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The world has been ending for as long as Miyazaki can remember.
Born amid the second world war, his earliest memories are of displacement at the behest of violence. In 1944 he and his family were evacuated to Utsunomiya for their safety, he was three years old. A year later Utsunomiya was leveled by Allied bombing. In the aftermath, Miyazaki and his family moved again.
“I would have become a patriotic young man if I had been born just a bit earlier”, said Miyazaki in an interview for the Asia-Pacific Journal, “If I had been born a lot earlier, I would have volunteered to fight and died on the battlefield”. But he wasn’t, and he didn’t. And even if he had been old enough, his eyesight was poor. No one would ever have trusted him to fly a plane or shoot a gun. If he had served, it would have been to make propaganda art, a thought that by age four he found unconscionable: “When I was a child, I felt strongly that Japan fought a stupid war.”
That anti-war ideology is constant across his filmography, appearing as often as pro-environmental themes. The only thing more constant across his films is aircraft in all forms, helicopters, gyrocopters, gliders, zeppelins, and, of course, airplanes. They appear in all but one of his feature films, Princess Mononoke the exception. Their constancy underlines Miyazaki’s complicated relationship with, well, existing. Airplanes are tied to war and destruction. They’re also symptoms of industrialism and environmental decay. They embody the side of humanity he detests most. Despite that, he has had a lifelong obsession with them. His first drawings were not of people but airplanes.
The same is true of Jiro Horikoshi, the protagonist of The Wind Rises. Like Miyazaki, Jiro dreams of flying from an early age. The film’s opens with Jiro’s adolescent fantasy of flight. He launches a tiny plane from the roof of his own home. The motor sputters into life, he pistons fuel into the engine manually, and the airplane hiccups into the air. For a few seconds, he glides over provincial Japan, above small villages, and around newly erected factory smokestacks. But even unbridled fantasy is not immune to war; an airship marked with the Axis cross floats into view and drops a payload of bombs. Jiro’s poor eyesight slows his reaction, he fails to dodge in time. The bombs tear through the skin of his plane, ripping off the wings and shredding the fuselage. Jiro plummets back to earth. And then he wakes up.
Miyazaki is not unambiguous in the parallels he draws between himself and Jiro. They are both shortish, quietish, and well-mannered; they are both fervently dedicated to their work, often at the expense of every other facet of their lives; and they both wear enormous coke-bottle glasses on account of their near-sightedness, the affliction that prevents either from piloting the aircraft they love. Unable to pilot, they both turn to illustration. Miyazaki would draw manga and later pivot into animation. Jiro, the real man upon which the film version is based, became an engineer. He was instrumental in the design of the Mitsubishi A6M Zero, the fighter plane for which Miyazaki’s father’s company (Miyazaki Airplane) would produce the rudders during the second world war. They share an inexorable link; aircraft is their lineage and warfare their heritage.
It’s no secret that The Wind Rises is Miyazaki’s most personal film, something of a self-portrait told through the lens of a fictionalized biography. The opening dream sequence feels especially incisive. Even in fantasy, Jiro cannot fly the plane, and the object of beauty will eventually succumb to the call of war. For Jiro, for Miyazaki, the airplane will always be entropy masquerading as sublimity. From that disparity is born a deep-rooted nihilism, no one is more critical of the craft of animation than Miyazaki. In the documentary, The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness, while painting storyboards for The Wind Rises, Miyazaki asks, “Can you feel my pent-up rage?”
In the documentary, he goes on to trivialize his work, calling it a futile venture. This is nothing new; in interviews, he is openly critical of his career, his medium, his industry, his acolytes. That Jiro is voiced by Hideaki Anno is especially telling. They two men are contemporaries, equally influential in the realms of anime—Anno was the showrunner for Neon Genesis Evangelion, a program for which Studio Ghibli animated an episode. They share a workmanlike approach to their craft, and that craft happens to be one they openly detest.
Despite that fact they—Jiro, Anno, Miyazaki— continue to gravitate to their work, incapable of ever truly leaving the easel behind; Miyazaki has retired multiple times, including after the release of The Wind Rises. Every time he finds himself returning to the craft, promising that his next film will be his last. He exists in a constant tension between futility and creation, but creation always triumphs. This is perhaps best encapsulated in a 2005 interview for The Guardian where he said:
“Personally I am very pessimistic… But when, for instance, one of my staff has a baby you can’t help but bless them for a good future. Because I can’t tell that child, ‘Oh, you shouldn’t have come into this life.’ And yet I know the world is heading in a bad direction. So with those conflicting thoughts in mind, I think about what kind of films I should be making.”
Since his The Wind Rises retirement, Miyazaki has unretired. Toshio Suzuki, the producer of every Miyazaki film sans Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro, has said that he came out of retirement for his grandson. The film (titled How Do You Live?) is a letter from Miyazaki to him, his way of saying “Grandpa is moving onto the next world soon but he is leaving this film behind because he loves you.” That reasoning is paralleled neatly by the epigraph that frames The Wind Rises (and inspired the title), an excerpt taken from the Paul Valéry poem, ‘The Graveyard by The Sea’: “The wind is rising, we must try to live!”
While the film on a whole is a meditation on this notion, it is most pronounced in the three dream sequences that sit at the beginning, middle, and end. In each, Jiro is visited by Giovanni Battista Caproni, an Italian aeronautical engineer. He, like Jiro, would make bombers for the Axis Powers during World War Two. His passion, however, lay in the Noviplano, a giant transatlantic seaplane that never made it past the prototype stage. It was in the pursuit of this dream that he found passion.
“I just want to create beautiful airplanes”, Jiro tells him. Disciples to the religion of flight, they live only to build airplanes. But they are dragged to the ground by the moral mire of reality. The only place they can freely design their creations, the place that wants them, is with the military. In the dream, a model of Jiro’s perfect glider swoops alongside himself and Caproni. He reaches up and urges it with a gentle push, onward and upward, lifting beyond his grasp as quickly as he got a hold of it.
“Bravo”, admires Caproni “A beautiful plane”. There’s melancholy in the wonder. He knows as well as Jiro that the airplane, once made, will become a weapon of war. Together they watch the glider soar higher into the unattainable heavens. To achieve flight all unnecessary weight must be shed; the joy of creation cannot co-exist with self-examination. An airplane is beautiful, but they are also “cursed dreams, waiting for the sky to swallow them up.”
Jiro says that the Japanese Zero Fighter will be his last creation. After it’s completion he will retire. But like Miyazaki, that is far from the truth. Later in life, he would design the YS-11, an airliner plane. The film does not cover that later period of design, but the knowledge that Jiro cannot retire for good hangs over the film. To attempt to create beautiful things may be a futile endeavor—Miyazaki certainly thinks so. But try as he might he cannot stop.
The Wind Rises is his manifesto, his reconciliation irreconcilable truths—for airplanes are both the harbinger of the destruction against which Miyazaki has spent his life to fighting against, but they are also the object of his dreaming. Through reconciliation we find a space between desires and reality, a space to create, to love, to live. And even in midst of death, we are in life.