Sunday, March 20, 2016

Historical Cultural Commentary: The Wind Rises

“Le vent se lève, il faut tenter de vivre! [The wind is rising...we must try to live!]”
—Paul Valéry, “The Graveyard by the Sea” 

There was quite a bit of controversy in Japan when Hayao Miyazaki's last directed work, The Wind Rises, came out in 2013. Already known for being anti-war, this film was not the first of Miyazaki's Studio Ghibli to touch directly upon real-world battles (Grave of the FirefliesPorco Rosso, From Up on Poppy Hill), but it certainly is the only one to not be completely mired in the past. Rather, the work exhibits parallels with modern day Japan's current militaristic endeavours and stagnant economy. The Wind Rises illustrates the idea that beauty and innovation turn ugly when used for destruction and death, semi-fictionalizing the life of Jirô Horikoshi—designer of an incredibly maneuverable fighter aircraft that served in WWII. The Second World War had a decimating effect upon Asia and the Pacific, and Japan as a country still faces that fallout to this very day. Countless artists have attempted to convey how things in that part of the world changed post-war, and Miyazaki is obviously no exception.

"Inspiration is more important than scale. Inspiration unlocks the future.
Technology eventually catches up." 

Meeting in a shared dream world, Jirô and Italian aircraft designer Gianni Caproni share an affinity for creating beautiful things. Neither wish to fuel antagonism on either side, but circumstances alter and wars demand certain...necessities. Both men unwilling shift their priorities in the ever-changing field of their profession but manage to maintain their ideal of 'a beautiful dream'.

Which would you choose: a world with pyramids, or without?
Humanity has always dreamt of flying, but the dream is cursed.
My aircraft are destined to become tools of slaughter and destruction.
…but still, I choose a world with pyramids in it.
Which world will you choose?

Unwilling to sacrifice their mutual incentive, each genius engineer respectively continues his work in the waking world. In many scenes, Jirô's dreams (and nightmares) often mesh with reality: it is often difficult to tell when the line between sleep and wakefulness is being blurred. I imagine this has to do with the fact that times of war are often surreal. It is possible that Jirô's human mind struggles to reconcile the atrocities to which he is, on some level, contributing. That guilt becomes so strong that it manifests itself within his imagination. For example, when he and Caproni first step into the same dreamscape, they both see a number of what I refer to as 'faceless war-happies'. These are soldiers rushing to the slaughter in numbers so multitudinous that they all lose their personal identity, instead becoming a collective of 'anybodies'.

"The fact is, this poor country pays us a lot of money to design warplanes.
Embrace the irony." 

In the film, Japan is years behind their competition and struggles to keep up with the rest of the world in terms of industry. Luckily for Jirô and his career ambitions, however, his is a country in which transportation plays an important, ever-growing role. Not just airplanes but trains, automobiles, trolleys, busses, penny steamers, large steam ships, and various warcraft are featured in numerous scenes. Still, the manufacturing company Jirô works for has a difficult time keeping up not only with their competitors in business but their Axis allies.

Honjô: It’s as if we’re a hare chasing a tortoise with a twenty year lead,
but in our little story the hare doesn’t sleep. We can close the gap,
but how can we beat it?

Jirô: We’re too far behind. We’ll always be chasing it.

Honjô: But…what other choice do we have?
Keep running and catch up someday?

Jirô: I wonder if there’s a different way to run?

Apart from war, Miyazaki provides only brief commentary on other historical/cultural issues. One of these is traditional roles for women, especially in relation to Jirô's sister and her desire to live in Tokyo to practice medicine as a doctor. This requires their father's approval which she obtains rather easily (and off-screen). Also of note is Jirô seeking Nahoko's father's blessing for their marriage, but aside from those two instances not much else is said about gender. Religionan aspect popularized in Ghibli films by the widely known Spirited Awayis also sidestepped, with but one character touching upon it in regards to Shinto prayer. There is no mention of the conventional concept of man v. nature, either. This might be due to Miyazaki wanting to focus attention only on the main message of the film, which is understandable...if somewhat flat in regards to storytelling.

Flying machines are a prevalent symbol in many Miyazaki movies,
as are umbrellas (RE: Nahoko's parasol).

All in all, the 2014 English-dubbed version of The Wind Rises features a stellar cast of voice actors who do a fine job translating yet another beautiful dream by the visionary that is Hayao Miyazaki. The creator announced his retirement in late 2013 after the film's original release in Japan, and I personally cannot think of a better way for him to have said his goodbyes. While not as gripping or as whimsical as his previous animated masterpieces, TWR does make a statement that is more pertinent in today's society than any of his other works.

For more information:
My inspiration for this post came about after discovering that a handful of Miyazaki's most popular films are currently being shown at a cinema near where I live. If you know of the Avalon, there is still time to go see Spirited Away and Howl's Moving Castle on the big screen. Fly, my pretties!