Tuesday, January 05, 2016

The Wind Rises (Hayao Miyazaki, 2013)

For Hayao Miyazaki's birthday

Skyward bound 

(Warning--article discusses Miyazaki's film (and his manga Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind) in some detail, including plot twists and surprises. 

In short--see the film (and maybe read the manga) first!)

Can't help but feel a sharp pang watching The Wind Rises (2013), knowing this to be Hayao Miyazaki's last feature film; can't help but see this as a valedictory work, a summing up of his thoughts and feelings about art and aviation and everything else at this late point in his life. 

It's beautifully done from opening sequence onwards: soon-to-be aviation engineer Jiro climbs aboard a (fantastically shaped and feathered) plane. The machine-creature hunkers down, shudders; you feel (classic Miyazaki moment) a tightening, a gathering of unseen forces, the hairs along Jiro's (and your) neck rising moments before the craft bounds into the sky.

Then there's the earthquake, as spectacular a sequence as anything in recent cinema (digitally enhanced movies included): a nightmare fissuring of earth, a distant shot of Tokyo as you see the quake's wavefront expanding across the city, a head-on view of the buildings leaping and plunging row after row in an orchestrated ballet.

All this gorgeous animation of course brushed aside in the wake of controversy, as the film's introverted protagonist is Jiro Horikoshi--legendary designer of the Mitsubishi A5M, later of the Mitsubishi A6M 'Zero,' one of the most feared fighters of the Second World War--who Miyazaki treats respectfully, even sympathetically, despite his considerable contributions to the cause of Japanese imperialism. Is Miyazaki making a case for the primacy of technological innovation over moral responsibility? That's what those critical of the film would like you to think. 

It would be a stretch to call Miyazaki an advocate or even apologist for war: as early as his Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984) we see the cost--physical, social, spiritual--of mass violence; in Laputa, Castle in the Sky (1986) hundreds of men fall or leap from gargantuan burning aircraft to their deaths. Princess Mononoke (1997) dwelt on the stupidity of factions quarreling in a vast forest with room and resources enough for all; Howl's Moving Castle (2004) showcased carpet bombing on a scale and brutality that recalls not just the London Blitz but the firebombing of Tokyo. 

Why then this onscreen depiction of Horikoshi? Why fictionalize the man's personal life so heavily (he loses an older brother, a wife, and children in favor of a younger sister and a sickly girlfriend) while keeping his professional career relatively accurate? Why spare Horikoshi full realization of what his designs would cost the world, deny him the chance to repent his sins?

Because it's too obvious? Because having Horikoshi loudly and unequivocally denounce his creation would be false not only to the historical record but to Miyazaki's own aesthetics? The filmmaker's storytelling is rarely overt (he's at his most insistent when dealing with the fragility of nature and--yes--stupidity of war); he tends to treat biographical elements (historical and his own) as a taking-off point more than an actual guide. The real Horikoshi only learned of his planes' full military impact--of the damage it was capable of causing--after the war. He had been uneasy about Japan's military ambitions and alliance with Germany, was dismayed to eventually learn his country was losing (to be fair so was the rest of Japan). He was hit hard by the news that his planes were being used for kamikaze missions. "All I wanted to do was to make something beautiful," he once said, a statement which reportedly inspired Miyazaki to make this picture. You wonder at the words, so full of innocence and awareness, longing and despair; you wonder at the kind of film that can be made from such an emotionally and psychologically loaded admission. 

Instead of improving on or rehabilitating Horikoshi's actual sentiments, Miyazaki folds into the main narrative speculations on how Horikoshi might have felt about his planes and their use. He has the young man bounce thoughts and feelings off another personal hero--aircraft manufacturer Giovanni Battista Caproni (Studio Ghibli was name after a Caproni creation)--in several imagined sequences.*

* Caproni's historical record is suggestive: his company started with experimental planes, then moved into bombers when Italy entered the First World War; afterwards Caproni made a determined effort to develop the passenger aircraft, to the point of converting one of his bombers (the Ca.4) into an airliner, even attempting a plane large enough to carry a hundred passengers (the intimidatingly immense Ca.60 Noviplano--both of which are featured onscreen).

In effect Caproni had the kind of swords-into-plowshares career Horikoshi might have wanted, or Miyazaki might have wanted for him.  

