If there’s one word that springs to mind when contemplating Miyazaki Hayao’s final film, it would be “difficult”. And I’ve contemplated it a lot. I saw it in Japanese soon after its theatrical premiere, and seeing it a second time with subtitles has done nothing to help me clarify my feelings about it – if anything, I’m more puzzled than ever. Both as a capstone to the most artistically ambitious and successful career in animation history and as a standalone statement, Kaze Tachinu is an enigma.
Certain things can be stipulated to, I think. The Wind Rises is a staggeringly beautiful work, both in sound and vision. Miyazaki works with his usual musical partner here, the peerless Joe Hisaishi, and the first frames are the film are accompanied by the composition “Journey (Dream of Flight)” from Hisaishi-san, a gorgeous Italianesque piece that’s interwoven throughout the entire film. Rarely have I encountered a piece of music that so suits the mood of a movie – it speaks eloquently of flight. Flights of imagination, of fancy, of euphoria and sadness. Hisaishi’s score – and especially this piece – are like the wind that Miyazaki’s vision soars upon for two hours.
And what a vision it is. As anyone who loves Miyazaki-sensei’s work could tell you, the master has a lifelong obsession with flight and airplanes. We’ve seen it expressed in some form in almost all of his movies, most specifically Laputa: Castle in the Sky and Porco Rosso. While Kaze Tachinu is less overtly fantastical than those films, it still takes the form of a dream. Sometimes quite literally, as the movie’s protagonist shares his dreams with the likes of boyhood heroes and the love of his life – but the entire story has the air of a dream to it, a musing on the way dreams allow us to soar above our limitations and experience true beauty.
If there’s one sequence in the film that’s most striking, however, it’s more of a nightmare – Miyazaki’s depiction of the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923. The immediacy of feeling he’s able to communicate with this slightly surrealistic set piece is remarkable, a testament to his genius. Even in this horror, though, there is beauty – for it’s in the aftermath of this disaster that Miyazaki’s hero forms the connection with the woman he’ll come to love. This, too is a theme we see repeated over and over in The Wind Rises – the inseparability of light and darkness, of beauty and horror. And it’s here in which the difficult questions that make the film so difficult reside.
Nominally this is the life story of Horikoshi Jirou (Anno Hideaki, Kaburagi Kaichi as a child), the man who designed the legendary A6M “Zero” fighter plane for Mitsubishi. But the personal side of the story is almost completely fictionalized – loosely based on a pre-WW II novel by Hori Tatsuo (also titled Kaze Tachinu) which has no connection to Horikoshi. This part of the film delivers some of its most effecting moments, mostly centered on Horikoshi’s love for a young woman named Satomi Naoko (Takimoto Miori, Iino Mayu as a child). Horikoshi and Naoko are on a train from Fujioka to Tokyo when the earthquake hits, and his bravery saves the life of her servant. Once she’s safe he leaves without any request for reward, but we know this is a connection that will be renewed in the future.
Without a doubt, the love story between Jirou and Naoko is the most conventional part of the film – yet it’s very engaging (Miyazaki’s decision to cast his friend Anno – the legendary Evangelion director whose previous seiyyu experience consists of playing a cat in FLCL – as Jirou is an interesting one. Anno-san is naturalistic and unmannered to the point of being somewhat flat – like so much in Kaze Tachinu, I have a hard time deciding how I feel about it). Naoko suffers from tuberculosis (as many did in those days) and to call this a bittersweet romance would be an understatement. But ultimately the part of the story that springs from Hori’s novel is pretty straightforward, essential to the movie’s existence but not at the heart of it. And it’s the other side of Kaze Tachinu, that which dances more closely with history and Horikoshi’s true life story, that’s both controversial (especially in Japan) and challenging.
It’s fairly well-known that Miyazaki Hayao is a pacifist. So why, then, choose to make his last film about the man whose planes destroyed Pearl Harbor, and were essential to the Japanese war effort? Horikoshi too hated war, and thought the Japanese government foolish to pursue war with America – his journals from the time bear this out. Yet design the planes he did, knowing full well what they would be used for. Miyazaki said the idea for Kaze Tachinu was inspired by a single quote from Horikoshi – “I just wanted to make something beautiful.” And while I’ve no reason to doubt Horikoshi-san at this word, for me at least the answer isn’t that simple.
