Seen: At the Kendall Square Landmark Cinema in Cambridge.
It seems for months I’ve been hearing about Miyazaki’s latest film, The Wind Rises. Possibly the acclaimed anime director’s final feature, it has for many proven to be a fitting end, a metaphorical journey through Miyazaki’s own creative struggles and achievements. Based on his own comic, which itself loosely draws from actual history, the film centers on Jirô Horikoshi, who as a child in the 1910s dreams of being a pilot but instead becomes an airplane designer when he realizes his poor eyesight would hinder him. We watch Jirô grow up into a quiet, hardworking young man who devotes himself to his craft, studying harder than his classmates and eventually going to work for a top aircraft manufacturer. Many of his ideas fail, but as a greater world war draws ever closer he pushes forward with a radical design that will prove to be his life’s most important work. Meanwhile, he meets and falls in love with Nahoko, a charming young painter suffering from tuberculosis.
With his typical emotional nuance and breathtaking visuals, Miyazaki has crafted a fitting end to his sizable oeuvre, if this does indeed turn out to be his final film. The grandiose, painterly backgrounds are to die for, especially the billowy clouds and detailed attention to wind effects. The characters are grounded and interesting, with notes of humor and sentimentality playing throughout the more serious main plot. Through Jirô, Miyazki allows us to glimpse a significant and fascinating period in Japanese history, a time of rapid industrialization, increased militarization, economic struggle, clashing cultures, and growing nationalism. The film is dramatic but fanciful, sweeping in its vision but still focused on small moments, and decidedly intimate.
I just wish I liked it more.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s a fine film. The visuals really are top-notch, up there with Miyazaki’s very best. I adored the many dreamscape flying sequences, rife with soft pink light and visible brushstrokes in the clouds, with rustling grasses and wind-whipped hair. And I really loved this view of Japanese history, especially since it’s one of the few non-Western cultures whose history I’ve actually studied so I felt like I could contextualize things a bit more. He takes care to show us the mix of old and new, of Japanese tradition and Western novelty, though these hints are often more in the background (clothing, buildings, products, etc). The characters are generally likable and interesting, and I especially appreciated the kooky German ex-pat who warns Jirô of things to come.
But. As the film progressed it became increasingly difficult for me to root for Jirô, or even watch him, primarily because of his apparent forced ignorance. Throughout the film he is visited by a vision of Caproni, an early Italian aeronautical engineer, who tells his protegee that though his creations are beautiful, they may be put to violent use by others, just as his own planes were used in World War I. But he encourages Jirô to think big and make planes anyway. Jiro essentially dedicates his entire life to this idea: What he is making will DEFINITELY be used to slaughter people, but he’s gonna keep doing it anyway because of… dreams? What’s frustrating is that the character- who is otherwise shown to be thoughtful, compassionate, and kind- seems willfully ignorant, never fully considering the ramifications of his work even though he discusses it multiple times. He would have these conversations with his fellow engineer Honjô, asking about the war and politics and such, and he would just sort of dumbly say “but why are people fighting?”, think briefly about how it’s too bad airplanes are used in wars, and then shake his head and go back to designing airplanes. It was as if he couldn’t connect all the dots, so by the end of the film when his long-awaited final aircraft design is used by the Japanese military and all the pilots die (presumably along with various civilians and enemy soldiers), he’s all sad about it as if he didn’t foresee this completely obvious thing. I mean, if he didn’t want his planes to be in battle, maybe don’t work for a company that makes planes for the military. It’d be one thing if he was a militant nationalist who actually believed in Japan’s goals of expansion, but he acted more like a disinterested observer. I know he thinks his creative dreams are beautiful but if they’re employed for violence then it is his responsibility to STOP MAKING FUCKING BOMBERS FOR THE MILITARY. By the end of the film I was furious with this character, and had absolutely no sympathy for him because he knowingly aided in mass destruction, and for no other reason than he wanted to see his personal dreams realized. This is not an apt metaphor for Miyazaki’s art, because as far as I know his films don’t ensure the deaths of thousands of people. (Of course, I know there are parallels to how art can be co-opted by corrupt/commercial forces, but to me this really isn’t the same level. Though if it’s secretly a big fuck you to Disney, I guess I’ll take it.)
I’m not saying that Miyazaki is promoting these ideas. The film is clearly anti-war, and at times it pointedly criticizes Japan’s and Germany’s actions in the buildup to WWII. But I think I as a viewer was supposed to feel sympathy for Jirô, to believe in him and his ideas, to want him to succeed. But I just couldn’t, because ultimately that blood was on his hands. He never fought against the war, never worked to ensure his ideas weren’t used for violence. Even the subplot of his romance with Nahoko, which was completely fictionalized and I assume added to humanize him more, fell flat for me. Her character was barely fleshed out, just a prop for him to lean on, supposedly inspired by love or whatever. She herself was shown to be a painter, but never is her own creative output discussed- Was she in art school? Was she painting professionally or just as a hobby? Why did she choose to paint in the Western Impressionist style instead of returning to traditional Japanese styles, as many contemporary artists were? You’d think there would be conversations comparing Nahoko’s creative aspirations and experiences with Jirô’s, but nope. She was just there to encourage him in his work and not have much of her own personality, putting on a brave face while slowly dying of tuberculosis.
I feel like many other people who’ve seen this movie aren’t reading it the same way I am, so perhaps I need a few more viewings to solidify my opinion. I hate having negative feelings about a Miyazaki film, it goes against my nature. I really did like so many aspects of The Wind Rises, from the period setting and entertaining side characters to the fanciful dream sequences and wondrous visual design. But I can’t move past the reservations I have about Jirô’s character and his actions, whether or not it’s all meant to be a grand metaphor for the creative process. I’m still sort of working through my feelings about it, and wondering about Miyazaki’s intended response (if he had one). Need to read some more, I think, but I wanted to get my initial thoughts down.
Pair This Movie With: I was so taken with all the history stuff, it reminded me of Millennium Actress, which similarly moves across Japan’s mid-twentieth-century history through its central character, this time a beloved film actress.