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Andrew Osmond on the controversy of Miyazaki’s last feature

The Wind Rises (showing this week on Film Four) is the final film by Hayao Miyazaki (unless he changes his mind). It’s also his most unusual, judged against the other ten anime features he’s directed, from Castle of Cagliostro in 1979 to Ponyo in 2008. The Wind Rises is a biopic; though heavily fictionalised, it’s about a real man (Jiro Horikoshi) who played a key role in developing aeroplanes in the early twentieth century. You could double-bill it with Martin Scorsese’s live-action The Aviator, where Leonardo DiCaprio played a young Howard Hughes, similarly driving the plane industry forward with the force of his obsession. But whereas The Aviator was an all-American story, The Wind Rises shows the industry from the Japanese side – and hence it’s controversial.

For the protagonist, Horikoshi, wasn’t just an artist dreaming of building better planes. As Miyazaki’s film itself makes clear, Horikoshi was a cog in Japan’s military machine at the time of the country’s most aggressive expansion. This was when Japan was moving into China, proclaiming what it called the “Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere,” which really meant Japanese imperialist supremacy in East Asia. The Chinese incursion led to slaughter in the city of Nanking in December 1937. There were many more massacres and atrocities committed by Japanese soldiers through Asia over the following years, up to Japan’s defeat by the Allies in 1945.  And these soldiers, directly or indirectly, were helped by the planes Horikoshi was inventing.

The Wind Rises has caused anger because the film never acknowledges this, or only in the most oblique ways. Horikoshi is shown to be completely uninterested in how his planes are being used; his attitude is that it’s just not his problem. Of course, portraying such an attitude is not endorsing it. Whatever the real, historical, Horikoshi thought, his attitude in the film seems perfectly plausible, the attitude of a gifted but otherwise ordinary person, disinclined to think much about what was happening hundreds of miles overseas. (And needless to say, the Japanese wartime media wouldn’t boast about what its soldiers were doing to helpless civilians in the name of the Rising Sun.)

The argument, though, is whether this justifies how Miyazaki chooses to tell Hirokoshi’s story. In 2013, Inkoo Kang, a film commentator, read out a statement to the Boston Film Critics’ Society. “The Japanese Imperial Army killed 30 million people — a fact that is barely alluded to by the film,” Kang said. She detailed some of the army’s worst crimes, accusing nearly every Japanese prime minister of “minimising or wholly denying” these crimes. Then she turned to The Wind Rises.

“Miyazaki’s film is wholly symptomatic of Japan’s postwar attitude toward its history,” Kang claimed, “which is an acknowledgement of the terribleness of war and a wilful refusal to acknowledge its country’s role in that terribleness… (Horikoshi’s) planes were used to ‘pacify’ Japan’s Korean colony and invade China, the Philippines, and Vietnam, and many other countries, including, of course, the U.S.  To me, the fact that the film glosses over the true purpose of those planes — and never mentions the fact that those planes were built by Chinese and Korean slave labor — is morally egregious. To me, the beauty of Miyazaki’s film is eclipsed by its moral irresponsibility.”

Kang added in the Village Voice that, “It’s hard to believe that, were The Wind Rises set in an interwar Germany and focused on an idealistic dreamer who just wanted to design the world’s most beautiful U-boat and didn’t care a whit about the concentration camps, it would receive a similarly adoring reception here in the U.S. … The Wind Rises is just one film, but it echoes an entire country’s obsession with misremembering a deeply painful and extraordinarily violent past… (It) ends the illustrious career of a treasured visionary on a repellent, disgraceful note.”

Kang’s argument is one from context. On this line, The Wind Rises cannot be regarded in a vacuum as a romantic portrait of an artist, but must be set against the history of Japan’s war crimes – still in living memory – and Japan’s denial of those crimes. It’s a form of argument than many people would accept for other films. For example, the Hollywood 300 flicks are ostensibly far further removed from the real world than Wind Rises, but many pundits argue they still reflect Western racism and jingoism against the Middle East. And ‘context’ arguments have been used against a Ghibli film before.

Before The Wind Rises, the only Ghibli film which dealt directly with World War II was Grave of the Fireflies, directed by Isao Takahata. It’s about two young Japanese children struggling to survive in World War II, and is frequently acclaimed as one of the greatest anime films ever made. But it’s also been criticised – for example, in the UK magazine Manga Max, and in numerous online forums – for contributing to an image of the Japanese as helpless victims of World War II.

