Miyazaki Hayao’s latest film, The Wind Rises, managed to cause quite a lot of stir in the film world, as might have been expected. It is his most pointedly political film to date, including Nausicaä and Porco Rosso, and has unsurprisingly caught some major flak both from the political left and the political right. It is a poetic animated biography of a young Dr. Horikoshi Jirô, the Japanese æronautical engineer who, while working for the Mitsubishi Zaibatsu before and during the Second World War, designed the A6M Zero – the infamous Japanese fighter that began the Pacific theatre of the war. The political left lambasted the film essentially for ignoring the plight of Korean and Chinese slave labourers and victims during the war, and for lionising the Japanese equivalent of Dr. Robert Oppenheimer, whose technological innovations were responsible for so much death and destruction; and the political right lambasted the animator as a ‘traitor’ who had made an ‘anti-Japanese’ film. Both criticisms miss the mark wildly.
The film rotates around Dr. Horikoshi’s early life, beginning in his childhood when he dreams of meeting the Italian æronautical engineer Giovanni Battista Caproni, Conte di Taliedo, who shows up throughout the film in Horikoshi’s dreams to offer his insights on the ‘beautiful dreams’ of aircraft, and the tragedy that all scientists and engineers face when their dreams are turned to nightmares by the political architects of war. It is the portrait of an artist by an artist – particularly poignant is the scene in which Horikoshi is taking inspiration for the ribs of the wings of his aircraft by musing over a mackerel bone. But it is also a love story, and a tragic love story at that, because Horikoshi meets, falls in love with and marries the ill-fated Satomi Naoko, who develops a terminal case of tuberculosis and dies even as Horikoshi’s prototype fighter is put to a resoundingly successful test flight.
The political left’s rationale for disparaging the film was that it did not focus enough or even at all on the tragedies and the war crimes associated with Japanese militarism; unfortunately, these critiques have a disturbing tendency to miss the symbolic grammar of the medium. Whereas Dr. Horikoshi is an actual historical figure, Satomi Naoko is a fictional character, who in my view represents Miyazaki’s view of traditional Japan as it was precariously placed at the beginning of the short twentieth century. Her name, which comes from the Chinese characters菜穗子, carries the meaning of a ripe ear of wheat or rice, containing all the grain, all the nourishment and future promise – yet also something fragile, something easily tossed about by the wind and easily broken.
When we first meet her, she is standing onboard a train, her Western summer dress and hat being blown by the breeze, quoting from ‘The Graveyard by the Sea’ by Paul Valéry: ‘The wind is rising! We must try to live!’ (Tellingly also: she is a painter.) But it turns out that she is a young woman torn between emerging modern norms and a traditional upbringing, whose life is repeatedly endangered by an earthquake, a fire, a run on the banks, and finally a terminal illness of the lungs. Horikoshi is very kind and chivalrous to her in each instance when he can help her, whether it’s retrieving her blown-away umbrella or carrying her injured mother on his back – and quite naturally they fall in love. But ultimately, even though he loves her, he neglects her for his work on the fighter that haunts his dreams, and she dies alone on her way to the sanitarium.
Miyazaki-sensei refers in The Wind Rises to Japanese wartime atrocities only obliquely, I think it may charitably be said, for two reasons. The first is that his opinions on war and its horrors generally, even where Japan itself is involved, are well-known and have been explored in great detail in his other films – with Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, Porco Rosso and Howl’s Moving Castle being the leading examples. The second is that he isn’t addressing an international audience with his film – the message is a broadside aimed squarely against the Japanese nationalist right, and judging from their reaction to the film, that message seems to have struck home. The subtext of the film’s twin plots is that the military and the government took Horikoshi’s ‘beautiful dreams’ and turned them into horrific weapons; and also that their demands resulted in the death of his Japan (represented cinematically in the person of Satomi Naoko), the Japan for whose sake he worked so hard.
Fans should be familiar enough with the intricate cinematic language of Miyazaki Hayao’s work not to fail to note the juxtaposition of the first contract for the Navy which Mitsubishi fails to win, and the subsequent revelation to Horikoshi and to the audience at the mountain sanitarium that Naoko has tuberculosis. That Naoko has a disease of the lungs – the organ of the breath, of the spirit – is no accident either. Miyazaki sees militarism as a comparable disease on the spiritual life of the Japanese nation, of his Japan. And in the end, Naoko’s death is signalled by a gust of wind, which rises just as Horikoshi’s fighter breaks its record speed, and is bought on contract by the Japanese navy. It’s hard not to be sensible of Miyazaki’s sadness and anger for a Japan which is doomed to die, which feels as helpless as Horikoshi does in the face of his beloved’s terminal illness.
The more that the Japanese militarist-nationalist right fumes about Miyazaki’s lack of patriotism over this film, the clearer the animator’s patriotism shines through in it. And Miyazaki’s patriotism comes off as a traditionalist faith as much as anything else. As the historical Dr. Horikoshi Jirô objected in the most vehement possible terms to the militarism of the Japanese politicians of his own time, Miyazaki objects stridently and eloquently to Prime Minister Abe Shinzô’s planned ‘reforms’ to Article Nine (guaranteeing military disarmament and neutrality) of the Japanese Constitution, and what he sees behind it as the reemergence of a belligerent, heavily-militarised nationalism in Japan. The film was originally released with a companion essay penned by Miyazaki-sensei himself, explicitly lambasting the plans of the current government to do away with Japan’s postbellum tradition of neutrality and pacifism in foreign affairs. In this context, it is hard not to see the film as lament, rather than as biography – even though it ends with a vision of Satomi Naoko urging Dr. Horikoshi to live on.
Underneath Miyazaki’s steampunk-esque fascination with and love for gizmos and contraptions and flying machines of all kinds, the abiding suspicion of their orientation toward the good is always inescapable. And ‘the good’ in Miyazaki’s films is almost always associated, not with the machines themselves, but with people and beings flawed, struggling, wounded, but nonetheless alive and muddling their way through. In The Wind Rises, both the fascination with and suspicion of machines are heightened; what is good in Miyazaki’s eyes is not the use to which the Zero was put, but the peaceful engineer who designed it and who looked on in horror at the way it was used.