Trying to be objective about the film about the new films of Miyazaki or Takahata, the soul of Studio Ghibli for the past few decades, was never going to be an easy task. The task, for a Ghibli enthusiast myself, will invariably be influenced by the impulse to compare it to the classic favourites of Studio Ghibli and those of Miyazaki himself. One must accept, of course, that times have changed, people have changed, and it is unreasonable to expect similarity when the circumstances have become so different. And yet, the comparison can’t be avoided, particularly for fans of the studio. So I will begin this article by attempting to answer rather than avoid the obvious question: how does Wind Rises compare to Miyazaki’s beloved works of earlier years?
The answer is that it is a very different type of film, one which does not quite reflect the same charming qualities of the earlier classics but is nonetheless well-crafted, showing many of the quirks and tendencies of its director that will be appreciated by long-time fans. It is also a much better film, in my opinion, than the most recent output of the studio as well as Miyazaki’s own recent films, with a larger, more satisfying scope more akin to that of Princess Mononoke than to, say, Ponyo. As a semi-biographical film, there is no fantasy apart from numerous dream sequences, and the film eschews Miyazaki’s traditionally young characters for a mild-mannered engineer. The main character is Jiro Horikoshi, who was the designer of a famous Japanese fighter aircraft, known commonly as the Zero, that was used extensively in World War 2. Several critics immediately leapt to the following questions: Is the film, then, a tribute to an important figure in Japan’s involvement in that war? A biographical celebration of a weaponsmaker? Does it promote war?
The question is ridiculous to anyone familiar with Miyazaki, as his aversion to war is well known and has been a consistent theme throughout all his films, often in rather blatant ways. What is true is that the film tries to keep something of a distance between its main character and the end result of his work (war). Miyazaki’s vision of Jiro is of a man who wants to build airplanes and must justify to himself that the achievement of producing something beautiful is worth the knowledge that they will be used for war. Whether the historical Jiro himself actually had these qualms is unknown to me, but the character of Jiro in this film is in many ways a recognizable projection of Miyazaki himself more than a factual account of the historical Jiro. Miyazaki’s fascination with airplanes as a child is well-known, and it’s not difficult to imagine that he felt a particular kinship with his subject to the extent that facets of his own beliefs began to merge into Jiro’s personality.
Thus, rather than glorifying war, what the film glorifies is the ambition of an engineer to produce and create admirable things. There are not many films, and certainly not many animated films, which set out to do this, and that alone impressed me to a degree. In the end, Miyazaki does not attempt to resolve the celebration of the engineer’s work with the grim understanding of how they are used, although the question is explored in several key moments in moving ways, including the final scene. In some ways, the question reminded me of Miyazaki himself, and his career as an animator. It is common to hear Miyazaki complain in interviews about the lives of modern children, who have become wrapped up in television and entertainment, oblivious and lacking respect for the natural world around them. Yet, his own profession, as an animator, can perhaps be seen as being a part of the very ecosystem he dislikes.
A romantic subplot is added to Jiro’s life, but its portrayal occasionally becomes distractedly theatrical within the otherwise low-key surroundings, and it doesn’t really feel unique or moving enough to warrant its inclusion in the film. It is a relatively minor criticism in the context of a film that is, on the whole, a strong end to a career littered with classics. Looking back, Wind Rises is not among the greatest films of Miyazaki, but its appropriateness as his final work cannot be missed. Miyazaki’s character and beliefs seem etched in every frame, and the constant battle between optimism and cynicism, and the recognition that the two will never be resolved, is a clear reflection of Miyazaki’s own personality.
The heavily fictionalized tribute to a man who built fighter planes for Imperial Japan may not win political points outside of Japan, but to anyone willing to understand the mentality of Japan’s postwar generation, it is easy to understand Miyazaki’s influence in making the film: In his own words, there were not many things that Japanese youth after World War 2 could be proud of, but the engineering marvel of the Zero was one of those few things. Unfortunately, Miyazaki’s refusal to sully the story with politics, though done with good intentions, is the type of thing that is easily misinterpreted, and many of those with historical grievances with Imperial Japan may misinterpret the film as intentional whitewashing. That is simply the way things are in the modern world, and it is a situation where neither sides may be in a hurry to understand each other.
With all being said and done, one line lingered in my mind afterwards – during the film, a character tells Jiro that a creative person has about ten years in which he produces his best work, then asks him if he is satisfied with his own ten years. I couldn’t help but ponder at what Miyazaki thought about his own career as he wrote those lines.
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