkoo Kang, wrote the following in her response to the film; “ is just one film, but it echoes an entire country’s obsession with misremembering a deeply painful and extraordinarily violent past. Japan’s wartime victimhood is a convenient lie its citizens have told themselves for decades. That the aging Miyazaki has misguidedly lent a patina of wistful beauty to that lie is a shame. ends the illustrious career of a treasured visionary on a repellent, disgraceful note.”
Even the question of slave labor during the war, however, is not ignored entirely. When lamenting to Caproni over how his planes are being used, Caproni simply tells him to think of the pyramids, asking if he thinks the world would be better without them. The implication here seems to be that even though the pyramids, which were also constructed with slave labor, most definitely caused great suffering for many, the world would still be a poorer place if they did not exist. Whether or not the pyramids are comparable to fighter planes is, again, open to debate.
By now, you are undoubtedly wondering where I stand on all of this. And to be honest…..I am not sure. In fact, during the process of writing this review, I have openly worried on more than one occasion that my deep and abiding love for Miyazaki’s works makes me biased enough to overlook the questionable way he tackles history, or whether or not his treatment of the film itself as something like a dream, drenched in unspoken and vague metaphors, really works the way he wanted it to. Even when you disagree with Miyazaki’s basic assumption underlying the film, that Jiro himself is someone to be admired for his technical genius and his fierce passion for the dream of flying, his deep-seated belief in the ultimate beauty of human effort has never shone through more clearly. In several scenes, the parts of the planes being tested are seen being taken to the field cleared for flight by oxen-drawn carts, led by the poorest of farmers. Human dreams so often exceed the reality in which they are born, but there is nobility in the dreaming, even when it is surrounded by chaos.
On the whole, though, there are enough aspects of the film itself that, in my opinion, do not work as well as they should, enough that I do not think that, on its own merits, the film is on the same level as Princess Mononoke or Spirited Away. While I personally do not feel that the film is historically or culturally insensitive in how it treats its subject matter, I cannot blame others for disagreeing. In his (seemingly) final cinematic act, Miyazaki has given us what may or may not be among his greatest works, but what is, I think, his deepest, most complex, most mercurial, and most intimately personal creation out of everything he has made. As a result, The Wind Rises shows us, perhaps, much more of his own personal and cultural flaws, biases, and idiosyncrasies than we’ve seen before, including the ones many find objectionable.
Where The Wind Rises DOES succeed in achieving greatness is in how its very existence provokes questions far above just those limited to the story and subject of the actual film. Spoken and unspoken meditations on war, peace, love, innocence, and the divergence between dreams and reality permeate each frame and are enough on their own to provoke hours of deep discourse. But what it also provokes are questions and uncertainties regarding the very nature of art itself, and of the artists who take it upon themselves to create. When using real events as a baseboard, what are the artist’s duties to the historical truth, if there even are any? Can we fairly criticize an artist for focusing on some aspects of the story and ignoring others, regardless of their reasons for doing so? And if we can, where do we draw the line, and how do we tell when an artist has gone too far, or not far enough? To what extent can we say that someone is guilty by association, even if they only indirectly contribute to a crime?
I do not know the answers to any of these questions. I do not know yet if The Wind Rises really is one of Miyazaki’s best works. I do not know if it is so reprehensible in its avoidance of the dark side of Japanese wartime history as to be considered his “worst” film, at least from a moralistic perspective. What I do know is that I was moved in ways I could not begin to put into words by the movie. Not in great emotions, but in small shifts in my thinking. I know that I have thought long, and hard, and deeply, far longer than I normally do before writing up a review. I have read an uncounted number of reviews and reactions to this movie while writing my own, far more than I usually do. I have asked myself a lot of questions, and have actively worried about my own biases and viewpoints coloring my perception of Miyazaki’s more debatable decisions in the film, also something I rarely give extensive thought to.
And is it not a blessing for us to be presented with something that makes us question so deeply, that defines easy generalizations and simple lessons? Is it not a gift, to be challenged to reevaluate and redefine our individual attitudes and approaches to art and objective truth, and the divergences between the two? Even if, after considering all this, one feels compelled to condemn the film for its flaws and how it treats its subject matter, was it not wonderful to be able to assert so clearly what one thinks and why? Hayao Miyazaki has, once again, provocatively pushed the boundaries of our perceptions of the kind of stories animation can tell. He has had his visions, and his dreams, like Jiro. The hesitation and, in some cases, anger and/or frustration that this last work has caused aside, I would like to think his efforts to make those dreams a reality have been far more beneficial, inspiring, and life-giving than the Zero ended up being. He has let his mind soar on the back of the rising wind. He has lived.
And now it’s our turn.