Fundamentally, the entire raison d’etre of The Wind Rises boils down to a simple question – is it possible to separate the man from the way in which that which he created was used? It’s very possible that Miyazaki saw this film as an opportunity to spur debate over Japan’s plans to re-militarize (which has been a simmering issue here for decades and is now coming to a head under nationalist premier Abe Shinzou). But he also opened himself up to charges that he was romanticizing Horikoshi’s role – sugarcoating the truth to cast him in a better light. Miyazaki uses the aforementioned dream sequences – mostly in the company of Jirou’s boyhood hero, Italian aircraft design pioneer Giovanni Caproni (Nomura Mansai) – to give form to Jirou’s imagination and communicate the nature of this desire to create beauty. Caproni’s involvement hits very close to home – it was his plane that Miyazaki named Studio Ghibli after.
The movie is full of this sort of equivocation. We have a trip to Germany to visit Mitsubishi’s licensed partner Junkers, a decade ahead of Japan in aircraft design. The Germans are condescending towards their Japanese “guests”, but founder Hugo Junkers allows Jirou and his best friend Honjou (Nishijima Hidetoshi) to see inside the legendary G.38 “Flying Wing” and even take a test flight. Junkers was another pacifist – a genuine anti-war internationalist who had his company stolen from him by the Nazis and died penniless in 1935. We also meet a sympathetic German named Castorp (Stephen Alpert – another non-actor, this time the head of Ghibli’s overseas division) at the rural hotel where Jirou and Naoko reconnect years later. Castorp (the name is taken from the protagonist of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain) warns of impending disaster for Germany and Japan, and sings charming German ballads at the hotel piano while smiling beatifically (if a little impishly). It’s later implied that he fled Japan with the country’s thought police hot on his tail.
That sequence at the hotel – full of innocent romance and beautiful scenery, of soaring paper airplanes and Castorp’s charm – is one of the best in the movie. But it also contributes to the feeling that Miyazaki is trying very hard to convince us that there’s no blame to be assigned to his hero – that he was truly a victim at a time when victims were being made all over the world. Miyazaki makes it very clear that Japan was behind the times, in over its head, being dragged along by fools and scoundrels on a path of destruction. But what he never truly does is cast any independent judgment himself on Jirou’s role – and, more crucially, he never takes us inside Jirou’s process of judging himself.
Given the context of the film, that seems a surprising omission for Miyazaki. Perhaps it really is as simple in Miyazaki’s eyes as can be – Jirou is blameless. But that seems unlikely to me, as thoughtful a man as Miyazaki is. Perhaps he feels it’s not his place to judge Jirou, never having walked in his shoes. Perhaps he feels it would be disrespectful to show us what Jirou believes in this respect, when Jirou chose in real life to share little of that himself. Those are valid considerations, but for me it leaves Kaze Tachinu feeling like an incomplete portrait of its hero, fictionalized or otherwise. The film effectively stops at the beginning of the war, and the introspection for Horikoshi stops when the military takes delivery of the planes. The film is about the process and the dream, I get that – but it’s a conceit to pay so little consideration to what comes after.
“Airplanes are dreams.” Caproni tells Jirou in the movie’s final scene – fittingly, a dream. “Cursed dreams. Waiting for the sky to swallow them up.” This is as close as Miyazaki comes to framing Jirou’s life in moral terms, but it also strikes me that there may be a note of autobiography to it. This is Miyazaki-sensei’s final film, and he too is undeniably a dreamer above all else. He gives shape to the airplanes of his dreams, and to the castles and witches and forest Kami and boys and girls and conflicted men. Perhaps as much as it is about Horikoshi Jirou, Kaze Tachinu is a reflection by Miyazaki on his own dreams and visions – he releases them into the world, and once that happens he has no control over them. People will say of them what they will, and they exist independently of the man who created them.
That’s among many reasons why, despite whatever issues I may have with The Wind Rises, it strikes me as a very fitting way for Miyazaki to say goodbye. A fusion of a fictional novel and a biography, it may in the end be the most self-referential film Miyazaki has created. It’s the most “realistic” of his films in many ways, yet oddly the most fanciful as well – a work by an old man who’s always been very connected to the child that resides in himself and in all of us. Kaze Tachinu seems very much to be an impassioned tribute to the power of dreams, tinged with the frustration of knowing that reality will always place its own stamp on them. Even as we celebrate the man’s indispensable and glorious career, surely knowing that it’s coming to a close is cause for sadness as well. This film is a reminder that Miyazaki Hayao is a unique and irreplaceable artist, and we won’t see his like again.
ED: “Hikouki Gumo (ひこうき雲) by Yumi Matsutoya