Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises Emerges Under-Appreciated

Well, the Oscars are long over and
done with now, but I do feel like I have to come out and admit that I was
impressed by this year’s winning award choices. For one year, I happily accepted each of
the Academy’s decisions. Well, scratch that—I did sadly accept at least one pick. I was disappointed that The Wind Rises did not win Best
Animated Feature.

I do understand Frozen winning: It’s extremely fun,
cheerful, and musical. That is great. Never let anyone think I don’t like fun
movies; hell, I wrote about the Lego
a month back. However, as good as Frozen
was (I haven’t actually seen it yet), I believe The Wind Rises deserved more recognition than it received. It is
not only a beautiful, hand-drawn masterpiece from one of the greatest and most
influential animation directors of all time, but it’s also his swan song.

“Swan song.” That’s a phrase that,
even without context, you can tell probably stands for something sad and
beautiful. And indeed it does.

In the realm of media and art, the term “swan
song” refers to the final production of an artist’s career, and comes from the erroneous
belief that swans sing right before death. The label can be applied
posthumously when an artist dies without warning, as in the case of Stanley
Kubrick and his swan song, Eyes Wide Shut,
but in many instances artists are aware they are crafting their swan songs at
the time.

Hayao Miyazaki falls into the latter group. From early on in the production of The Wind Rises, Miyazaki made it clear that he would be retiring
from his directing career following the film’s completion. And it seems that knowing that
this would be the final addition to his oeuvre, Miyazaki poured more of himself
into The Wind Rises than he did into any previous film. 

Unlike most of his work, The Wind Rises is not set in a fantasy
world (though there are several dream sequences). It does not have a child
protagonist. And it does not have a happy ending.

For his final film, Miyazaki chose
to tell the fictionalized life story of Jiro Horikoshi, an aircraft engineer
who helped to design the warplanes used by Imperial Japan during the ’20s, ’30s, and ’40s. The Wind Rises mostly
focuses on his life during the period from 1923 to 1940.

Jiro, who in the English dub is
voiced by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, is presented in the film as a kind and
courteous young man with a boundless passion for flight. Deterred from becoming
a pilot due to his poor sight, Jiro instead dedicates his life to creating
beautiful aircraft. His firm determination to pursue his passion leads him to
Mitsubishi, which has been contracted by the air force to help Japan’s military catch up with the rest of the world. 

Throughout the film, there are
steady signs of Japan’s march to war. Soldiers slowly become a greater presence
in public settings. Propaganda spreads. Jiro’s co-workers and the
military men they all deal with make all sorts of ominous statements. And the
specter of World War II is also felt in scenes where Jiro travels to Europe to study
the aeronautic technology of other nations.

In one scene in Germany, Jiro sees
a man being chased by secret police. One odd man (voiced absolutely perfectly by
Werner Herzog) even warns Jiro that Adolf Hitler’s aggression will end with both
their nations in chaos.

Jiro is therefore certainly aware
of and—in his own words—afraid of the approach of war. Yet he crafts weapons to prepare, determined to pursue his dream of becoming an
aeronautical engineer. The only planes in demand are warplanes, so he is
happy to build warplanes. 

We are only given insights into Jiro’s guilty
conscience through his unconscious mind, where he converses in dreams with an
embodiment of his role model, a famous Italian aircraft designer. But even here
we see this figment of his imagination just reassuring Jiro about his work, saying things like, “Would you rather live in a world with or without the pyramids?”

In the end, despite whatever guilt
he felt and a tragic romance with a sick woman, Jiro Horikoshi refuses
to turn away from his life’s passion and perfects his Zero fighter plane, which would
soon become notorious for its use in kamikaze attacks.

It is clear that The Wind Rises was a painful film for
Miyazaki, but one that he had to make. Passion is a beautiful thing, but it can
be strong enough that it becomes dangerous not only to our relationships, but also to our
morality. The beauty of artistic creation may be pure in the mind of the
artist, but the world is eager to corrupt these creations. And perhaps if
something is beautiful but harmful, it is best not to pursue it at all.

are the lessons that Miyazaki gives us. Although they are not cheerful lessons, they are important, and come from a great veteran artist whose influence on his
medium is staggering.

I highly recommend watching The Wind Rises; it really is phenomenally beautiful and now my favorite Hayao
Miyazaki film. It opens today, March 14, at the Laemmle Theatre.

Dan Brown PO ’16 is a media studies major. You can check out his show, Out of Breath, on the Claremont Colleges Television channel on YouTube.

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