Thursday, June 26, 2014

The Wind Rises (Kaze Tachinu) Review

Year: 2013
Studio: Studio Ghibli
Director/Screenplay/Creator: Hayao Miyazaki
Music: Joe Hisaishi


I revere Hayao Miyazaki to a great extent and I love pretty much every film he has directed. The Wind Rises is lauded as Miyazaki's swan song, but for the longest time I had reservation over watching it lest in some way it contradicts what I firmly believe in – that Japan is an instigator of WWII and the reason so many countries across Asia were ravaged. I have always known Miyazaki to be a pacifist, but because of the particular sensitivity of the topic and the implications in raising a story out of it, I was both curious and wary of what perspectives he might take to tell the history of the man who designed the very machines that destroyed city after city. 

A little personal background here, both of my grandparents fought in WWII against the Japanese and my grandfather lost his sight and hearing from the injuries sustained during the war. So you can imagine the kind of education I received growing up. Even though my grandma never liked to talk about the specific horrors of the war in front of me because the subject pained her and I was too small at the time to understand, it was obviously an experience deeply traumatizing and impossible to forget. As I grew older, my mom would tell me what she learned from my grandmother, stories of atrocity committed by Japanese soldiers as they looted their village, killing, raping and taking any valuables they could find. Anti-Japanese sentiment in China isn's simply inspired by government propagandas, but more often by real stories of families impacted in the war. As much as I embrace many aspects of modern day Japan – and anime is the main reason for it – there are parts of me, for personal and political reasons, detest Japan and its right-wing ideologies, which are unfortunately very influential even in this day and age as demonstrated by the Abe administration. Coincidentally (or not so coincidentally?) the film is released at a very sensitive time when the political tension between Japan and its neighbouring countries is at its worst, partly due to unresolved historical resentment.

Well, enough ranting, I'll cut to the chase – The Wind Rises is probably one of the most beautiful and poignant films I've ever had the pleasure of viewing. I can see why some think the film is much too idealized in relation to the real events – I agree to an extent, but I must argue that recounting the brutalities of war isn't really the intention. The pacifist message still gets across clearly, but this time, almost as a letter addressed to himself, Miyazaki has written something fraught with contradictions and ironies. It's no secret that Miyazaki is obsessed with the idea of soaring through the sky and the mechanics of flying, so it's no surprise the character (a highly fictionalized version of Jiro Horikoshi) he chose to represent his last film would be an aeronautics engineer. Almost vicariously, Miyazaki tells the world of his own dreams and nightmares through Jiro. 

As I already said, The Wind Rises presents us with highly contradictory messages and I believe it's very much intended to be that way. As an airplane enthusiast, it has always been Jiro's dream to become an aeronautics engineer and luckly, he is not only passionate but also extremely gifted. The film takes us through the major events leading up to WWII following Jiro's footsteps – the Great Kanto Earthquake, the economic depression and the tuberculosis epidemic, all which contribute to the rise of imperialist sentiments in Japan. Jiro is tasked to design a fighter aircraft capable of carrying out bomb-operations and he complies knowing full well the kind of destruction his works will wreak. But in a way, the endeavour is an innocent one as he indulges his dreams to build something beautiful. In Honjo's words, they are engineers, not arms merchants. This is of course warped logic and a process of desensitization fostered by an attempt to justify one's actions. It is the truth and at the same time not the truth. The wind is rising we must try to live – sometimes the current of history simply carries you towards a destination you know to be doomed but you have little power to deny it. Jiro never intended to design bombers but passenger aircrafts like the ones Count Caproni showed him in his dream. Count Caproni, Jiro's dream-guide and inspiration, embodies his most untainted ideals and ambitions that starkly juxtaposes the war efforts of his waking hours.

There is a detail in the movie those who don't read Kanji (Chinese) would miss – the newspaper wrapper has the words "上海事变" printed across it. It's an important event that marks one of first major conflicts between Japan and China on Chinese soil, specifically in Shanghai. Japan dropped bombs and marched troops into the city. I find it to be an interesting sight – and a testament to Miyazaki's penchant for tiny details.

I've read reviews that argued for an apparent lack of internal conflict in Jiro, but I don't think that's entirely true. His dreams are not without their share of nightmares. We see images of planes crashing to the ground, the debris and vestiges of the beautiful things that were moments ago gliding through the sky. And we see images of bombs being dropped, which would eventually come true with the completion of the Zero carrier fighter. It's a dreamscape, beautiful and ominous in equal measures, and an alternate reality foreshadowing what's to come.

Similarly, Jiro's love life doesn't enjoy a smooth ride either. With an impending war as the background to their blossoming love, it doesn't come as a big surprise that it meets a tragic end. We find yet another dilemma in Naoko's illness. Jiro intends to keep her by his side because she doesn't have much time left, yet her situation is exacerbated without proper care. In a sense, Naoko's failing health echoes the bigger picture where Japan is about to instigate a war that would bring nothing but misery and deep scars. Eventually Naoko leaves Jiro to die alone because she wants him to remember her as she was. Like the air crafts sent into the war on bombing missions, Naoko would never return. The romance is incredibly moving partly because it's destined to end prematurely. There is beauty in melancholy indeed.

