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The Wind Rises

More 'Springtime for Hitler' than 'Empire of the Sun'

(Edit) 11/04/2021

I love Studio Ghibli, and especially Hiyao Miyazaki's work, and was looking forward to this film. It promised much, given his background in the world of flying (his father ran a factory that made aircraft parts for Mitsubishi), and his love for Japanese culture joined with a searching moral critique of his country’s failings, all of which combined to such powerful effect in Spirited Away. But politically, and therefore morally, this film is a cop out.

As usual with Studio Ghibli the animation is excellent and the painterly backgrounds are stunning, evoking in minute detail the world of Taisho and early Showa Japan, with its surreal mix of traditional Japanese culture and modern industrial Western influence, a society on the move. The depiction of traditional Japanese interiors and middle-class domestic life, above all in the marriage scene, is deeply beguiling. At the same time it's not hard to sympathise with his hero Jiro Horikoshi and his colleagues wanting to build a modern Japan that could hold its head up high among the western nations and not be humiliated by them.

Horikoshi’s story is a fictionalised account of the brilliant engineer whose masterpiece was the Mitsubishi Zero, the fighter plane that dominated the skies in the earlier stages of the war in the Pacific. He is depicted here as a driven yet amiable geek who is politically naïve. He has a vision of beautiful flying machines and the application, tact with colleagues, knowledge and attention to detail to make it come true. Yet, despite promptings from a mysterious German who may be a spy, he doesn’t seem to grasp his central role in the unfolding catastrophe that is Imperial Japan entering into an aggressive empire-building war and the commission of unspeakable atrocities.

The trouble is, the film doesn’t really speak openly about them, either. The only scenes of war that it shows are brief ones of Japanese bomber aircraft over China, being attacked by a Chinese fighter, and of US bombers raising a firestorm in a Japanese city as the war draws to a close. Neither are Horikoshi’s beloved Zeros. Of the rest of the war, nothing, not even a mention of Pearl Harbor.

I’m sure Miyazaki is acutely aware of this shortcoming, but feared that public opinion in his country was (still) not ready for a fuller and more honest reckoning with its past. Try to imagine a German counterpart of this, a romantic family film about, say, Wernher von Braun, the visionary designer of the V2 rocket. It’s unthinkable: the Germans have worked on their painful modern history and brought it into the open, which is how they are able to share a continent peacefully with their neighbours. Japan, it seems, still has much work to do.

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