2015 is the 30th anniversary of the founding of Studio Ghibli and, according to Hayao Miyazaki, it may also be one of its final years as a studio. Because this is one of my favorite films studios and Miyazaki is one of my favorite artists, who’s made some of my favorite films, I’ve decided to go through the history of Studio Ghibli one film at a time.
If you’re looking for the discussions of the previous weeks:
- Laputa: Castle in the Sky
- Grave of the Fireflies
- My Neighbor Totoro
- Kiki’s Delivery Service
- Only Yesterday
- Porco Rosso
- Pom Poko
- Whisper of the Heart
- Princess Mononoke
- My Neighbors the Yamadas
- Spirited Away
- The Cat Returns
- Howl’s Moving Castle
- Tales from Earthsea
- The Borrower Arrietty
- From Up on Poppy Hill
This does, however, mean I won’t be discussing Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, which was made before the founding of the studio.
I’ll also only be discussing the Japanese audio version of the films, though that doesn’t mean the dubs are bad or not worth seeing. They’re just slightly different. I’ll also be discussing these with the assumption that they’ve been seen by you. So, yes, spoilers are below.
Not a single plane returned.
They were never meant to return. Airplanes are beautiful dreams. Cursed dreams…waiting for the sky to swallow them up.
The Wind Rises is Hayao Miyazaki’s last feature length film and the only one without any fantastic elements. It’s also, I think, his most emotional and complicated. It caused controversy with progressives and conservatives in Japan. For progressives, they were shocked that a man who built weapons of war would be the heroic subject of a film made by one of the world’s best known pacifists. For conservatives, the clear antiwar message was distasteful, especially during a time when the conservative government is planning on reinstating the Japanese military after 60+ years without it.
And it is a complicated story. We can feel it in the depiction of Jiro Horikoshi, the protagonist. Horikoshi was a real man and these events are taken from his real life, albeit with some fictionalising. In the film, we see him as a wide eyed idealist who simply wants to live in the sky, who wants to fly planes or design the best planes that can possibly be made.
There’s really no ideology to him. He’s not a nationalist or a pacifist or a man of war.
Dreams are a focal point here. They’re important and they add some surrealism to Miyazaki’s only realist film. In his dreams, he meets and often discusses planes, ambition, and hope with Giovanni Battista Caproni, an Italian aeronautical engineer and the designer of many passenger aircrafts and bombers developed through the Caproni Aircraft Company, which he founded.
This is part of the complication of the film. These men, these aeronautical engineers, their love is the machine, the flight. This is their dream, to make the spectacular a reality. But the dream is cursed, and they know this. They recognise the curse. The curse of war. That all their brilliance, all their designs will be used to kill people.
An interesting element of the film is that Horikoshi asks a few times who the bombers and fighters will be used against. A few country names are rattled off, and it all feels unreal, far away. Of course, we, as 21st century viewers, know how and where these planes will be used. We know what the capabilities are and what the outcome will be. But Horikoshi doesn’t. Not really.
But he suspects because there’s really only one way for this to go.
Japan will explode.
He’s first told this by a German man he meets at a hotel in the mountains. A man who seems to be running from Germany, who sees Germany’s destruction as a foregone conclusion. A man who finds Hitler and the Nazis to be nothing but hoodlums.
Were it only so simple.
But he tells Horikoshi just what will happen to both Germany and Japan. They will make the world their enemy and they will be destroyed because of it.
This is accurate and we know this. We know why.
But that’s not really what the film is about. It’s about creation. The desire and the dream, even though the dream is cursed. Even though pursuing the dream has a great cost on the world, the nation, the individual, and their loved ones. Horikoshi ultimately creates the Zero fighter, one of the most beautiful and terrible weapons of World War II. What is the expense?
His wife’s health.
The death of thousands, if not millions.
He must watch his dream turned into a terror.
It’s this complicated notion that the creation, or the act of creating, is worth it. I think what audiences wanted was a film that either demonized the man with the war, or that portrayed both the man and the war as heroic. Since this film doesn’t go to either side, but manages to slice parts from both, we have an audience unsatisfied and even feeling betrayed by the outcome.
Which is, I think, appropriate.
But it gets us to interesting questions about art and even life.
If we push this film onto Miyazaki’s own life, I think there are parallels worth discussing. But, of course, there’s a fundamental difference here.
Miyazaki, regardless of anything good or bad he’s done in his personal life, is only making films. These films may be judged to be incorrect or immoral or some form of terrorism [though I think that case would be impossible to make, assuming anyone is even trying to make such a case], but they are only films.
Horikoshi, on the other hand, was creating weapons, regardless of intent. Beautiful weapons, yes, but still weapons. And he knew they would be used as weapons.
How do we have a man portrayed as a dreamer, a lover, a kind stranger also be the same man who created Japan’s ability to cause so much pain across the globe?
I think the simple answer is that he was a real person. Life is complicated. People are complicated. We don’t demonize every person who worked on the Manhattan Project. Maybe we should, but I don’t think life is that simple.
Henry Kissinger has a Nobel Peace Prize for ending the Vietnam War, despite the protests of members on the Committee and Lê Đức Thọ refusing to accept the award along with Kissinger. Barack Obama has also been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, despite mass citizen surveillance, the war on terror, the drone war, and various other things that would be hard to justify as peaceful.
