Last night I went with my friends to see The Wind Rises, Hayao Miyazaki‘s most recent film. As an artistic creation, as a story, it is both touching and impressive. Yet I found the story and the film’s romanticism, in the context of modern Japanese politics, to be unsettling. It is a tale about an actual historical figure, but to the best of my knowledge is heavily fictionalized. In other circumstances, with a different subject, I might feel less conflicted about the end result. But while I love this film as a piece of art I’m still not sure how to feel about it in a wider context. Let me explain.
As I would expect from a Studio Ghibli production, the movie is gorgeous. More than that, there’s a dreamlike quality to the film that is both endearing and entirely expected. This is heightened by the audio design, which uses a whole chorus of voices melded with more standard sound effects to produce the sounds of engines, wind, trains, and even earthquakes. In many ways this softens the sound profile of the film, and leaves even moments of supposed reality still faintly surreal.
Appropriately enough, this movie tells the story of a dreamer, a boy obsessed with flight who is limited by his poor eyesight and finds solace instead in designing the machines that will fly. He pursues his dream of flight with a singular devotion that puts others to shame, and as much as anything else this film tells the story of the joys of flight and the tumultuous path of following one’s obsessions.
But the person this film is about is more than an inspired dreamer; he’s also one of the leading architects of the Japanese Empire’s air force. In many ways, he is the seemingly oblivious representation of Japan’s military expansion into the rest of Asia, along with all the suffering that that implies. The film barely touches on this, preferring to focus instead on the majesty of flight and the joy of pursuing the perfect craft.
I am, of course, over-simplifying. This is a movie about a man, myopic in his focus on the few things that truly matter to him. It is less about history and more about one person’s (fictionalized) love and dreams. We are treated to bittersweet romance, the joy of obsessions followed and realized, and the pain of knowing that all of the beautiful things that one creates will only see suffering and will likely never see times of peace. Though there are moments of brightness, this is not a happy movie. And despite its fictional nature and close connection with unreality, it’s a very real and human film.
So why am I unsettled?
People are always reconstructing and reinterpreting their relationship with the past, sometimes in minor ways, sometimes not. As a personal story about a myopic dreamer and his loves and obsessions, The Wind Rises seems perfect. But The Wind Rises has been released at a time when Japan is reconstructing its relationship with its history as a military power, and in this context I find the film to be far more troubling; there is precious little here that addresses the dangerous excesses of Japan’s military and Imperial past, and there is a great deal there to worry about.
A good deal of what I talk about from here on out will include incidental *SPOILERS*, but I don’t know that they’ll actually ruin the movie for you.
I’m sure some will disagree with me, pointing to the movie’s early dream sequences and to the scenes set at the mountain resort, and specifically to Jiro’s conversations with the mysterious German. And I take your point: this fictional version of Jiro Horikoshi seems to be mostly aware of the fate awaiting Japan as it prepares to reap the whirlwind it has sown. He and his friend Honju both agree that Japan is on its way to being “blown up” because of its own actions, and at no point does he deny the things which Japan has done which have set it on that path. But he seems almost apathetic: at no point do I see this fictional Jiro feel any sort of anguish about this, or about the fact that his beautiful planes will be used only for war.
Maybe this is because he makes peace with this fact early on: in one of his dream-mentor’s first appearances Jiro is told that the machines he will make will be used for war before there is any chance to use them for peace. He takes this lesson as a given and doesn’t try to fight it. And perhaps that is because in his dreams Jiro has always known that all of his beautiful creations will be destroyed, from the destruction of his first dream plane by zeppelin-bomb to the wasteland of ruined airframes seen in the final moments of the movie.
*END OF SPOILERS*
But I dislike this form of critical analysis because it seems so squishy, and I don’t feel comfortable giving easy credit when I didn’t feel much emotional impact from those moments myself. The dream destruction, especially when it was anchored in reality, felt tragic. But it did not seem like it was something which could have been avoided with a different set of decisions. Perhaps I’ve hit on something; there’s a certain fatalism to the movie that I find unsettling, as we watch Jiro and Japan knowingly walk the path towards destruction without looking for another way.
I think that looking at Japan’s military past through that fatalistic lens is part of what I find so disturbing. If that is how we see Japan’s past relationship with aggression and conflict, what do we take away from the film for Japan’s modern relationship with aggression and conflict? I’m not sure, but it feels questionable to me.
Despite all of that, I still recommend the movie. It’s a good one, and if you appreciate lightly surreal historical fiction which tells a very human story, I’m sure you’ll enjoy it. It’s happy, sad, and beautiful, all rolled into one.