Saturday, March 29, 2014

Ashes in the Wind

The Wind Rizes (Kaze tachinu) directed by Hayao Miyazaki and produced by Studio Ghibli

It's a given that Hayao Miyazaki's new film, The Wind Rises (2013) is beautifully made. Studio Ghibli is synonymous with beautiful animation, and this film is not different. Technical virtuosity can only take you so far, though, and putting a human dimension in to his films has long been a hallmark of Miyazaki's films. He does that here, too. Miyazaki has flirted with politics in the past, as well. The environmentalism in Nausicaa and that same environmentalism mated with a critique of capitalism in Princess Mononoke are examples of this. The Wind Rises is mostly set between the World Wars as Taisho-era Japan gives way to Imperial Japan and fascism, and yet, this film about a modest aeronautic engineer seems to willfully ignore the politics its story suggests. Oh, it touches on them--it can't help it--but there's no strong statement, no critique. The Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 is the film's central horror, not the calamity of World War II. This seems odd to me, given that its hero designs the famed Japanese Zero. He's complicit in the disaster, but the film not only doesn't deal with this fact, it seems completely indifferent to it. This seems, I dunno, misguided and naive at the very least. If I view it in a less benign mood, it seems revisionist, sanitizing, and profoundly dangerous.

As I say, this film follows a humble aeronautical engineer. We first meet Jiro Horikoshi in 1918 as a child. He's a dreamer and our introduction to Jiro is in a dream in which he rushes to his roof where he climbs into a fanciful flying machine and takes off. Once in the sky, he encounters a massive war plane which destroys his own tiny airplane and sends him plummeting to the ground. In his waking life, Jiro vows to become an engineer, poring over an English-language aviation journal for inspiration. In his dreams, he is inspired by the great Italian engineer, Count Gianni Caproni, who converses with him on the philosophy of dreams and the transient nature of war. When Jiro is older, he heads off to Tokyo to study engineering. While returning to the city by train after a trip home, Jiro is caught in the disaster of the Great Kanto Earthquake, during which he helps a well-to-do girl and her maid when the maid is injured. The girl and her servant vanish after their house burns to the ground, but Jiro becomes obsessed with the girl in the years that follow. He graduates from school and gets a job designing planes for a shaky airplane company that's in competition for a new plane for the navy. Jiro is the boy genius at his new job, and when the plane for the navy fails, he and his friend, Honjo, are dispatched to Germany to study the production methods at Junkers. The Germans, unfortunately, are uncooperative, and Jiro only glimpses the planes he's been sent to study. He gets a good look at the new German police state, though. Upon returning to Japan, he once again encounters the girl from the train. Her name, he learns, is Naoko, and they fall in love. Unfortunately for them, Naoko is suffering from tuberculosis, and is sent to a mountainside sanitarium. Meanwhile, Jiro begins some radical redesigns of the planes he is building with the intention of surpassing the German planes. When Naoko returns from the mountain, it's clear that if she and Jiro don't get married immediately, they never will. Their honeymoon sees Naoko happy but in a slow decline. On the day of his plane's debut, Naoko slips quietly away. A gust of wind announces her passing to Jiro. And then the war comes...

The Wind Rizes (Kaze tachinu) directed by Hayao Miyazaki and produced by Studio Ghibli

I read a puzzling thing about Miyazaki's 1989 film, Kiki's Delivery Service a few days ago. The setting of that film is intended to represent a fanciful Europe where World War II never happened. Puzzling, I say, because it creates a pattern of avoidance regarding Japan's role in World War II that's at odds with Miyazaki's public progressive humanism. It seems incredible to me that the director is being criticized by Japanese nationalists for not being hawkish enough in this film, when Miyazaki has already omitted the fact that Jiro's wonderful airplanes were built buy slave laborers and that at least one of them was the preferred plane of the kamikaze, "The Divine Wind" that has a troubling rhyming quality with the title of this film. I suppose the non-depiction of the Japanese war machine is defensible on the grounds that that's not the story Miyazaki is telling, but I think that's a weak defense. There's a strong sense of revision involved in showing the heroism and resilience of ordinary people during the great Kanto earthquake and then refusing to show them at their worst. Showing people at their worst is something that Miyazaki has always avoided, and that's usually a laudable goal when you're creating fantasies, but World War II had very real villains. For a while, it even seems like the film is going to name those villains as the German character who tells Jiro that Dr. Junkers is on the outs in Germany gives ominous warnings. Germany and Japan will burn, he says, a line parroted later in the film.

The moral conundrum posed by this film is asked by Caponi while Jiro is in Germany: ""Do you prefer a world with pyramids, or with no pyramids?" Caponi prefers to have pyramids, but this is a tricky question because the pyramids are built on human misery and human bones. At what price beauty? That's a question that's at the heart of this film and it's a question that the film studiously fails to examine in any kind of satisfactory way. Indeed, it deliberately averts its eyes from it. But, as I say, this isn't what interests Miyazaki, even though it occupies every iota of negative space in and around the movie.

The Wind Rizes (Kaze tachinu) directed by Hayao Miyazaki and produced by Studio Ghibli

The Wind Rises is better as a human drama: there's a strong Buddhist element to the romance between Jiro and Naoko, given that it's transient. Everything passes from the world, and this is beautifully rendered by the film both in its explicit story beats and in the symbols it chooses to represent things: the paper airplane, the painting equipment in the rain, the gust of wind.  Part of The Wind Rises functions as a workplace dramedy. The relationships between Jiro and Honjo and Jiro and his boss, the blustering Satomi, seem more like familial relationships than work friendships, but this may be emblematic of a cultural difference between American business and the Japanese. Certainly, those relationships don't develop as they would in an American film. The film is partially a disaster film, too, though it's careful about which disaster to depict. The depiction of the Great Kanto Earthquake is both thrilling and terrifying and provides the film with its most intense action sequences. This set-piece has the benefit of being both spectacular and ideologically null.

The Wind Rizes (Kaze tachinu) directed by Hayao Miyazaki and produced by Studio Ghibli

It almost goes without saying that The Wind Rises is beautifully made. The loving detail that goes into hair and plants swaying in the wind or the various fanciful (but real) aircraft that populate film is as meticulous and aesthetically pleasing as a cameo portrait or a fine clockwork. This is a sunlit film full of skies. The sky is the dominant visual here, and the director has filled it with both terrifying machines, whimsical contraptions, and clouds. My god, the clouds that sail across the skies of this film are the most dramatic clouds I've ever seen. Miyazaki has always been obsessed with flight, and this film is his fullest expression of that passion. To an extent, the film justifies itself with both its craft and its singular vision of Miyazaki's interior life. There is no question at all that it's the work of a great and humane artist, and I won't gainsay The Wind Rises as an aesthetic experience. Even great artists can be led astray by a too-minute focus on their own obsessions, though. Sometimes, it's worth it for them to take a harder look at the context of what they're making. I seriously wanted to love this movie. As it is, I can only puzzle it. This is allegedly Miyazaki-san's last film, and if it is, it's an awkward valediction.

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