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The Wind Rises

February 23, 2014
The Wind Rises

Thankfully, it seems that Miyazaki Hayao will not make The Wind Rises his feature directing swan song, after all, after a statement he made last month. For such an auteur — far and away the most critically acclaimed director of anime films — I’d hope for some kind of epilogue, summing up his sprawling body of work, or at least a climactic movement reiterating his major themes. The Wind Rises, however, abandons his usual flights of fantasy in favor of mere history. Instead of an epilogue, it’s a footnote. Instead of tying into his ongoing discussion on the need to engage and come into balance with the world around us we get a grasping attempt at commentary on the creative process, and not a very well-presented one at that.

Specifically, Miyazaki chooses to tell a heavily-fictionalized story about Horikoshi Jiro (Anno Hideaki; dubbed in English by Joseph Gordon-Levitt), the aeronautical engineer who basically got Japan’s air force off the ground for World War II. The problem is, there’s no story here. Horikoshi grows up with dreams of making and flying airplanes, complete with visions of famous Italian engineer Giovanni Battista Caproni (Mansai Nomura; Stanley Tucci). He works hard, gets a job at Mitsubishi, and eventually comes up with the prototype of the A5M, the first Japanese-designed aircraft with an all-metal body, and the direct ancestor of Horikoshi’s later design, the A6M “Zero” fighter.

But we see no particular achievements along the way. There are no obstacles, either technological or social, in Horikoshi’s path. There is the idea that all-metal body construction is difficult, and there are setbacks where test flights don’t work as well as hoped, but we don’t really get an indication of what the problem is, or what’s going wrong. We see no particular insight or innovation on Horikoshi’s part, other than designing some structural elements after mackerel bones, which is more a poetic detail than anything else. He just works hard and eventually makes an airplane.

In the second half of the movie, as Horikoshi’s efforts become more technical and so there’s less for us to see, we ramp up a wholly fictional love story. Miyazaki cribbed this from a story by the Showa-period writer Hori Tatsuo about a young woman in a tuberculosis sanitarium. This story takes its title — and the title of the film — from a line in Paul Valéry’s poem “Le Cimetière marin”: “Le vent se lève! Il faut tenter de vivre!” — “The wind rises! We must try to live!”

But it has nothing to do with the real life of Horikoshi Jiro. Satomi Naoko (Takimoto Miori; Emily Blunt) exists only to paint Horikoshi as that much more of a kind and generous guy, and to underscore Miyazaki’s love for the ideas of purity; the love they share is so pure that they only ever hold hands as he works all night long. The love story is so weakly and simply sketched that it makes the work story look as nuanced as Miyazaki’s artwork.

But the biggest failing is an ethical one. I’m not going to quite go so far as some who call designing or using the Zero a war crime, but the film embraces a childishly simplistic view of the ramifications of Horikoshi’s work. In their dream discussions, Caproni says that airplanes are creations neither of war nor commerce, but that they are “beautiful dreams”. Horikoshi may be a pacifist — the version in Miyazaki’s story may be, at least — and he may be under scrutiny by more nationalistic Japanese, but his desire to create beautifully-engineered airplanes cannot be rendered wholly separate from the uses to which he knows full well they will be put.

Any honest engineer must come to terms with the uses of his or her creations. Horikoshi, working on a research and development grant with the Japanese navy, and in partnership with the German Luftwaffe, must surely have known that these planes were intended as tools of war, and he cannot simply dismiss his part in that war with an adaptation of Tom Lehrer’s “Wernher von Braun”: “Once the zeroes are up, who cares what they shoot down?”

It would be one thing if Miyazaki tried to quietly sweep the purpose of Horikoshi’s planes under the rug. If the film ignored the ethical fallout of engineering military technology entirely it would be a troubling oversight. But in fact he raises exactly this point, and then does a terribly inept job of answering it. Once you’ve admitted that you’re making a fighter plane with navy money, you can’t simply say it’s not your job to decide how it gets used.

It seems that with this foray into real history, Miyazaki is out of his element. As beautiful as the animation always is, this story doesn’t have much to say. It’s an uncharacteristically weak and hollow effort on his part, and I’m glad he’s decided to take at least one more pass before ending his career for good.

Worth It: only for Miyazaki fans; this is not the film of his to start with.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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