Sunday, March 23, 2014

The Wind Rises for Miyazaki’s and Studio Ghibli’s Latest Work

I have been a fan of Hayao Miyazaki’s imaginative and evocative films for years.  This is a movie about aviation history, dreams, and perseverance.   This film won’t please most western viewers as the love story is subservient and underscoring to the love of aircraft.  It’s a message more about sacrifice for a dream and not about personal wishes or comfort.  Also the film does not hold your hand through Japanese history and explains little about the nuance of the times.  You the viewer are expected to have at least a modicum of background in Japanese history and culture or have some difficulty following the significance of events.  This film cuts the viewer no slack with helpful voiceovers or titles.

In a world of historical horror films like 300 and Pompeii, The Wind Rises is a fresh, although partly fictional look at the life of one of Japan’s top aircraft designers as seen through the lens of a short story.  The Wind Has Risen was written by Tatsuo Hori (who wrote the original story in 1936-1937) about the Japanese aircraft designer Jiro Horikoshi, then it was re-imagined by Miyazaki by way of his manga, and finally in an animated film by Miyazaki as a Studio Ghibli animated film.  Interestingly this is the third film adaptation of the Tatsuo Hori story, but sadly I can find no information about the two earlier films.  I would appreciate a read to help me out with the names and information.  Hopefully they still exist.
Miyazaki tries to dispel some of the moral ambiguity or mute the rising ambivalence of the time, but truly it’s not his place to redeem or explain the past, just to tell the story at hand:  Japan’s attempt to push into the modern world from the tottering bridge of the Taisho pro-western period to the militant and expansive Showa.  In the film, Japan’s role in aggression and the rise of the fascist state with the secret police is only touched upon, but again it is about a few individuals and not the larger slate of happenings.  

I have not yet located an English translation of the original story, The Wind Has Risen, nor any information of the two previous film versions, so I can only look at this version as a stand-alone in the shadow of history.   I do remember seeing a silent film about early Japanese aviation and the bombing of Tsingtao, (now only remembered in the US as a place that beer is made)  but I saw it decades ago and I have not been able to find the name of that dimly remembered film.  Any help out there would be appreciated.

With that lengthy preamble over with, I’d like to address the film itself.  The Wind Rises shows a highly polished sensibility between photo-realism and 2d animation techniques so popular in Miyazaki’s works.  It has cinematography that is polarized between a cartoon style and photo-perfect, along with classic multi-plane effects, yet the two meld as a visual narration beyond words. 
Also let me say that the sound of this film is very important too.  The sound effects were crisp and the incidental sounds gave you a feeling of being there.  Interestingly most of the machine sounds (primarily aircraft) are made by human voices.The attention to detail is amazing both in images and in sound and creates something that allows you to forget this is an animation.  Like traditional Japanese koto music, the silences speak quite eloquently and the almost unnoticed incidental sounds really give you a feeling of spontaneity and reality.  The sound track is classically based and somewhat surprising with the expected anime sound track or a traditional Japanese historical sound track.  

Being historically based there is foreboding, prefiguring, and sense of doom, but with the strength to go on despite all adversity.  The film has substantial dream segments, which literally get inside the protagonist’s head so you can see his influences, primary of which is Giovanni Battista Caproni, the Italian aircraft designer.    He also later meets Hugo Junkers when his team was sent to Germany to study aircraft design there.  Much of this film takes place in Jiro’s head and in an unconscious state of dreaming.

Keep in mind, despite his idealism, Jiro Horikoshi designed military aircraft for the Japanese, ultimately creating the famous A6M Zero of WWII fame.  After all, this is not a western film, but a Japanese film so the standard formula of Greek tragedy just doesn’t fit.  What we westerners might see as a character flaw of sacrificing everything to a dream, is an ideal at least in midcentury Japan.  Sacrifice is a big deal in this movie as well as self-denial.  Westerners may not fully understand that most of the action is internal and often portrayed as within a dream. 
American attending this movie might have missed a lot of historical nuance such as the Great Earthquake of 1923, which scarred the Japanese psyche and eventually led to the drawing away from the West by Japan as well as the recession of 1926, both of which empowered the militarists and ultranationalists drive to power in Japan.  Darker forces are at work with the unnamed and feared (and unnamed) Japanese secret police, the Kempeitai and Miyazaki avoids the strong nationalist feelings that would be more typically found in a period work of the 1920s and 1930s. 

