Sweet Dreams and Flying Machines: Miyazaki's The Wind Rises

"Ponyo" director Hayao Miyazaki poses for a portrait in Los Angeles on Tuesday, July 28, 2009. (AP Photo/Matt Sayles)
"Ponyo" director Hayao Miyazaki poses for a portrait in Los Angeles on Tuesday, July 28, 2009. (AP Photo/Matt Sayles)

"Sweet dreams and flying machines in pieces on the ground" -- James Taylor

The other day I had the pleasure of being interviewed on NPR for a segment on the Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki and the opening of his film, The Wind Rises. But the pleasure was complicated: I was embarrassed to hear myself admit on the radio that I had cried while watching the film. In fact, my tears were not only for the movie's bittersweet love story and for the news that The Wind Rises is supposedly Miyazaki's final film, although both these aspects certainly contributed. But I was also sad because The Wind Rises in its insistent depiction of history over fantasy suggested new directions that the director might have chosen, new roads that now would not be taken, thanks to his retirement from film making.

In a sense "the road not taken" can also apply to the film's narrative. The Wind Rises is the story of an inventor, Jiro Horikoshi, and the technological work of art that he creates. Much of the film revolves around Jiro's obsessive work on this creation and the dreams and desires that swirl around it. And the final product is indeed a great success -- the most advanced of its type, innovative, beautifully constructed and superbly efficient in its function. In the earlier manga version of the film Miyazaki explicitly compares his own work in creating anime to Jiro's industry and its product.

But the fact is that what Jiro creates is not an anime. It's a warplane -- the Mitsubishi Zero, a state-of-the-art weapon that allowed Japan to rule the skies for the first year or so of the Pacific War. Zeros led Japan's invasion of China in 1937 and bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941. But perhaps their most ironic and poignant use came at the end of the war, as the vehicle for Japan's young kamikaze pilots who destroyed themselves and their planes in a last-ditch attempt to protect their homeland against American warships. The road that Japan chose to take with this advanced technology ended in the country's devastating defeat in 1945.

With such an emotionally loaded history attached to it, it is hardly surprising that the Zero should inspire a film or a manga. But what is surprising is what year the film ends -- in 1937 with the announcement of the Zero's successful development. We never see the plane deployed or the tragic aftermaths of this deployment. Instead the audience is offered a dreamlike coda in which Jiro stands in a field surrounded by shattered aircraft. Sweet dreams and flying machines in pieces on the ground.

The film and Miyazaki's recent actions in general have generated much controversy. Last summer he and his colleagues at Studio Ghibli produced an 18 page statement detailing their opposition to any changes in Japan's so-called "Peace Constitution." Miyazaki, his fellow director Takahata, and two others wrote about their horrific experiences during World War II, insisting that Japan must never again take the path to war. The rightwing reacted strongly -- suggesting that Miyazaki was an out-of-touch pacifist. "Old coot" was one comment. At the same time Koreans and other Asians were criticizing the director as a militaristic nationalist. To give an American analogy -- imagine if in the same summer George Lucas and Steven Spielberg issued a lengthy pro-gun control manifesto at the same time as Spielberg released a movie detailing the life of the inventor of the atomic bomb.

What is Miyazaki doing here? Can he be both a militarist and a pacifist at the same time? We might find a hint in one of his childhood reminiscences. In a collection of interviews published in the book Starting Point , Miyazaki recalls how he " grew up very excited about war films and drawing military things all over the place... I expressed my desire for power by drawing airplanes with sleek and pointed noses and battleships with huge guns." Lost in admiration for the soldiers, sailors and pilots and "thrilled" by their bravery, the young Miyazaki vicariously leapt into their adventures, an experience that he expresses in many of the visceral battle scenes in his work. But, in an important coda to this reminiscence, Miyazaki concludes with these poignant words, "It was only much later that I realized that in reality these men had desperately wanted to live and been forced to die in vain."

In The Wind Rises and in his essay last summer Miyazaki is forcing his viewers and readers to confront a nasty truth about the human condition. War can be exciting -- stirring up visceral emotions to an intensity we don't often feel in our normal lives. And technology, perhaps especially military technology, can be cool -- gripping, beautiful, and viscerally satisfying. When Jiro contemplates his plane he gazes with the expression of an artist who has successfully created a marvelous work of art.

At the same time, however, war brings human suffering on an unimaginable scale. And technology misused brings about disaster as well. Throughout his career Miyazaki has never shied away from showing these contradictory aspects. His first major film Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind depicts its gentle messianic heroine wielding a gun and, in the manga version, deciding to wreak destruction on massive scale. The underrated Porco Rosso centers around a former WW I pilot who turns into a pig in his disgust at the war and the rise of fascism, but this pig still enjoys a good aerial dogfight with the right combatants. Miyazaki's complex masterpiece Princess Mononoke pits godlike beasts against rifle wielding humans in a battle where no one is the winner.

These films are all fantasies and Miyazaki is known as perhaps the greatest fantasy filmmaker of all time. All the more reason that his choice to end his career with a conspicuously un-fantastic historical film is so interesting. In an interview with the Japanese broadcasting company NHK last summer Miyazaki announced that he could no longer make fantasies. Behind that statement may lurk a certain despair at the possibility of bringing magic into a increasingly dark and complex world. The Wind Rises, however, still shows us some of the magic of the everyday -- hard work, creation, love, and beauty. These are directions that remain worth exploring. At the very least, Miyazaki's legacy can help keep these roads open for the next generation of film makers