Kaze Tachinu shares a visual vocabulary with the rest of Miyazaki, the glorious landscapes, liberated aerial swoopings, and blurring between the worlds of reality and dream. It adds a layer of intellectual intricacy and literary allusion (the title is from Paul Valéry), and irony so fanged I can't tell when I started bleeding. It's an incredibly uncomfortable masterpiece working on many levels, one of which is that ninety percent of it is uplifting, soothing, and funny in the best of Ghibli tradition. It seems to have managed to have offend both the left wing and the right wing in Japan, which is entirely as it should be.
The film calls itself a tribute to Jiro Horikoshi, who designed several of the most prominent Japanese fighter planes used during World War II. It is a tribute with an edge of fiction, in that everything about Horikoshi's personal and private life portrayed in the film turns out to have been made up, and it is, as I mentioned before, a tribute with more than a dash of the ironic.
Jiro Horikoshi's working life is portrayed as accurately as research would allow, and the film lingers with interest over his designs, over the designs by the Italian aircraft maker Caproni which inspired Horikoshi as a child, and over the designs by Hugo Junkers which secured Germany's place as an air power in the years entre deux guerres. We see Jiro's dreams about flight and planes, literally; the endless hours of labor he puts in at his office; the tests and retests and more retests yet again, the ways he tries to draw inspiration and lessons from nature and the ways he tries to learn from other countries' state-of-the-art technology. He is both a workaholic and an obsessive, a genius with a real and desperate vision, and the planes of his imagination fly at the height of Miyazaki's capacity for joy.
At the same time, when away from work Horikoshi is shown as a kind and absent man, capable of deep feeling but with almost no understanding of social referents outside his own milieu. He continuously tries to do the right thing, and he doesn't understand why everyone else doesn't just do that also. When, after the stock market crash of 1929, he tries to give street children food, he is genuinely confused when the girl in charge of the group reacts to him with fear and distrust, and then startled again when the friend he relates the incident to is not surprised.
The romance in the movie, Jiro and his eventual wife Naoko, is adorable and sweet (and contains the most direct reference to sex I suspect we will ever see in a Miyazaki film), poignant and passionate, and yet. And yet. She has tuberculosis. They criminally mishandle her health, because they cannot bear to be apart from one another. They fall into the genuinely sad position of doomed lovers, focused on the day-to-day, rejoicing in each moment they have together, not considering tomorrow or next year-- which might, not certainly but might, have been avoided if they had been willing to think about tomorrow or next year in the first place. Their pain is real, their suffering is great, but isn't it on some level easier to be beautifully, regretfully, tragically doomed than to try for a future, knowing that it may not come to pass no matter what you do?
Jiro's designs are funded by the Army, by the Navy. They are fighter planes, they are bombers. He always knows they are going to be used to kill other people. On some level, he believes he accepts this as the price of being allowed to do the work he does, and on some level, it simply isn't real to him. Even the pilots of his test designs aren't real to him-- the only one of them who gets any dialogue is the one who wants to compliment him on the plane. The Paul Valéry quote of the title reads, in English, 'The wind rises, and therefore it is time to live'. In Jiro's dreams, the wind keeps rising, and it brings with it fire and bombs and fear, but in his head those bombs are a natural disaster, simply brought on by the wind. In the outside world, his remark on the secret police of Hitler's Germany is a vague 'that shouldn't happen in a modern country', and when the secret police of his own nation briefly turn on him, it's an inconvenience that means he's forced to work from another location for a while. He never considers any risk to himself, and he never considers any risk to those who shelter him, because he cannot conceive of those things as real. If they're anything at all, they're part of the wind rising, and the wind is fate. In the face of the wind rising, his responsibility is to work and to love: fine, as far as it goes. That carries him through the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake with no problem, because that is a natural disaster.
But when the wind is war, then the regrettable fact is that war is caused by people, and the unwillingness to consider the use and disposition of one's labors in the face of war could be a failure of moral responsibility. Horikoshi never seems, for instance, to consider leaving Japan and seeking somewhere he could work in civilian-based airplane design, even though other nations are more technically advanced. This does not appear to be patriotic nationalism on his part so much as it is the desire to do brilliantly even from so far behind, but it enables the patriotic nationalism of others. Horikoshi has a beautiful dream. How defensible is that dream when it will be used to bomb civilian populations?
The thing that makes this film a masterpiece is that the dreams are that beautiful, the airplanes are that beautiful, the love is that great between Jiro and Naoko. There really is no one as good as Miyazaki at portraying sheer selfless joy and happiness, and here it's the happiness of young love between people who really are exactly perfect for one another and the happiness of a genius artist working at the absolute peak of his capacity to create art. The terrifying consequences are understated, slightly offscreen, because Jiro doesn't have to look at them, but they are borne in even more inescapably on the viewer whenever we see him being blind. Miyazaki is not trying to make a point as to whether these consequences are worth it for the world, or even as to whether they were worth it for Jiro. What Jiro might or might not have done if he were genuinely considering the consequences of his actions is a set of questions outside the scope of the movie, and it could be argued that an ethical person might well behave in exactly the same way. What Miyazaki is trying to say that it is always a mistake to think we are not part of the wind.
By way of footnote: the English dub cast does an even better job here than is traditional for Ghibli movies, which always get the best dubs in the business. Critical portions of dialogue are left in German and in Italian, which is appropriate, and sterling work by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Emily Blunt, Martin Short, and of all people Werner Herzog (playing a character from Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain, yet!) makes the film a joy to listen to. That said, there is a letter left untranslated when its text clearly appears in Japanese on the screen in a readable format, and it is somewhat plot-critical, and I am annoyed by that. Also, I desperately want to watch this film in Japanese, not just for the language choices, but because Horikoshi is played by Hideaki Anno, that Hideaki Anno, director of Neon Genesis Evangelion, and I really, really want to know what Anno makes of the role of an artist who is semi-wittingly hurting a whole lot of people, because that is a whole other meta-level of self-awareness and cutting irony that I always hoped Anno would reach* and genuinely never expected.
* To summarize a giant mess of things, Anno did not handle fan reaction well post-Evangelion and has stated in so many words that his intention with the film End of Evangelion was to hurt and alienate as many of his audience as he could because he figured they deserved it. It was pretty successful at that. Later on he showed some awareness of the kind of nastiness this had been on his part, but this role goes well beyond even that, and I respect him a lot for doing it.
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