I wondered why this story was chosen by Miyazaki and a little digging yielded some interesting parallels between Miyazaki’s life experience and that of the protagonist.  Miyazaki’s mother died of tuberculosis and his father owned a aircraft subcontractor that eventually made rudder assemblies for the Zero.  Miyazaki’s works have always had a deep investment in flying, freedom, and idealism and this new work has it all.  This film was highly personal, traumatic, and rather insular for the average American viewer, but I am glad Miyazaki shared it with us.

     * Humans voicing mechanical devices has a long tradition, MelBlanc made the mechanical sounds on the Jack Benny Program (radio show) in the 1930s along with his other voice acting talents.

A few interesting facts about early Japanese aviation: 
 Caproni lived to 1950 and Horikoshi lived to 1982 and Hugo Junkers died back in 1935, never seeing the effects of WWII.  All three were pioneers of flight, but only Horikoshi was actually born IN the age of flight, but only just barely, because Horikoshi was born on 22 June 1903 and on the Wright Brothers’ first controlled powered flight was on 14 December 1903.  Note I used the term “controlled” because previously other folks managed to achieve a number of previous powered crashes, but little in the way of actual flight.  The Wright Brothers were the first to fully consider controllability over worries about a big enough engine to get a plane off the ground and they actually used scientific method and experimentation in addressing sustained controllable flight in heavier-than-air flight.  Imagine living in a time when people ran out of doors when a plane flew by or flocked to an open field because a plane set down there!
Japanese aviation history begins in December 1910, just seven years after Kittyhawk, with the first flight of an aircraft in Japan by Imperial Army Capt Yoshitoshi Tokugawa in a Henri Farman biplane

Japan, as an ally of the UK in WWI  against Germany, gained a number of important Pacific islands owned by Germany as well as a foothold in China.  They also had a carrier and aircraft.

Despite the late start Japan did have some aviation firsts: During the siege of Tsingtao, Japan had an aircraft that successfully attack land as sea targets as well a night-time bombing from the seaplane carrier Wakamiya.

Other information of interest:  

Jiro Horikoshi co-wrote a couple of  books about the A6M Zero:
    Zero! The Air War in the Pacific in World War II, from the Japanese Viewpoint by Masatake      
               Okurniva and Jiro Horikoshi 1979
   Zero! by Martin Caidin, Masatake Okumiya and Jiro Horikoshi, 1956

Epilogue:   I’m sorry I never got to meet Jiro Horikoshi nor Saburo Saki although it would have been possible.  We are losing historical persons every day, not just WWII vets.  You might be surprised to find who is still alive and living near you.  Make an effort to talk to living history some time, they need not have been mentioned in the history books and they may even believe they are forgotten.  Make their day and talk to one.

Update July 2014:  The expanded role of Japanese naval cooperation to the Allies in WWI was recently brought to my attention.  In WWI, the Japanese stationed forces in Malta and supported New Zealand forces in occupying German Samoa in August 1914.  So if this is of interest, this 26 page publication about the subject will be worth reading:

Update Sept 2014:  In the Wind Rises, the Japanese aviation contingent visits Weimar Republic era Germany to see the new Junkers G 38 wonder plane, which had its first flight in 1929.  Japan liked it and licensed the design to make the Ki-20 transport and then later as a bomber.  The Ki-20 first flew in 1932 and only six copies were made from 1931 to 1935.  There is still one Ki-20 in existence at the Tokorozawa Aviation Museum, Japan.
 Additional info on the Ki-20