Indy Datta on dreams and reality in the swansong from cinema’s greatest fantasist.
Hayao Miyazaki’s final film – and it looks as if he really means it this time – is a striking departure, an account of the life of Jiro Horikoshi, the creator of some of Japan’s most fearsome World War 2 fighter planes, heavily fictionalised by way of borrowings from a novel by Tatsuo Hori (from which it takes its title, in turn taken from a poem by Paul Valéry) and Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain.
The film’s opening, though, should correct any idea one might have that this is to be a work of diligent realism. We open in a dream; Jiro as a child dreaming of the freedom of flight, darkness intruding in the shape of faceless, almost formless, distinctively Miyazakiesque black demons who transform into bombs that rain down from above. In a subsequent dream, Jiro meets the Italian aviation pioneer Giovanni Caproni (founder of the company that produced the Caproni Ca.309 Ghibli, incidentally), who believes that Jiro has entered his dream. Caproni shrugs, his luxurious moustache blowing in the wind; the world is a dream.
Surely enough, even outside of the dream world, when depicting events in the real world, the film’s register is often not straightforwardly realistic. In a striking early sequence, Jiro is caught up in the aftermath of the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923. Miyazaki’s rendering of the earthquake imbues it with an immanent, personified character – as if a great invisible god-monster was laying waste to Tokyo (this sequence also inevitably invokes the shadow of Hiroshima and Nagasaki).
Just before the earthquake Jiro, now a student, meets a young girl, Naoko, on the train into Tokyo and saves her life. Years later, with Jiro now an aeronautical engineer working for Mitsubishi, the two are reunited by fate at a country hotel, and they fall in love. They become engaged but Naoko warns Jiro that she suffers from tuberculosis. This plot strand, with Jiro dedicating his life to his dreams of flight while his beloved wife slips away from him, is taken from the Tatsuo Hori novel, and has no basis in Horikoshi’s biography. Realistically rendered interpersonal drama has never been one of Miyazaki’s strengths as a film-maker and so it is here. Neither Jiro nor Naoko have the colour or dimensionality as characters that would really bring their slow tragedy to life, and right from the moment when Naoko reveals her condition their story emits a whiff of cheap melodrama (which may be less of a surprise to those who have seen Goro Miyazaki’s recent From Up on Poppy Hill, for which Miyazaki sr. was the credited writer). Of course, even here, there are moments and images that resonate, such as the darkly ironic tableau of Jiro coming home late from the office to be with Naoko, only to continue working, slide rule and cigarette in hand, as she sleeps beside him, her hand in his other hand.
It’s generally accepted that Jiro is an autobiographical proxy for Miyazaki himself (and there are facts that tie the two men’s lives together; for example, Miyazaki’s father worked on the Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighter that led the assault on Pearl Harbor), and the self-portrait that emerges sideways is of a difficult man, an obsessive dreamer, neglectful of his family. But one assumes that Miyazaki doesn’t mean to indict himself in the way he indicts Jiro for the artistic tunnel vision that means he barely acknowledges the warlike purpose of his vocation. Caproni says to Jiro “Airplanes are beautiful dreams. Engineers turn dreams into reality” and “Which would you choose – a world with pyramids or a world without?”- but from the first moments of the film to the last Miyazaki reminds us that Jiro’s dreams dealt death.
It is this aspect of the film that has attracted a degree of controversy: various people have, in line with their underlying inclinations, found The Wind Rises to be either insufficiently apologetic for Japan’s role in World War 2 or insufficiently patriotic and suspiciously pacifist. Flippancy aside, the fantasist in Miyazaki, normally free to incorporate a political dimension in his work without having to answer to historical or contemporary facts, arguably (inadvertently?) invites the controversy by failing to answer Jiro’s wilful blindness in the real world of his film. The dreams of war he does answer with are, like any dreams, open to interpretation, and liable to be forgotten after waking.
Miyazaki’s strangest and most elusive engagement with the shadow of World War 2 in The Wind Rises is embodied in the character of Hans Castorp, inspired by the protagonist of Thomas Mann’s novel The Magic Mountain, one of a number of Germans who are staying at the hotel where Jiro is reunited with Naoko. Castorp takes an interest in the young lovers, and in Jiro particularly, and warns him in grave but elliptical terms of the doom awaiting Germany and Japan. Castorp is last seen doing a moonlight flit to escape the attentions of unspecified thought police. I saw the Japanese language version of the film but in the English language dub Castorp is voiced by Werner Herzog, which is all the incentive I need to see The Wind Rises again.