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?