Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises, Some Observations on Life

How do you make sense of a life? The Wind Rises is Hayao Miyazaki’s most recent animated feature film and, since he has once again announced his retirement, it may be the last feature film that he makes. It was released in July of 2013, when Miyazake would have been 72.

While not an autobiographical film, it does have autobiographical threads. Miyazaki’s father and uncle owned and ran an airplane parts manufacturing company and that company manufactured parts for the A6M Zero, which was designed by Jiro Horikoshi, the central character of the film. The Wind Rises is only one of several Miyazaki films centered on flight, most notably Porco Rosso, a film that resonates through this one.

The most specific resonance is a bit of imagery, a procession of planes high in the sky, but there are others. While the protagonist in Porco Rosso is a bounty-hunting pilot whose plane was damaged in aerial combat and must be rebuilt. He takes it to his trusted Milanese mechanic and engineer who rebuilds the plane. The handwork is done by female family members – the men are at war  the men had gone to other cities to look for work – and the redesign was done by a young female aeronautical engineer named Fio. That engineer in effect becomes Miyazaki’s protagonist for The Wind Rises, while the family firm becomes the firm of Gianni Caproni, an Italian engineer who mentors young Jiro in mutually shared dreams. There are shots of Horikoshi talking with Caproni that are reminiscent of shots from Porco Rosso. Most generally, the two films resonate through the interweaving of air flight, family, and Italy.

The other autobiographical thread goes through Miyazaki’s mother, who was tubercular. This showed up as a central feature of My Neighbor Totoro, where two young girls were separated from their mother who was in a tuberculosis sanatorium. In The Wind Rises Miyazaki has Horikoshi fall in love with and marry a young woman, Naoko Satomi, who has tuberculosis – something that did not happen to the real-life Horikoshi. He’d met her when he was a college student traveling to college and she was a young girl traveling with her maid. Their train is derailed in the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923; he helped them return home and then they separated. They meet again, by chance, a decade later; they fall in love and get married.

This is a common theme in manga and anime. A couple will meet in childhood, become separated, and then meet again as adults. Sometimes the childhood meeting is a marital arrangement engineered by parents and sometimes it is, as in this film, by happenstance. At their initial meeting in adulthood they don’t recognize one another; that comes later. In this case, the recognition comes very soon after the re-meeting. As does falling in love; marriage comes a decade after that. By the end of the film – which is episodic in character – Japan has lost the war, despite the brilliance of Horikoshi’s fighter planes, and Naoko has died. Horikoshi must live on.

And that, as far as I can tell, is what the film is about: the necessity of loving and living. Miyazaki is a pacifist, the real Horikoshi was opposed to the war despite his job as a designer of military aircraft, and the people we love will die, as we will too. Yet we must live.

* * * * *

What’s important is how Miyazaki pulls these threads together, his aesthetic vision. For the most part, that’s beyond the scope of this post, but I will make one observation about that vision after we look at the controversy the film kicked up. Here’s what the Wikipedia says about that:
In Japan, The Wind Rises received criticism from both the political left and right, and from an anti-smoking group. Miyazaki added to the controversy by publishing an article in which he criticized the proposal by Japan's conservative Liberal Democratic Party to change the Constitution of Japan, which irritated nationalists. Liberals were unhappy that a warplane engineer was the film's protagonist and questioned why Miyazaki would make a flattering film about a man who "built killing machines"; others alleged that some who built the planes were Korean and Chinese forced laborers, 
In an interview with the Asahi Shimbun, Miyazaki said he had "very complex feelings" about World War II since, as a pacifist, he felt militarist Japan had acted out of "foolish arrogance". However, Miyazaki also said that the Zero plane "represented one of the few things we Japanese could be proud of – [Zeros] were a truly formidable presence, and so were the pilots who flew them".
Given his ambivalence, and knowing, as Miyazaki must have, that the film would be controversial, why did he make the film? I’m inclined to take him at his word, that he was proud of those planes (and the pilots who flew them). Is this a film about mere technical excellence?

But for a man like Miyazaki, there is nothing “mere” about that level of technical excellence. His Horikoshi is not merely an excellent engineer; he is deeply dedicated to his craft and is better than all the others. He is in a league of his own.

Moreover, by choosing Horikoshi as his protagonist, Miyazaki was able to emphatically separate the roots of Horikoshi’s motivation from nationalist sentiment. Though he cared deeply about Japan – he repeatedly lamented how poor and backward Japan was – Horikoshi was emphatically NOT driven by a desire for the greater glory of imperial Japan. And yet he had to live and work there. He had to compromise. Whether or not Horikoshi’s particular division between private and public life was appropriate is of course an issue.

Could he really act as though his engineering prowess were his own while he worked for a company that made planes for a war he thought was futile? That’s a reasonable question, a good question. By putting it on the table Miyazaki emphasizes the fact that life often puts us in challenging and uncomfortable circumstances where we have to do things we do not like. How can one live in such circumstances? That’s what’s at stake in this film. (As an exercise, compare Horikoshi’s situation with that of Captain Willard in Apocalypse Now.)

* * * * *

What are the roots of such excellence and dedication? Technical aptitude and skill, of course. But the roots of the dedication are elsewhere. Could that be love?

Why did Miyazaki give his Horikoshi a moribund wife? Is that aspect of the story a mere accompaniment to the story about a skilled engineer? I think not. There is a scene late in the film where Horikoshi comes home late at night. He enters the room and his wife awakens. She’s lying in a futon while he’s sitting at a low table. At her urging he holds her hand as he works. That’s when he makes a last few tweaks to the design.

The scene is reminiscent of one in Porco Rosso. It’s late at night and Porco has Fio, the young engineer, with him in his cave as he prepares for battle the next day. He’s sitting at a table checking his bullets for rust on their casings. She awakens, sees him as a human (he appears with a pig’s head throughout the film), kisses him, and then goes back to her sleeping bag. In his film, Porco wins the battle. In his, Horikoshi’s plane is a success.

To be clear, I’m not arguing/suggesting that Horikoshi’s engineering prowess is rooted in his love for his wife. I’m arguing that his love for his wife and his love of planes have a common root. As for that common root, I suspect it is in the infant’s attachment to his or her mother. As such that root is indeed a very deep one, the deepest we’ve got. That’s what holds this film together. That’s Miyazaki’s vision.

That of course requires demonstration and argument. They are well beyond the compass of a mere blog post. So I leave the idea here to await further demonstration and argument.
All earth comprises
Is symbol alone;
What there ne’er suffices
As fact here is known;
All past the humanly
Wrought here in love;
The Eternal-Womanly
Draws us above.
– Goethe, Faust, the final lines


  1. Regarding Porco Rosso you write "The handwork is done by female family members – the men are at war.." Actually they had gone to other cities to look for work. The story is set during the depression after the rise of the Fascists.