Horikoshi was not a decision maker, but an engineer. And it can be argued that had he not designed the planes, someone else would have.
Further, it’s never stated that Horikoshi is even for or against war. He simply wants to make planes.
And he fails over and over again to get it right.
So what do we think? What do we do?
Miyazaki, in his final film, chose a very difficult man. And it’s significant, I think, that he made it about a historical figure who is also a man, because both of these are very unusual for Miyazaki. So why Jiro Horikoshi?
Part of this can be answered simply, I think, and it’s Miyazaki’s obsession and love of planes and flight. I don’t think any director has ever captured flight as beautifully as Miyazaki.
The more complicated element is, I think, because Miyazaki sees much of himself in Jiro Horikoshi.
They’re artists. They’re dreamers. They’re men who try to do the best they can. Miyazaki cleans local rivers every week near his home and Horikoshi is seen giving aid to people during the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923. We see Horikoshi’s kindness often in the film. We see his delight in simple things and his desire to make things of beauty. I think Miyazaki put a lot of himself in the film.
Even down to the way Horikoshi’s work interfered with his personal life. Horikoshi’s wife, Naoko, is dying of tuberculosis. Despite this, he continues working on his plane designs. Waking up early and coming home very late, leaving his consumptive wife alone day after day.
Miyazaki has had a strained relationship with his son for much of his son’s life. Though they appear to be closer now, during Gorō’s childhood, this was not the case, as Miyazaki spent hour after hour, day after day working at his studio.
I make this connection mainly because of how powerful this film is, and how full of emotion it is. Though Horikoshi is so consumed by work and determination, he never stops loving Naoko, and we never doubt him. We never doubt their love, despite the fact that Naoko doesn’t spend much time on screen. Miyazaki is able to capture the fullness of their relationship very quickly. Their longing, their desire, and the pure elation they share when together. Their moments together are so full of love and tenderness that we’re invested, which makes it that much harder when we watch her die alone, without him.
It brings tears to your eyes in ways that his films never have before. Because, though his films are often about love, they’re more optimistic with regard to it. Love shapes us and makes us better. It gives us a reason to live and breathe, but none of his films really show what happens when love dies. When loved ones die and leave us here, on this waking side of life, alone with everyone else in the world.
The moment that captures this best is when Horikoshi receives a telegram from Naoko’s father telling him to come immediately. Naoko had a lung hemorrhage. We then see the panic. The rage. The sorrow. The helplessness. He packs what he can and races to Tokyo, continuing his work while on the trains and trolleys. Writing, calculating, and designing through tears.
That panic and helplessness when those you love are far away or close at hand but there’s nothing you can do. There’s nothing you can do as you watch them die. As you watch them vomit their very life away. Even now, it’s hard for me to even write about this.
We do see how this love shapes Horikoshi. Even if we think he’s failing his wife in her time of need, in her final hours of life, we also see that he’s working for and because of her. She gave him the strength to keep working, to keep living. She gave him the love he needed to make his dreams reality.
At the end of the film it’s 1945. Japan has lost the war. We enter his dream again and we meet Caproni once more. They discuss the dream and its curse, and then we see Naoko.
Naoko: Darling, you must live. You must live.
Caproni: She is gone. She was beautiful like the wind.
Horikoshi: Thank you. Thank you.
Caproni: You must live.
Horikoshi is thanking Naoko there. He’s thanking her with tears in his eyes. He lost her so long ago. Before the war even began.
Though Naoko is a powerful force in the film, she’s also unlike most of Miyazaki’s female characters. She’s more defined by Horikoshi than she is by herself. I think this is partly because she’s ill the entire film and the story is really Horikoshi’s, not hers. But she’s certainly Miyazaki’s least developed female character. She’s sort of an ingenue, an ideal of love than she is a person. She’s more of a plot device than a person.
But I’ve been spending a lot of time discussing what this film isn’t and why it’s complicated, so let me say what it is.
The Wind Rises is a beautiful film about failure, about dreams, about love, and about hope. It’s a complicated look at all of these things. How failure shapes you and how life is made of almost constant failures, both personal, national, and in a career. It’s about the dreams we have as children and how those shape who we become as an adult. Our dreams as we’re adults and the lengths we go to achieve them. Love and all the ways we fall short, all the ways we cling to it, elevate it, and can’t live without it. How hope is hard to find. Harder to believe in. But when it comes, it’s like flying. Like the wind rising. It makes the world beautiful and new.
Miyazaki’s farewell to feature length film is significant and emotional, but also flawed. Just like its hero. Just like its creator. I feel there’s so much of Miyazaki in this film. So much of him that I don’t know and will never know, and so I speculate. But I think there’s a reason why he chose to make his final film one focused on Jiro Horikoshi. A complex and complicated hero living in a complicated and terrible time. A time of war. A time of beauty. A time of imperialism and brutality. A time of love and longing and desire. A time of grand failures and great success with calamitous outcomes.
The Wind Rises is unlike so many of Miyazaki’s films but it also fits perfectly with them. It’s gorgeously animated, beautifully conceived, and covers topics that we don’t often see in film, let alone animated ones.
It’s not my favorite by him and I doubt it will be remembered as one of his best, but it’s a satisfying film, and I think it succeeds in every way he meant to. I think this film, just by its existence, is a statement about the kind of artist Miyazaki is.
Next week, we’ll be discussing The Tale of the Princess Kaguya by Isao Takahata.