An account of Jiro Horikoshi, a would-be pilot, who designed the fighter planes deployed by the Japanese army in World War Two. When Jiro's dreams to become a pilot are dashed by his short-sightedness, he takes a job in the aircraft division of an engineering company where he flourishes as a designer, and his talent takes him to the top of his field. Miyazaki takes us to pivotal moments in Jiro's life, through the Great Depression and into the war.
VENICE FILM FESTIVAL: By the time some assembly line workers cheer the arrival of a new flange component—it even comes in a package, like a present—you might be forgiven for wondering exactly what kind of industrial-education film you’re watching, and why. Alas, that’s the least of the problems with the new feature from Japanese anime master Hayao Miyazaki, a work which has already aroused both condemnation and acclaim in its homeland, and which I suspect will prove something of a tough pill to swallow for his legions of fans around the world. There are more boring movies than this one. (I swear, about an hour in, I saw someone’s head fall off in the row in front of me.) There aren’t many more disingenuous.
"a tough pill to swallow for [Miyazaki's] legions of fans around the world.
Unique in its maker’s oeuvre, it takes the form of a biopic, a study of the life and (early) career of Jiro Horikoshi (1903-1982), the aeronautical engineer who designed Mitsubishi’s Zero fighter, the Imperial Army’s plane of choice during the Second World War. Lighter, faster and more maneuverable than its Allied rivals, and capable of flying much longer distances, the Zero garnered a reputation as an especially deadly enemy in dogfights, achieving a kill-ratio of 12:1.
I looked that fact up online; I had to. There is no mention of it—not so much as a hint of it—anywhere in this film. In fact, The Wind Rises (its title taken from a quote by Valéry) functions mostly as a two-hour demonstration of the powers of cognitive dissonance: inviting us to admire the purity of the creative spirit—all Horikoshi wants to do, he says repeatedly, is 'to make something beautiful’—while at the same time, delicately overlooking its actual, real-world consequences.
When the film was released in Japan, in July, the Left responded with outrage: how dare Studio Ghibli—the home of Totoro!—make a film celebrating a weapons manufacturer! But the response was scarcely warmer on the nationalist Right, where Miyazaki had already alienated potential allies with his criticism of Shinzo Abe’s proposed changes to the national constitution.
Partisan allegiances aside, however, there are various ways the director might have tackled this thorny subject. Could Jiro-san be, perhaps, a kind of holy fool, so consumed by the wonder of flight, and so obsessed with refining his designs, that he’s blind to the uses to which they will be put? (One is reminded, in this respect, of Fred Leuchter, the execution-machine inventor from Errol Morris’ documentary Mr. Death.) Could he have been a political naif, used by the establishment—or, more intriguingly, a savvy and ambitious salaryman, eager to burnish his reputation? Might he even have harboured something of the same sense of racial and cultural superiority that fuelled the Japanese Imperial war effort?
Any of these would constitute a reasonable way into the material, and also serve to make Horikoshi a complex, interesting protagonist. But instead, the film opts for the blandest and most pusillanimous solution—simultaneously ret-conning history with occasional 'It wasn’t me, guv’ lines ('We’re not weapons makers!’ he tells colleague Kiro Honjo. 'We just want to build great planes!’), while taking care to present the designer as a kind of dreamy idealist: boyish in appearance, unfailingly kind and curious, a kind of oriental Tintin. 'Look at him,’ one character exclaims helpfully. 'Lying there dreaming, with all the hopes of Japanese aviation in his head.’ Well, indeed. (Though I might counter with the title of Delmore Schwartz’s classic story: In Dreams Begin Responsibilities.)
Parallel to this runs the tale of his relationship with Naoko Satomi, whom the engineer first encounters on a train in 1923, when they’re both caught up in the Kanto Earthquake. Their love story, spanning almost twenty years, is the second spine of this film—never mind that he doesn’t encounter her again for more than a decade, and then, when he does finally marry her, proceeds more or less immediately to abandon her for his work, barely seeming to notice even as she quietly succumbs, Camille-like, to tuberculosis. In the end, as he prepares for his plane’s make-or-break test flight, Naoko shuffles obediently off-stage, not unlike a loyal dog taking itself under the house to die... Yes indeed, it’s quite the romance. (And only seems more infuriating when you learn that Naoko, like every other element of Jiro’s personal life depicted here, is actually a fictional construct.)
When at last we’re shown the devastation left by the war, the treatment is maddeningly oblique: a brief glimpse of a field strewn with rubble. And even then, it’s only his country’s own losses that are considered—the planes which never returned to base, the devastated cities. That Japan suffered in WWII should come as news to precisely nobody. That apparently no one else did, only attests to this nation’s remarkable capacity for self-absorption. (One might cite, in particular, the hundreds of Chinese and Korean prisoners of war who, though conspicuous by their absence in this film, were press-ganged into building the actual planes.)
In his best work—and god knows there’s no shortage of this—Miyazaki goes deep, to create a world superficially similar to our own, but imbued with its own very particular codes and signifiers. Of contemporary filmmakers, only he and David Lynch, to my mind, really understand the peculiar logic of dreams: their refractive relationship with the waking world, their profound sense of unease. Howl’s Moving Castle, in particular, works best if understood as a nightmare of anxiety: one is charged with a distinct goal—a place to be, a person to meet, a certain thing to do—yet every new complication that arises, takes you further from achieving it.
This one, though, despite its rhapsodic fascination with flight (and a handful of dream sequences), remains obstinately, almost defiantly literal. We learn about the importance of concealed hinges and flush-fitting screw heads. We are told how much total weight would be saved were Jiro to shave an ounce off each of his new design’s support struts. (Answer: half a pound.) There is talk of lightweight aluminium alloys, of cantilevered wing designs... But of actually bombing anything? Not a murmur.
Of course it looks gorgeous. Miyazaki’s feeling for colour, his sense of design, are both justly celebrated—and his line-fluency is a seemingly inexhaustible source of wonder. Like all the greatest animators (I’m thinking, in particular, of Chuck Jones at Warner Bros., or Genndy Tartakovsky), his style is unique and immediately identifiable, even when enclosed within a broader studio context. And this time around, his compositional gifts seem especially breathtaking. Frames are packed with detail; perspectives are constantly surprising, shifting between land and air, yet never less than exquisitely judged.
Which is just as well, since his storytelling seems unusually clumsy, lumbering awkwardly from point to point for a tedious 126 minutes. Plot details are invoked—the secret police are after Jiro!—and then just as abruptly dropped again... which raises the horrifying possibility that somewhere there’s a director’s cut even longer than this one.
I can’t help but feel that, with its linear structure, its strict adherence to historical facts, the biopic is fundamentally at odds with Miyazaki’s own sensibility. (He pursued this project, he admitted, because his own father had worked in a factory which manufactured a part for the Zero.) Sadly, he announced this week that The Wind Rises will be his final film; at 72, with eleven features to his credit, he has decided to retire. It’s an unfortunate and faintly regrettable end to what has, in every other respect, been an exemplary career.