A Miyazaki film never loses its innocence and childlike wonder, The Wind Rises is no different, except it has a much more sinister coating than anything Miyazaki has done before. The entire film sits on the irony that the ingenuity of modern civilization, the symbolism of advancements, is used to commit the most uncivilized and monstrous offenses. Neither those accusing him of glorifying war nor those condemning him of being a traitor really understood the intention of the film. The one thing one could argue for is that the film does construct a war image that is cold and distant when details of the real war are much more human and intimate. Wars are terrifying not because of the abstract number of casualty we often obsess over, but the senseless killing, raping, torturing of the individuals and the complete disregard for human dignity.

At the end of the day, The Wind Rises is a very personal film. It's Miyazaki's most sincere confession of the dilemma he feels for weapon technology. Contemplative, woeful and hauntingly beautiful in so many aspects, the film speaks volumes of Miyazaki's ability as a director and who he is as person. I am not going to spend much time talking about the exquisite visuals and vivid palette – it's a Ghibli film, I don't think anybody expects otherwise. That said, I'm still extremely impressed by the timing, pacing, and amazing camera works. The alternation between the dream sequence and reality reminds me of Satoshi Kon's films and the effects are incredibly powerful in setting up the the major themes. And as always, Myazaki works so much emotional nuances into the character interactions, specifically between Jiro and Naoko. No suffocating melodrama, no overacting, just a simple, earnest love shared by two people in an unsettling time. I actually think The Wind Rises actually leaves us at an optimistic place despite the many concerns it expresses. No matter how harrowing the environment we live in is, there is beauty and power in the simple dreams we have.

Well, here is a round of applause for the old master. I don't think Ghibli will ever be the same again without Miyazaki as the main creative engine. A well deserved retirement of course, but it's nevertheless a little sad to see him go. For many years ahead, it's no doubt I will revisit Miyazaki's films again and again to be enchanted, empowered and reminded of the innocent wonder we all carry with us, no matter how often we forget. 


  1. I can always expect you to enlighten your audience on concepts and ideologies that we haven't yet recognized when watching anime, and this review is no different.

    I had no idea about your grandparents' involvement WWII, though I suspect that might be due to the fact that anything I hear regarding those events only come from my mom. Asking my grandparents was highly advised against to avoid bringing up bad memories as well.

    It was such an interesting experience to watch Jiro grow as he travelled back and forth between the dream world lead by Caproni and the real world. Unfortunately, his dreams of building something beautiful was always viewed as lacking when it came to his superiors and fellow engineers. I remember a scene where, during a plane design lecture, he said that guns would weigh the plane down, and suggested taking that out of the equation. This caused a moment of silence, followed by a roar of laughter at how ridiculous it sounded. In that moment, I felt sorry for him because you could tell that he really just wanted to build planes for the sake of flying, not ones that would further facilitate war.

    As someone who can't read Chinese (I'm learning though!! I can read the first letter, which is a plus), I appreciate you bringing attention to the "上海事变." I'm almost 100% sure I missed it which is a shame, because it really does bring attention to Miyazaki's attention to detail.

    I didn't notice the connection between Naoko's failing health in relation to Japan preparing for a war, so good job on that. I might really need to re-watch it knowing this now. Sometimes you just get so into the story that things like this are missed because you're only seeing the big picture. I was crying out when Naoko had left Jiro's side because she wanted him to remember as she was. That was an incredibly touching scene, and I wholly agree with your sentiments; there definitely was beauty in that melancholy.

    Overall, my first time viewing of the movie wasn't as great as I had hoped considering all the hype that usually goes along with a Studio Ghibli release. However, after reading your review, I think I'm definitely going to give it a second try with a more enlightened point of view. In regards to Miyazaki's retirement, I think it's safe to say that the pressure is on for his son to continue the legacy of his father. There's still hope yet!!

    "Le vent se lève!... Il faut tenter de vivre!"

    "The wind is rising!... We must try to live!"

    1. Aww sis, I appreciate the long ass comment. Yeah, it is very different than his past films, so I'm not surprised it wasn't as great as you expected first time viewing. I had only negative expectation going that's possible. But that also means I was actively looking for messages. If all the movies Miyazaki previous wrote/directed are more or less for the audience, then The Wind Rises is a movie made for himself. He really took this opportunity to tell the world his most intimate thoughts as someone brought up in a imperialistic, war-crazed era.

      Yeah, the debriefing session of his drafts is one of the most memorable scenes for me too! You can definitely see he actually meant it's sad to see the reaction he got, really goes to show there is an acute mental disconnect between what they are designing and the aftermath of war.

      Aww man..Naoko and Jiro share so many breathtaking moments. I especially love their first meeting and the scene where they meet again as he catches her umbrella. So perfectly executed. You just have to love Miyazaki in those moments.

      To be honest, I'm yet to be convinced by Miyazaki's son....I've seen both of his films (Earthsea and Poppy Hill) and I reserve my opinion that he's a bit form over substance in my opinion. The emotional core is just missing. The director of Whisper of the Heart had the best chance to succeed Miyazaki, but he passed away from illness after Whisper of the Heart, it's his first and last directory work. Very unfortunate..=(