Rated PG-13. Running time: 2 hour 6 min.
Our content advisories (1-10): Violence 1; Language 0; Sex/Nudity 1.
Our star rating (1-5): 4.5
I have seen the business that God has given to everyone to be busy with. He has made everything suitable for its time; moreover he has put a sense of past and future into their minds, yet they cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. I know that there is nothing better for them than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live; moreover, it is God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil.
Japanese writer/director Hayao Miyazaki’s latest animated film (the 70+ director says this will be his last) takes its title from a line in a poem by Paul Valery, “The wind is rising. We must try to live.” And live is what its hero does indeed try, even though he lives in a difficult time, the 20+ years between World Wars One and Two in Japan. Young Jirô Horikoshi (Hideaki Anno) develops a passion for aviation in the early 20th century when as a boy he was given some magazines on the subject. They were in English, so he used a dictionary to translate them. But then his dream of being able to fly had to be transformed into designing planes for other flyers when his eyes turned out to be near-sighted. Thus this loosely fact-based film tells the story of the man who became one of his country’s best aviation engineers during the years leading up to World War Two, the developer of the dreaded A6M, or Japanese Zero fighter plane. The story includes his first meeting in 1923 on a train the girl who years later becomes his wife, Nahoko (Miori Takimoto). Jiro is returning to engineering school when the Great Kanto Earthquake causes the train to derail. Naoko’s nanny is injured, and so Jiro carries her for miles on his back to safety. The girl tries to communicate with him to express both their thanks, but he is away from school at the moment, and when he travels to her home, he is dismayed to see that the great fire following the earthquake has completely destroyed it and the neighborhood. It will be several years later when he comes upon her with her father at a mountain spa where she is being treated for tuberculosis.
In the meantime Jiro’s career progresses well at the Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, a major aircraft maker. His supervisor, a dwarf-sized Kurokawa (Masahiko Nishimura) at first seems harsh and demanding, but he recognizes his new recruit’s dedication and talent for innovation, so he becomes a patron, helping Jiro hide when government agents come to take him away for questioning, and then, when his protégé wants to marry Nahoka, opening his home to the couple.
As a boy Jiro had read about the pioneering work of Italian aircraft designer Gianni Caproni (Stanley Tucci), so he has many dreams of communing with the man. Caproni encourages him in his own work, and at one point remarks, “Airplanes are not for making war; they are beautiful dreams.” A nice sentiment, expressing the pacifism of the filmmaker himself, but virtually all of Jiro’s experience is with war planes, he and his best friend Honjo (John Krasinski) being sent to Germany during the 1930s to study the new development of an all metal frame aircraft. The Japanese government is virtually the only outlet for Mitsubishi, so like it or not, Jiro is complicit in war and its destruction wrought by development of aeronautical engineers such as himself in Japan and Hugo Junkers in Germany. (We catch a glimpse of the latter in the film when Nazi guards try to prevent Jiro and Honjo from examining the all-metal planes in a hanger, and Junkers gives his okay for them to continue.) Jiro is the merger of two real people, engineer Jiro Horikoshi and Tatsuo Hori, a writer who like Nahoka, was afflicted with tuberculosis. The film does not really raise the issue of Jiro’s complicity in warfare, concentrating instead on a visionary man uplifted by his sense of calling or vocation. Like his dream mentor Caproni, an airplane to him is a thing of beauty and wonder, not an instrument of death and destruction. In the sequence at the health spa, Jiro meets a German who quotes Thomas Mann and states that both Germany and Japan are “on the road to ruin.”
At the end of the film there is a stark airplane “graveyard” in which Jiro stands amidst the blackened ruins of his planes. Perhaps this is a jolting reminder that his life’s work, pictured as a pursuit of beauty and perfection, was used by his government for conquest and destruction. Certainly without its well-designed aircraft the spread of the Japanese empire could not have occurred—as the victims at Pearl Harbor or Nanking could ruefully affirm. There is sad irony in this scene: art and science can lead to unintended consequences, some of them horrific. In America some of the scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project deeply regretted what they came to regard as the misuse of their work, the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It is interesting that in an essay this past July protesting his government’s proposal to change the Japanese constitution, the filmmaker calls his countrymen to apologize and pay reparations for its crimes during World War 2.
The film itself takes on the trappings of an old-fashioned star-crossed lovers story, Nahoka suffering so from her disease. I suspect so much time was spent on this to show a parallel with the tragedy of the misuse of Jiro’s work. There is a pervasive sadness in many scenes of the film in both story lines. Our pursuit of our own dreams can blind us to the larger picture, that we are not able to control life or the consequences of our work.
The film thus leaves us with a great deal to think about, and it does this in such an artistic way. The flat animation is beautifully rendered, demonstrating again that hand-drawn art can hold its own against expensive computer-generated animation. Those who loved the master’s Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle, and Ponyo are sure to enjoy this film as well—and hope that Miyazaki’s health will hold up and he decides to come out of retirement and grace us with another gem from his fertile imagination. I don’t know anything about his religious beliefs, but in this, possibly his last film, he raises such difficult issues and questions that we need all of our resources, including our religious values and rational capacities, to deal with them in an intelligent way.
This review with a set of reflection/discussion questions will be in the April issue of Visual Parables, available in “The Store.”