In today’s era of global box offices, few studio films are made for just one country, especially by a director of Hayao Miyazaki’s international stature. But the beloved animator’s latest and last work, The Wind Rises, is a film whose meaning and power vary so greatly in different cultural and geographical contexts that Miyazaki should have fought for it to never leave his homeland.
The Wind Rises is custom-made for postwar Japan, a nation that has yet to acknowledge, let alone apologize for, the brutality of its imperial past. Nearly 70 years after Emperor Hirohito’s surrender, the Japanese military and medical institutions’ greatest evils, like the orchestration of mass rape, the use of slave labor, and experimentation on live and conscious human beings, remain absent from school textbooks. Japan scholar Hanna McGaughey, a personal friend, has stated in private conversations 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.” Indeed, some of his fellow citizens have already accused Miyazaki of being a “traitor” and “anti-Japanese.”
But there’s no reason why critics and audiences outside of Japan should be morally complacent in the animator’s concessions to his countrymen’s egos. The Wind Rises perpetuates Japanese society’s deliberate misremembering and rewriting of history, which cast the former Empire of the Rising Sun as a victim of World War II, while glossing over — or in some cases completely ignoring — the mass death and suffering its military perpetrated. Critics who fail to observe or protest Miyazaki’s “pussyfooting” around a regime that caused more deaths than the Holocaust aid and abet Japan’s continued whitewashing of its war crimes.
In The Wind Rises, Miyazaki uses real-life aircraft engineer Jiro Horikoshi as an extreme example of ordinary Japanese citizens’ indifference to the atrocities committed in their name. Jiro, as he’s referred to in the film, finds such beauty in airplanes and flight that he feverishly pursues the next level of killing machines for Mitsubishi, justifying his work by comparing his planes to the pyramids. The reference to the pharaohs might allude to the fact that Mitsubishi used Chinese and Korean slave labor to build Jiro’s Zero planes. But the character never considers whether the slaves who died making those pyramids might not believe the results were worth their lives.
Jiro represents the moral myopia of the imperial Japanese citizenry and of the aesthete. His shortsightedness is quite literally symbolized by his Harry Potter-esque glasses, which, paired with his lavender suits, make him look perpetually youthful and innocent. (Yes, he’s animated, but his boss appears much older and his friend Honjo less boyish.) Like most biopics, The Wind Rises is guilty of a bit of hagiography. Early in the film, Jiro is a good Samaritan who rescues a little girl from a train wreck. But his goodness and innocence have a pathological purity to them, too, as illustrated by his devoted but sexless marriage to his sickly wife. It’s that dedication to an ideal of “purity” — whether it be of aesthetics, nationalism, or ethnicity — that Miyazaki subtly condemns in his film.
But The Wind Rises declines to challenge mainstream Japanese society’s distortions and denials of its wartime atrocities. Worse, it echoes Japan’s morally dishonest stance that it was a victim, rather than a perpetrator, of a global war — a whitewashed version of history that the film now imports to every country where it plays.
Consider the first scene. Jiro is a young boy; in his dreams, he heads for the skies in a wooden aircraft. A constellation of black dots appears above him, soon revealed to be a hangar’s worth of missiles and bombs. They dangle from a zeppelin embossed with the Iron Cross. The explosives fall on Jiro, reducing his plane to splinters.
The rest of the film is suffused with this fear of German aggression, and it’s an ethically mendacious choice of a bogeyman on Miyazaki’s part. In The Wind Rises, the alliance between Germany and Japan — the original Axis of Evil — is conveniently forgotten, as scene after scene shows the Japanese bombarded by Teutonic suspicion, condescension, and hostility. Reframing the Japanese as the victims of Nazi racism deflects attention from the heinousness of the Japanese Imperial Army. But Miyazaki’s elevation of his own countrymen as morally loftier to the Nazis is only credible when the viewer forgets (or is unaware) that the Japanese military justified killing 30 million people across Asia with its own ideology of ethnic superiority.
The Wind Rises continues this blame evasion throughout, evincing an ideal of pacifism while positioning Japan as the target of Chinese and American assault. We see Japanese planes downed by a Chinese foe in a mid-film reverie — a shockingly insensitive image given that Japan was invading China during this time, not the other way around. Later, an American bomber floats above a graveyard of burned-out aircraft over the defeated Japanese empire. In contrast, no Japanese pilot is ever seen shooting at an enemy, even though Jiro’s most famous invention, the Zero plane, was designed and used solely for military purposes. The consequences of his work — that is, corpses — are likewise absent. In the film, Jiro never expresses sympathy for the people his people killed. His grief is strictly reserved for the deaths of his planes. His preference to mourn his Zeros, rather than the planes’ victims, illustrates his soft-handed callousness. The bloodlessness of the film contributes to its whitewashing of an incredibly bloody history.
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No surprise, then, that The Wind Rises has already created an uproar among South Koreans (who haven't yet seen the film), arguably the biggest recipients of Japan’s 40-year colonial cruelty (1905-1945). The Wind Rises’ specious pose of self-victimization will and should disgust the living survivors and their descendants in the myriad other countries Japan invaded during World War II: China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia; the list goes on.
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. (At the time of writing, the film enjoys a 82 percent “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes and has appeared on several best-of-year lists.) One would hope that critics who aren’t suffering from Japan’s culture of mass delusion about its war crimes would take into consideration the warped version of history Miyazaki has to accommodate and, to a large extent, perpetuates.
The Wind Rises is just one film, but it echoes an entire country’s obsession with misremembering a deeply painful and extraordinarily violent past. Japan’s wartime victimhood is a convenient lie its citizens have told themselves for decades. That the aging Miyazaki has misguidedly lent a patina of wistful beauty to that lie is a shame. The Wind Rises ends the illustrious career of a treasured visionary on a repellent, disgraceful note.
Follow Inkoo Kang on Twitter at @thinkovision.