The year is 1918 and we are somewhere on the Japanese countryside. Jiro is a young boy obsessed with airplanes. One night he dreams about flying a bird-like plane over the idyllic fields surrounding his village. Smiling peasants wave up at him. But suddenly, out of dark clouds appearing above him, a gigantic monstrosity of an aircraft comes into sight and starts dropping grotesquely anthropomorphic black bombs. This opening dream scene sets the theme for what Japanese animation master Hayao Miyazaki has said will be his last feature film, The Wind Rises: the conflict between the beautiful dream of flying and the murderous uses that this new technology was almost immediately put to; in World War I as well as in colonial wars.
Days or weeks later, Jiro has a second dream, in which he meets the Italian aircraft engineer Gianni Caproni. The latter shows Jiro how his creativity has been deflected to the construction of bomber planes, although the Italian is of the opinion that flying should serve neither wars nor profit-making. But, Caproni emphatically adds, “The wind is rising! …we must try to live.” This line, from a 1922(!) poem by Paul Valéry, is repeated like a mantra, over and over again, throughout the film. We must rise on the winds that are, as well as we can.
And Jiro Horikoshi rises on the winds of capitalism, imperialism and war. He designs cutting-edge fighter planes for the Japanese Imperial Navy and becomes a legend in the world of aircraft design.
The Wind Rises is inspired by real events. Jiro Horikoshi and Gianni Caproni both existed. But it is no biography. Miyazaki has deliberately mythologized the life of Horikoshi, inventing a completely fictive personal life that further emphasizes the theme of the conflict between beautiful aspirations and their more complicated outcomes. The fictive elements add some depth to an otherwise single-minded character. Initially, Miyazaki also does a good job capturing the historical backdrop to Japan’s military expansionist policy – the pressures building up within a strict, culturally and socially conservative class society in a time of economic crisis.
Miyazaki’s style, mixing manga with classic Franco-Belgian comic book aesthetics, comes to its right even better when the director is dealing with urban reality rather than the realm of fantasy. The combination of naivism and meticulous attention to historical detail in Miyazaki’s depiction of Japanese cities is irresistible in much the same way that, say, Sylvain Chomet’s 1950s Glasgow is in The Illusionist (2010). Aesthetically The Wind Rises is the crowning masterpiece of Miyazaki’s career. I would happily have spent hours vicariously exploring the streets of 1930s Tokyo in his company without even the need for a plotline.
But once we go beyond the surface, to look at what this film has to say about culture, creativity and the value of human life, things get a lot more complicated, for better and for worse. As far as cinematic celebrations of the individual Genius go, The Wind Rises puts great emphasis on the importance of the collective dimension. Quite rightly, we are shown how Jiro Horikoshi’s thoughts and experiments continuously develop in dialogue with his predecessors as well as with his contemporary colleagues. Simultaneously Miyazaki stresses the strict limitations that society’s power structures set for the ways in which an individual can use her/his intellectual labour power at a given point in time. The relations of production hamper the free development of the productive forces.
So far, so good. We cannot rise on winds that do not exist. If, to some little extent, even as individuals, we make our own history, it is certainly not “under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past,” to borrow a line from Karl Marx. But this does not mean that we must always strive to rise to the stratosphere on the strongest wind of our time, no matter the cost. There is some irony in the fact that Paul Valéry, who worked briefly for the French Ministry of War, quietly refused to cooperate with the Vichy regime and the German occupation during World War II; a decision that cost him his post as secretary of the Académie française as well as that of chief executive of what later became the University of Nice.
But neither Jiro Horikoshi, as portrayed in the film, nor the director himself seem to have any such reservations. Admittedly, Horikoshi holds no love for the military establishment and we do see him in friendly conversation with an elderly German anti-Nazi. However, none of this dampens for a second the eternally boyish enthusiasm he brings to the work of creating war machines that were to cause so much suffering. And, if Miyazaki does show us brief images of the destruction caused to Japan during the final days of the war, we get to see nothing of the misery that the Japanese inflicted on the East Asian mainland (and nor are we told that some of the planes designed by Jiro Horikoshi were built by Korean and Chinese forced labour). Instead, in the end Gianni Caproni gets to repeat his mantra once more. To him, to Horikoshi and to Miyazaki the only thing that matters seems to be that little Jiro got to fulfil his boyhood dream of building amazing airplanes.
“Do you prefer a world with pyramids, or without pyramids?” asks Caproni at one point in the film. Jiro Horikoshi doesn’t reply, but the film clearly does. A world with pyramids is infinitely better, no matter how many labourers’ lives they cost. Translated to the twenty-first century this is the philosophy of culture, simultaneously elitist and superficial, that accepts 4,000 dead migrant workers as a reasonable price to pay so that the world’s glitterati can meet for a spectacular World Cup football event in Qatar. It is sad if Hayao Miyazaki should leave the stage on such an anti-humanist tone.
It could be added, in his defence, that the pacifist Miyazaki has personal reasons for clinging to false nationalist pride in this case. Some parts, including the rudders, for Horikoshi’s most well-known fighter aircraft, the Mitsubishi A6M Zero, were produced by Miyazaki Airplane, a company that was, at the time, run by the director’s father and owned by his uncle. I keep my grandfather’s cavalry sabre in pride of place in our living room, despite hating all that it stands for. Perhaps this film is simply Miyazaki’s cavalry sabre.
Daniel Lindvall is the Editor-in-Chief of Film international.