On cultural criticism: Thinking through Miyazaki’s latest and last attempt, the animated film The Wind Rises

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In Daniel Clowes’ Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art—a brilliant graphic novel that unveils the medium and functions of comix broadly through a simple explanation of lines, panels, and colors—there is one particularly moving sequence. In it he describes the distinction between the hyperrealism of some comics, and the effectiveness of simplicity. He says, in three squares: “Something as simple and as basic—as a cartoon . . . When you look at a photo or a realistic drawing of a face—you see it as the face of another. But when you enter the world of the cartoon—you see yourself.” This last sentence is accompanied by a simple line drawing of a circle with two dots (for eyes) and a straight line for a mouth. The insightful comment Clowes is making here is that the simplicity of the drawing allows the viewer to project themselves onto the image they see on the screen. They convert themselves into what they see. They project their images of themselves onto the reality of the screen.

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So too in Hayao Miyazaki’s supposed swan song The Wind Rises. This film is by the founder of the famed animation studio Ghibli, which produced such films as Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke. Both of these latter films are surrealistic dream worlds, with larger than life animals and spirits playing a part in human quests and affairs. Though animated, these films attract a wide audience. Princess Mononoke was the highest-grossing film in Japan, eclipsed only by James Cameron’s Titanic. This large attraction attests to the wide commercial appeal.

Today, I will focus on The Wind Rises, which traces the life of Japanese aviation engineer Jiro Horikoshi. Horikoshi designed the Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighter planes that the Japanese used in World War II. Interestingly, the film focuses on Jiro as the hero, and through his quest from a youthful engineer, dreaming of building planes like those of the Italian aeronautical engineer Giovanni Batissta Caproni, we receive an often somewhat critical perspective on Japanese involvement in World War II. Again, few films have arrived from Japan addressing the conflict within Japanese society, and so carefully unfolding a narrative that reveals more than a flattened Axis of Evil. The Japanese collaboration with the Nazis was historically far more complicated than a simple agreement, and this film is some attempt at a redress.

But before we become mired in the history, let us focus for a moment on the fact that Miyazaki has picked as his hero a sort of ersatz artist. That is, we can read the young Jiro, dreaming big dreams, throwing paper planes into the sky, as a version of Miyazaki himself. This interesting projection returns us to Clowes’ book, and takes us to the next level—that the animating, or cartooning of a character, can be a way to distance ourselves from ourselves, to construct an alter-ego, through which we can manifest our own desires and wishes and fears. Freud argued that all fears are secret wishes, but I think this film argues otherwise. In fact, our wishes can lead to our darkest fears.

If you have seen Miyazaki’s films, you will know the presence of surrealistic dream worlds that the main character must live through and whose rules must be learned and abided by. Interestingly in this film, there is an absence of talking animals and magical spirits. Instead, Horikoshi’s dream world is the space that gets to occupy this alternative reality. It is his daydreams, conversations with Batissta, flying on imaginary planes several stories high, visualizing giant hot air balloons, that serve as the platform for his taking flight. That is, his alternative world is a historical imagining of Italian ingenuity. Here we have evidence for the valorization of Central European, in this case Italian, high design. It is the planes and the engineers of Europe that must be either mimicked or re-conceived. While the other engineers fail to dream “as inventors,” they simply want to copy the work of their predecessors. It is Jiro’s particular gift that in his dreams he is the creator of his own dreams.

The film is riddled with moments of tragedy: failures, tribulations, and the finding and loss of love. But one particular moment is fascinating. Horikoshi is sent to Germany to meet with the fighter engineers as a way to collaborate, and he requires several attempts, though dressed in “Western” business casual, to gain entry into their facilities. Here the racism towards the Japanese in the WWII is highlighted particularly pointedly. Of course, Japan has served as its own colonial power in its region, not to mention a long time center of business, technological innovation, and capital.

These moments then return us to a question that we must sit with: how may our technological ingenuities, brilliant and wonderful in their dream form, take on pernicious and grossly violent effects? In the film, Jiro seems to want to be pacifist. He even argues that he won’t design the planes to be able to carry guns, preferring a thinner model that would fly more smoothly and safely. Yet, of course, as he is an engineer for the Japanese government, his work is used for destructive effects. As I am not a military historian, it is useless for me to argue what are the strategic cost and benefits of Japanese involvement in World War II. But this film can also be a meditation on the creation of smaller things: of films (for Miyazaki), of music—which can be used for dancing or for marching—of writing, of cutting an apple.

The title of the film The Wind Rises is from the French poet Paul Valery, who died in 1945, quietly refusing to be a collaborationist with the Vichy Regime in France at the time. He was stripped of his titles, and yet continued to publish actively despite governmental disapproval. The full line by Valery borrows from a 1920 poem that declares that when “Le vent se lève, Il taut tenter de vivre!” (When the wind rises, we must try to live!)” This rising song here sounds far more difficult by the end of the film. Yes we must try to live. But the trying is the condition of living—both to its own credit and to its detriment. When the wind rises, and even when the wind falls, we can add, we must try. And Miyazaki’s last film is nothing if not a testament to the difficulty of trying, and trying, and trying again. And attempting to be gracious in the attempt of trying.

Jonathan Liebembuk is a PhD Student in Comparative Literature at CUNY Graduate Center and teacher at Hunter College in the English Department.

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