Of course, children suffered terribly in Japan during the war, as kids do in any war. Indeed, the specific story in Grave of the Fireflies was based to some extent on real events. But, to paraphrase Kahn above, Fireflies may be just one film, but does it reflect a trend in how Japan represents World War II? The Anime Encyclopedia notes that many of the anime dramas about the war years similarly focus on helpless, innocent Japanese children, with no real discussion of why the conflict started. Examples include Kayoko’s Diary, Raining Fire and Rail of the Star.

And for a counter-example which actually strengthens the argument, there’s Barefoot Gen. This was a manga written by Keiji Nakazawa; like Fireflies, it’s a fiction based on the author’s real terrible experiences, for Nakazawa experienced the A-bomb destruction of Hiroshima. But while that horror was perpetrated by the Allies, Gen’s protagonists openly and bluntly lays the blame for Japan’s suffering at the door of Japan’s government. The Emperor Hirohito, who we’ve discussed in connection with the war before, is denounced by the protagonists as a murderer. The Gen manga also depicts horrors wrought by Japanese soldiers on the people of neighbouring countries.

Result: there have been frequent and repeated calls to withdraw Barefoot Gen from Japanese schools, amid claims that it’s ideologically biased or that it portrays atrocities which didn’t happen. (You can read news reports here, here, and here, all within the last couple of years). Such examples, of course, do not prove Kang’s much broader claims about present-day Japan’s “obsessions” and “attitudes,” if indeed they’re capable of proof at all. Reportedly, Barefoot Gen actually had a surge in sales in Japan when the controversy broke out. Moreover, few countries dwell on the sufferings they inflict on foreigners in wartime. American Vietnam films, for example, usually focus on how terrible the war was for US soldiers, not for the ordinary Vietnamese.

Returning to The Wind Rises, Kang’s general objection to the film was also shared by other critics, even if they used more moderate wording. The Guardian’s Xan Brooks, for example, found Miyazaki’s film “gorgeous yet ultimately frustrating… It turns out that it is not always possible to view the beauty in isolation. Sometimes you need to take a long, hard look at the outside world and then perhaps connect the two… (Miyazaki) so clearly admires his subject (Horikoshi) that he never truly stoops to question his vision or hold his man to account.” Nick James, editor of the film magazine Sight and Sound, described The Wind Rises as “Hayao Miyazaki’s paean to aircraft design (and perhaps unintentionally the Japanese imperial project).”

But in an argument based on context, perhaps some comments by Miyazaki himself could enlighten, even though they weren’t actually made about The Wind Rises. As many Miyazaki fans know, the director has a family connection to the Japanese aeroplane industry. Back in the 1940s, Miyazaki Airplane was run by Hayao’s uncle, while his father was an ‘officer’ of the company. Miyazaki’s book Starting Point includes a brief essay on his dad (“My Old Man’s Back”), written in 1995. It’s extremely interesting in light of the film Hayao would make two decades later.

“During the Pacific War, (my father) headed the factory, making parts for military planes,” Miyazaki wrote. “He had absolutely no interest in just causes or the fate of the state. For him, the only concern was how his family would survive.” Miyazaki describes his father as dissolute, a playboy, who “never once said anything particularly lofty or inspiring.”

Yet while Miyazaki looked at his dad as a bad example while he was alive, he identifies with him after his death. “I have inherited my old man’s anarchistic feelings and his lack of concern about embracing contradictions. Recently, I have come to think that there must have been quite a few people who, like my old man, behaved irresponsibly during the war. There may have been quite a bit of realism among the lower strata of society… that couldn’t be fully summarised by the words militarism and nationalism.”

What comes through in these words is Miyazaki’s new-found sympathy with a person and worldview that he had previously found only contemptible. Of course, sympathy is why many people like Miyazaki’s storytelling. Famously, he often creates complex supporting characters who are more than simple villains. In the Nausicaa manga, for example, the female general Kushana is explicitly presented as a war criminal, who “mercilessly slaughtered noncombatants – women, children, the old.” And yet she’s still capable of good as well as evil. (There are similar figures in the non-Miyazaki Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood, which we’ve previously speculated might be referring to Japanese war crimes in disguise.)

