Don’t you just love those catchy titles? Who would not be encouraged to think, “Yeah, this doesn’t interest me”, only to later discover – or more likely never discover – that it might have interested you? I promise to keep it short, in case you were right in the first place. Give it a shot. See what you think.
Recently, we saw a Japanese animated feature called The Wind Rises, written and directed by a man who for decades has been the preeminent master of animated moviemaking, Hayao Miyazaki. We had seen and greatly appreciated other Miyazaki movies in the past, most notably Princess Mononoke (1997), Spirited Away (the Oscar winner for “Best Animated Feature” in 2001), and Howl’s Moving Castle (2004.) The Wind Rises, Miyazaki announced, would be his last movie before his retirement.
Unlike most animated films and possibly all American ones the animation for which is entirely computerized, in Miyazaki’s movies, every frame is individually hand- drawn, generating an enchanting ethereality unavailable to the more hard-edged but cheaper and faster process.
The result in The Wind Rises is a breathtaking accomplishment. The jaw-dropping centerpiece of the movie is the gripping depiction of a Japanese earthquake. I mean, it’s “just drawings”, but it knocks you for a loop.
But it’s not all swinging for the proverbial fences. There’s another scene early in the picture, in which a young boy is sleeping on his back, and for a few moments we simply watch his chest rhythmically rise and fall that left me equally enthralled. How did they do that so smoothly and effortlessly? How did they make an animated sleeping person appear to be actually breathing?
Unlike most of Miyazaki’s movies, which are entirely fictional and invariably center on younger characters and their often traumatizing imaginings, The Wind Rises chronicles the rise of real-life Japanese aeronautical engineer Jiro Horikoshi. There is also a substantial hallucinatory component to this movie as well, which opens with a dream (the “sleeping person”, remember?) in which “Young Jiro” encounters his personal hero, the visionary Italian aircraft designer, Gianni Caproni.
Planting the seed for how he would ultimately view his profession, Caproni tells Jiro in his nighttime reverie,
“Airplanes are not for war or making money. Airplanes are beautiful dreams.”
Ironically – or some other adverb – Jiro Horikoshi goes on to work at Mitsubishi, where, in the early 1930’s, he helps develop and perfect what would become the Japanese “Zero”, a sleek and superior fighter plane that would be used in the bombing of Pearl Harbor and bedevil the Allies throughout the remainder of World War II.
In the movie, Jiro is portrayed as a dangerous (to the authorities) free thinker, entirely a-political and almost obsessively single-minded. His view concerning his efforts, expressed by his engineering partner is,
“We are not arms merchants. We make beautiful airplanes.”
And yet the airplanes they made killed thousands of people.
An echoing sentiment expressed by Miyazaki about The Wind Rises sent a meteor shower of ideas flashing through my brain. About The Wind Rises, Miyazaki said,
“All I wanted to do was make something beautiful.”
Suddenly, it came clear to me.
As with Jiro who was designing fighter planes and closing his eyes to the consequences, Miyazaki, in this idealized representation of Horikoshi was doing exactly same thing:
A magnificent achievement for a questionable purpose.
“I’m not rationalizing evil,” Miyazaki might protest, “I’m making a beautiful movie.”
My research suggests an even deeper motive. Miyazaki is apparently a passionate and lifelong pacifist. This suggests that The Wind Rises is actually an argument against Horikoshi’s blinkered perspective rather than an apology for it.
Well, which is it, Miyazaki? Are you making “beautiful things”? Or a statement protesting personal irresponsibility?
Who knows? Maybe Miyasaki believed he was doing both. But the audience I saw the movie with was demonstrably unequivocal.
When the lights came up and one might have expected enthusiastic applause for such this monumental artistic accomplishment, there was instead throughout the theater
A thunderous silence.