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The Wind Rises finds Studio Ghibli at its most politically misguided

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The Wind Rises has been widely acclaimed, but is Hayao Miyazaki’s final film guilty of ignoring Japanese aggression in WWII, or worse, glorifying it?

An open secret for anyone that knows a little about modern Japan: the debate on that nation’s conduct in the Pacific War is very much alive and well. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe last year questioned Imperial Japan’s role as an “aggressor”. A current government review of the landmark 1993 Kono Statement, which acknowledged wartime coercion of women into serving as sex slaves, has rightfully stirred deep disquiet in Korea and China, as have sporadic comments by prominent Japanese public figures.

Japanese cinema handles awkwardly the need to recognise the destruction and suffering wrought upon Asia by Japan during WWII

This is not a recent trend: despite the naked aggression, the irrefutable evidence of war crimes established at the Tokyo Trials, of the policies that led to the attempted extinguishing of Korean cultural identity and ghastly human experimentation in China, the narrative of Japan as the ‘victim’ of World War II, liberating its Asian neighbours from Western colonialism, simply refuses to die. This contention extends into Japanese cinema: films on the subject of World War II are few, and generally handle awkwardly the need to recognise the destruction and suffering wrought upon Asia by Japan during the war, while not alienating a domestic audience.

Studio Ghibli’s latest film, The Wind Rises, which animator extraordinaire Hayao Miyazaki says will be his last, fits firmly into this tradition. It abounds with all the beautiful animation you would expect from a Ghibli production: the fluent, oneiric quality, the watercolour-esque compositions. Historical events register visually rather than didactically – the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake, for one, is vividly depicted. But it mangles the historical record. Ghibli’s previous war film, Grave of the Fireflies, worked because just about everyone could agree that two children struggling for survival in an obliterated city was desperately sad. But The Wind Rises is different.

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A biopic of Jiro Horikoshi (let us dispense with that nondescript term ‘fictionalised’), the man who designed the Zero fighter plane used in World War II, is impossible to remove from Japan’s pre-war historical context, and much more problematic than Grave of the Fireflies. There are indications that Miyazaki appreciated the difficulty of the subject matter and has tried, with reticence, to pre-empt criticism. Horikoshi himself is conjured as a romantic, reluctant figure – a very Ghibli touch. “Start a war,” a twinkly-eyed German prophet tells him (in the English version, this character is voiced by the inimitable Werner Herzog, a minor bright spot in the otherwise soul-destroying dubbing experience). “Japan will burn.”

Jiro Horikoshi’s Zero fighter was inescapably a product and symbol of Japanese militarism. The movie is eerily silent on this point

Miyazaki perhaps believes his hero shares this view; despite collaborating with the Italians and Nazis, and holding meetings with the Navy and Air Force, by then well into its program of encroachment upon Japan’s neighbours, Horikoshi is distanced from the action. But the fact remains that the Zero fighter was a product and symbol of Japanese militarism. It played an invaluable role in the simultaneous lightning sweep through South-East Asia and surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, the event that finally dragged the Allies into the Pacific War. The movie is eerily silent on this point.

The real Horikoshi supposedly remarked that he “only wanted to make something beautiful,” and Miyazaki has said this is what inspired him to make this final film. The Wind Rises ends up endorsing Horikoshi’s delusion. There is room for ambiguity in many aspects of life (it is arguably a defining characteristic of Ghibli cinema), but not in explicitly designing weapons of war used by a fascist power to inflict unthinkable suffering on its neighbours. The simple reason that intentions are irrelevant – when history so clearly and objectively speaks for itself – falls beyond the film’s purview.

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Of course, The Wind Rises is not pure biopic; it doubles as Miyazaki’s own nostalgic reflection on his youth, an era he would have you believe was more innocent, untainted. It’s there in the eminently pure and tasteful love story between Horikoshi and his sickly wife. Characters also wryly deprecate their country for being poor and backward. Again, this does not sit with history. Japan by the early 20th century had arrived on the world stage as a modern power, having undergone the Meiji Restoration and handed Russia a crushing naval defeat in 1905 – an event greeted with shock by Western powers. Furthermore, Japanese aggression stretches back well before 1941: at the time The Wind Rises is set, Japan had already suppressed with force the peaceful 1919 independence uprising in Korea, wrested Manchuria away from China, set up the puppet state of Manchukuo and left the League of Nations rather than face censure for its imperial ambition. Japan’s path to World War II had been laid out by 1910, if not before.

The Wind Rises’ triumphant final scene is graceful, lyrical and disturbingly close to a scene from Triumph of the Will

In the final scene of The Wind Rises, hundreds of Horikoshi’s finished fighter planes glide effortlessly high in the sky, like a flock of cranes. It’s graceful and lyrical in the fashion you would expect from Miyazaki, and the emotional register is one of personal triumph; but view it from another context, and it looks disturbingly close to a scene from Triumph of the Will. The Wind Rises is a film that glorifies conquest, no two ways about it, and to pretend otherwise is to misconstrue or muddy history. It’s disappointing the Ghibli mastermind has chosen to end his career with a tribute so egregiously misguided.


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All images: Studio Ghibli


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