It’s also worth noting Miyazaki’s comment about embracing contradictions. Both Inkoo Kang and Xan Brooks pick up on a line in The Wind Rises, spoken by Giovanni Caproni, an Italian aviation designer who guides Hirokoshi through his dreams of flight. From his first appearance, Caproni acknowledges that the dream of flight is “cursed,” yoked to the foul reality of war. However, he declares that he prefers a world of pyramids to one without. As with a number of other moments in the film, it’s possible to take this different ways. What does Caproni mean? Is the film ‘endorsing’ him? The pyramids were built on the bodies of countless slaves, and many of the planes which Jiro designed were built using Chinese and Korean forced labour. Caproni seems to dismiss this, and Miyazaki doesn’t telegraph that he disagrees.

But then, if we’re looking at Wind Rises in the context of history and politics, shouldn’t we also add in the context of Miyazaki’s previous works? Miyazaki has denounced human hubris often enough in the past. In Laputa, the title flying island is itself a kind of pyramid, a wonder of technology and a fabulous human achievement (“Laputa’s power is the dream of all mankind!” boasts the villain). In the last chapters of the manga Nausicaa, the human achievement is even greater, while the adversary’s “end-justifies-the-means” speech sounds much nobler. “When our knowledge and technology have served their purpose, it will surely be music and poetry that humanity treasures above all else.”

Both characters sound rather like Caproni… and in both cases, Miyazaki’s protagonists respond with resounding “Nevers!”, before setting about unmaking their stories’ respective ‘pyramids.’ At the end of Laputa, we see what the flying island is like when it’s thrown off the shackles of war; a pure ideal of peace, matching the wonderful peacetime passenger planes which Caproni hopes will ultimately fill the skies in Wind Rises. But that’s no justification of his ‘pyramid’ sentiment.

And in Wind Rises itself, there seems to be a subtle script counterpoint to Caproni’s philosophy. The script has references to Hugo Junkers, a German aircraft engineer, and a pacifist who opposed the Nazis commandeering his work; he was forced out of his company and died soon after. No-one in the film suggests to Jiro that he should be as principled; but then perhaps Miyazaki is letting us consider that for ourselves.

None of this amounts to what Kang clearly thinks is needed in a portrait of a man like Horikoshi; that is, a forthright acknowledgement of the war crimes to which he contributed. In her article, Kang suggests that “pussyfooting around war crimes is the only strategy Miyazaki had at his disposal to avoid being dismissed by his domestic audience as silly or inappropriate.” This is possible… except that Miyazaki didn’t do much pussyfooting when Wind Rises was going out on release in Japan. It was exactly the time, you might think, when any prudent-minded film director would keep his mouth shut about politics. On the contrary, Miyazaki said – in a print article – much of what Kang had wanted him to say within the film. According to the Japan Times, which paraphrased Miyazaki’s article from a Ghibli-published magazine:

Upon learning what the Imperial Japanese Army had done in China, (Miyazaki) wrote that he felt ‘hatred against Japan’ and was ashamed to be born in a country that would do such horrendous acts. While noting that Japan wasn’t the only country to invade China, Miyazaki said this hardly justified what it did to its neighbours. The government should apologize and pay compensation for its wartime crimes, including against the ‘comfort women,’ [women enslaved into prostitution by the Japanese army] and also propose a peaceful way to resolve territorial disputes with its neighbours, (Miyazaki) said.”

When interviewed about The Wind Rises, Miyazaki’s comments were more abstract, if not evasive. Talking to Animation World Network, he said, “I never wanted to create a film where you can easily say ‘This is yes’ or ‘This is no’ or it’s easy to put the ‘X’ in a circle. Things are way more difficult and complex. History is as well. We can’t easily just say ‘Yes’ or “No’ to how we look at things.” Miyazaki also spoke of the “purity” of the film Jiro’s soul, comparing him – provocation ahoy! – to the heroic Fukushima 50. But in another interview (referenced here), Miyazaki was plainer spoken. “Jiro Horikoshi was the most gifted man of his time, in Japan. He wasn’t thinking about weapons. Ultimately, he made high-tech destroyers, but really all he desired was to make exquisite planes.”

Perhaps for Hayao Miyazaki, that’s really all there is to say about why he made Wind Rises the way he did.

The Wind Rises is showing on Film Four on 7th February.

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