Thoughts on life after the PhD
“Le vent se leve…il faut tenter de vivre. / The wind is rising. We must try to live.”
Kaze tachinu opens with a scene of breathtaking beauty–fog surrounding a traditional Japanese home in the countryside, an animated canvas of green, blue, and grey. As the “camera” moves into the house we see a young boy in a yukata lying beneath a mosquito net. Soon we’re treated to hypnotic images of Miyazaki’s signature fantastical flying machines. Like so much of Miyazaki’s work, Kaze tachinu could almost survive on its visuals alone. It’s a love letter to a lost Japan, a study in thatched-roof houses, bright green hills free of telephone wires and concrete, streetcars, brightly colored Morinaga caramel posters, and streets filled with kimono-clad women and fedora-wearing men walking side by side.
As the film moves forward, though, the idyllic countryside scenes are mixed with images of war and disaster. The film begins just before the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, an event that is depicted with shocking visuals that recall the bombing of Hiroshima and the more recent 2011 tsunami. While the main character is on a train, a shock wave sweeps across the landscape, rippling the train and the surrounding houses like water. Later, we see a wall of fire spreading through the city, and a completely decimated landscape of ash and burned buildings. Though its grimness is not at the level of Barefoot Gen or Grave of the Fireflies, Kaze tachinu never allows itself to stay whimsical or lighthearted for too long.
The film’s story is inspired by the real life of Jiro Horikoshi, the chief designer of the model zero fighter planes that carried kamikaze pilots during the Pacific War. Some fans have criticized Miyazaki for painting a romantic picture of a man who essentially designed weapons. Viewing the film, though, you don’t get the sense that Miyazaki is whitewashing history or glorifying the creation of weapons. Rather, Jiro Horikoshi is presented as an examination of whether an artist can ever be truly divorced from the world–whether he can simply create, or whether he has a responsibility to take part in the struggles that surround his creation.
As depicted by Miyazaki, Jiro is clearly a haunted figure. In his waking life he has only one focus–making planes. But in his dreams he wanders through war-torn landscapes and watches burning planes fall from the sky. Conversations between various characters in the film frequently pose (but do not answer) questions about whether anyone, especially artists, can ever truly separate themselves from the world and the ever-present realities of war.
Though beloved by children, Miyazaki’s films have never shied away from adult subject matter or dark themes, and they’re adored by just as many adults as children. Kaze tachinu, though, feels much more “adult” than Miyazaki’s other films. His central characters are older, with adult problems, and there are no animals or cute children in sight (save Jiro’s feisty younger sister). Jiro’s dream sequences, in which he discusses the ethics and art of his trade with an Italian airplane designer, take the film into a realm where we can almost see Miyazaki himself debating with his animated creations. The Italian designer, like Jiro, only wants to “make something beautiful,” regardless of what it might be used for. But both men seem to realize that their work and their dreams are inextricably linked to war.
Kaze tachinu is filled with many of the elements that make Miyazaki’s films so beloved, but its storyline and framing are a departure from his usual format. It doesn’t always work–the middle meanders a bit, and the love story (between Jiro and a girl that he helps during the earthquake) feels schmaltzy at times. At its best, though, Kaze tachinu feels like a window into the soul of one particular artist, one who “only wants to make beautiful things” but can’t escape the darkness and death that surround that beauty. It’s a visually stunning and complicated film, one that’s likely to divide audiences but will surely keep them talking for a long time.
writing•translation•scholarship on Japan (and a few other things)
tales of travel, research, and life
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