Saturday, March 22, 2014

Beauty and Barbarism: Hayao Miyazaki's The Wind Rises

The Wind Rises

With The Wind Rises, Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki has achieved a feat befitting a master: he has crafted his final film into an elegiac farewell that at once communicates what it means to be an artist, while also being an artistic triumph itself. When I urge friends to see it, they deride the notion that a “cartoon” could be good. Pity. This animated movie is a feast for the eyes, ears, and heart, with narrative magic married to tonal complexities to form a sublime milieu. It's not a perfect movie, though, and its romantic idealism tries to find redeeming grace among irredeemable evils. It simultaneously breaks your heart and renews your belief in the transcendence of the human spirit.

The story follows the life of Jiro Horikoshi, the aeronautical engineer who designed the fighters that became the pride of the Japanese military in the Second World War. Those planes left a terrible legacy, of course. But The Wind Rises is, in part, a tragedy about how one man had to put the joy of his life to the service of an industrial war machine — and about how man’s most inspiring creations also amplify his worst destructive impulses. Miyazaki presents his protagonist as a kind of wonder child touched by fire. Like Joseph in Genesis, the young Jiro’s constantly overwhelmed with ecstatic visions that catch him up to the highest heavens. In the opening dream sequence, he leaps aboard a plane on his rooftop and soars off, joining the great Count Giovanni Caproni (Italy’s own famous aerospace engineer). Caproni is Jiro’s hero, and his flying castles feed the boy’s love for flying. But the dream turns nightmarish, as the Count points out the Fascist pilots in the crafts, who slice through Jiro’s tail and send him plummeting. We know from the start, then, that a shadow will overhang Jiro’s lifelong reach for the skies: His dreams soar toward a foreboding horizon.

Count Caproni
Nevertheless, the movie affirms of life’s beauty amid history’s ills. The title comes from “The Graveyard By the Sea,” by the poet of post-Great War France, Paul Valéry: “The wind rises, and we must try to live.” Man’s hope lies not in his accomplishment, but his effort — his ecstatic attempts to realize the good, the true, the beautiful in the face of impossible odds. And to love: Jiro’s story is also a romantic one. While taking a train to begin training as an engineer, he meets a young girl named Nahoko traveling with her maid. No sooner have they exchanged greetings when the massive Kantō earthquake strikes. The images of the quake and the firestorm that engulfs Tokyo are astonishing, the earth undulating and groaning like a writhing giant--part of Miyazaki’s unique personification of the elements. But even in the middle of the chaos, goodness shines through: Jiro carries the maid (who’s broken her ankle) on his back, following the masses of humanity flowing toward safety until they reach her family. They separate, but only to follow a path that will bring them back together one day. This noble act is of a piece with Jiro’s instinctive protection of the weak and vulnerable — earlier, he defends a classmate from a school bully and later he tries to help destitute children he encounters in the street. Miyazaki keeps our focus on hope, while never letting us forget those on the margins.

Jiro doesn’t come off as a saint, though, just an innocent thinker with a gentle soul. We see his intellectual powers at work when he joins the engineering team of a major company. His mind explodes in more dreams and imaginings, full of apocalyptic imagery of nature and machines. He takes his inspiration from nature, in fact, getting ideas for wing designs from studying the bones of a mackerel he eats for lunch. His idiosyncrasies draw chuckles from his friends, in particular Honjo, and exasperation from his boss, Kurokawa. The latter sends the two to Germany, where they study Nazi engineering and have a brush with the Gestapo. Throughout the movie, Jiro bears, with a heavy heart, the knowledge of the coming war and that his planes will be used to bomb other countries. He doesn't agree with any of it, and Miyazaki paints him as a kind of victim of his times. But he also doesn't actively resist those times, and his true feelings on them never get aired. But Caproni tells him that this is the price he must pay for his gift, the storm he must weather so as to achieve goodness later. “Do you prefer a world with pyramids, or a world without pyramids?” the Count asks, reminding him that those architectural wonders were built by slave labor. “I still choose a world with pyramids,” the Italian concludes.

Many people would disagree, though, and it's difficult to take in the images of the Rising Sun painted on the fighter wings. The memory of Pearl Harbor, Nanking, Bataan, and all the vast wickedness of Japan's empire rise with it. Miyazaki makes a hard request of us: To adopt Jiro's perspective—one that zooms in on the grace at play even in a machine that served a totalitarian state—and to forgive it, not agree with it. To believe that good people lived inside even the most evil of regimes. And war contains a kind of terrible beauty, after all. The spectacle, the symmetry, the totalizing drama, are what make it so intoxicating and addictive. His fault lies, though, in not looking at the ugliness of war as well. Or not looking directly, that is. It's there, on the film's edges—the earthquake evokes images of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the crashes of Jiro's test planes allude to the dreaded kamikaze attacks. Moreover, we bring our knowledge of the Pacific War's evils and atrocities with us into the theater. Miyazaki assumes the presence of this horror, and so only hints at it in the picture, attempting to accentuate a different, more hopeful aspect. Whether he succeeds or not will differ for each viewer.  

That same inextricable mixing of pleasure with pain colors Jiro’s reunion, years later, with Nahoko. While on retreat at a grand hotel in the country, Jiro discovers her as he walks along the base of a meadow she’s painting from a hill. The scene is lush and vibrant, windswept and pulsating. Miyazaki paints immense blue skies with acres of clouds in frame after frame, emphasizing both his character’s lofty vocation and man’s aspirational drive. Later, the pair rendezvous at a mystical spring in a forest glen. The elements are all alive, and you feel like you’ve stepped into a Van Gogh. The movie features a sumptuous score as well, with Parisian accordion music pulling your heart to France or Venice, even as you view the Japanese scenes. Jiro also meets a German at the hotel, Castorp, a mysterious man who dispenses wisdom on a veranda about avoiding totalitarianism before disappearing. He encourages the budding romance, and when he plays the piano in a dining room scene, the group achieves, for a blessed moment, something like pure happiness.

It can’t last, of course. Nahoko has tuberculosis, and a bad case at that. Heartache tinges another of Jiro’s loves. What he does in the face of fate, though, is what drives his story — and our own — onward. He lives through extraordinary times, circumstances that allow him to advance some of the greatest innovations in history and also compel his service to the God of War. At the movie’s close, Jiro has one last vision: of his beautiful fighter, an angel of the skies, drifting into the stratosphere until it’s pinned to the dome — a speck with thousands of others. Not one of his creations returns from the war, and we see mountains of wrecks piled high. But Jiro looks to the sunset, his nightmare over, his dream still alive. He inhales the wind, and utters two words, twice: “Thank you.” Such gratitude in the face of life’s integral rightness swells your heart to the breaking point. This is the great question we all face: Would we give up the beauty of life to avoid its tragedy? “Artists are only created for ten years,” Caproni muses at one point to Jiro. “We engineers are the same way. Live your ten years well.” Miyazaki’s answer is clear, and he’s lived his many years celebrating that beauty.

– Nick Coccoma is a film, theatre, and culture critic. He blogs regularly at The Similitude and contributes to Full-Stop Magazine. His articles and postings on movies, religion, and drama have been featured on Andrew Sullivan’s The DishThe Rumpus3 Quarks Daily, and Catholic How. A native of Cooperstown, NY, he studied theatre, philosophy, and theology at the College of the Holy Cross and Boston College. He lives in Boston, where he's worked as an actor, teacher, and chaplain. 

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