Nahoko Satomi is an even more interesting creation. Call her Horikoshi's (Miyazaki's?) incarnation of the beauty of form and function, and remember that in her (as in his aeronautic creations) festers a corruption that will take both away from him. Horikoshi may have expressed misgivings about Japan's ambitions, but historically speaking pays no explicit price for his participation; Nahoko (I submit) is more than just a metaphor or muse--she possibly represents the loss Horikoshi (could have, must have) experienced during the the war 

Or she may represent the Gretchen to Horikoshi's Faust, with Caproni as the most amiable of Mephistos. It's an old story Miyazaki is retelling, and an even older game he's playing: reimagining a portion of his hero's life to suit his sense of morality. He's at least honest (if not explicitly so) about what part of his film is fact, what in his film is not. 

It's not as if this was the first time we ever caught a Miyazaki character in a complicated relationship with a weapon. Late in his epic manga Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind Nausicaa encounters a God Soldier--an immensely powerful creature grown over a superhard ceramic skeleton, capable of widespread nuclear devastation. The right thing to do (as Nausicaa susses out for herself) is destroy the thing, but when she speaks to it--when it reaches out to her like a confused and disoriented child, dying of radioactive poisoning almost from the moment it was born--she can't help but respond as a protective mother. Should she allow the monster to live? Should Horikoshi allow his monster to be created? Was there ever a case of a scientist or engineer who made history by refusing to develop an idea or invention (and can we call what he did then history?)? By manga's end the God Warrior lives long enough to fulfill a crucial function, though the full moral implications of what the Warrior--with Nausicaa behind it, directing--achieves are murky at best ("I shudder at the depths of my sin," Nausicaa admits to herself); Miyazaki doesn't grant Horikoshi even that much of an out, leaving him in an even unhappier position. 

Jonathan Hoberman in a powerful indictment of an article accuses the film of whitewashing ("how many tens or hundreds of thousands of real people in Asia and the Pacific were de-animated thanks to Horikoshi’s dreams?"). True Miyazaki depicts the suffering of the Japanese and not of other Asians (mind you, we Filipinos experienced our share when--as another great Asian filmmaker put it--for three full years God turned his face away), but I see the images as less an elegy than a warning: this is what's in store should Japan go to war, then and in the future; this is what the Japanese will suffer, if they insist on this course of action. Such implications, along with more explicit statements, have helped endear the filmmaker to ultra-right nationalists.  

Any film master will employ a motif to visually unite his work; for this I'd say Miyazaki employs the image of the borderline. The Tokyo earthquake shatters Tokyo and the surrounding land up to a point, then stops; Horikoshi and Satomi run ahead of a curtain of summer rain, succeed in leaving it behind. Horikoshi insists on drawing a line between the creation of technological marvels and their military application (a line his bosses insist on blurring). He focuses time and effort on plane design, spending his weekends with Satomi; when her condition worsens (she is compelled to follow her own deadline) she allows them to marry and live together awhile--and then leaves him. Boundaries are everywhere in this film, are a source of pleasure and pain, loss and gain, validation and regret; sometimes Horikoshi successfully maintains the lines, sometimes successfully defies them--but the success is rarely complete, nor is it ever permanent. 

Miyazaki even draws lines around Horikoshi: this is what we know of him historically (his aviation design career), this what we suspect he feels and thinks about the war (his conversations with Caproni, his relationship with Satomi)...and that's it. Beyond the director will not venture--Horikoshi remains an enigma, a deliberate mystery we have no choice but to respect.  

Possibly the film itself represents a boundary the filmmaker has drawn behind him: before, some of the finest achievements in animated cinema; beyond, a handful of artworks, a scattering of possible shorts, perhaps even a manga...but no more major features. Like a summer shower, like an earthquake, like a girl's life, like a man's thoughts and feelings, like a great film, even Miyazaki's career must come to an end. 

First published in Businessworld. 12.11.14


Patrick Drazen said...

The final discussion of the film as existing within borders is a meta-theme, since The Wind Rises can be seen as Miyazaki surrendering to the reality of his own boundaries, as he has in the past. In 1997 he announced his first retirement, after completing Princess Mononoke and seeing the release of Whisper of the Heart, directed by longtime Ghibli animator Yoshifumi Kondo. Within months of that announcement Kondo the heir apparent died of an aneurysm and Miyazaki was back at his desk. Both Howl's Moving Castle and The Wind Rises--and even, to a lesser extent, Ponyo--are meditations on age, on passing the work from one generation to the next, whether brought about by natural disasters or man-made disasters or the inevitable passage of time.

Noel Vera said...

Good stuff.