Ghibli's had a productive couple of years, and now they're taking a little break, I read. We're still catching up. Kaze tachinu (The Wind Rises) came out just after we left Japan last summer, and I hadn't seen it in the States. I've been looking forward to seeing it with a mixture of anticipation and dread.
The dread came as soon as I learned what it's about: the early life of Horikoshi Jirō, the guy who designed the Zero fighter plane for Mitsubishi, the one that became so
notorious during WWII. I'll note here that I'm not at all familiar with
Horikoshi's life story; but the theme alone made me worry that in his
old age (he's announced that this is his last film, but didn't he say
that about Ponyo? I'm not actually too sure he's totally retiring) Miyazaki was going to turn to nationalism. Under the Abe administration Japan has been swerving to the right to a worrisome degree, and a rightward, nostalgic turn in old age is a known issue with Japanese artists, so I half expected this; but Miyazaki has always had such a multicultural, all-embracing aesthetic that I particularly didn't want to see him go in that direction.
On that score, the film isn't nearly as bad as I'd expected. It makes Horikoshi into practically a saint in his personal life: impossibly virtuous, in a Traditional Values sort of way, which is a typical strategy for rehabilitating right wing nasties ("but he loved dogs and cherry blossoms, so how could he be evil?"). But the movie resolutely avoids the political issues surrounding the war. It's not an apology for Japan's actions. It doesn't condemn them either, and that's a problem if you're looking for one.
But it seems that what Miyazaki's aiming for is a portrait of a guy who's essentially apolitical, who just wants to make airplanes, and not think about what they'll be used for. Jiro in the film is actually disturbed by the knowledge that his planes will be used for war (which is a certainty, given that his company is working on military contracts). This comes up a couple of times. I wish it had come up more. That's the theme this film could have centered on: the conscience of an artist or inventor who can't control the uses to which his work will be put. Or who can control them, but only at the expense of the work itself. There's a deep ethical issue there, but Miyazaki raises it only to essentially shrug it off. So while the film isn't the nationalist thing I was afraid it would be, it does mostly dodge the moral issues raised by its subject matter.
On the other hand, it's not as good as I'd expected either. It's a film about airplanes, about flying, intended (ostensibly) as a final statement by an animator who has made fantastic films about flying in the past. Think of how integral the imagination of flight is to Nausicaa, Laputa, Spirited Away. Think of Porco Rosso (my favorite Miyazaki film of all), which isn't just about flight but, like The Wind Rises, about airplanes as machines. Think of all that flying and you're bound to expect this film to be, if nothing else, a triumph of glorious visuals. But it's not. It's pretty enough, and there are certainly some wonderful moments. But really nothing we haven't seen Miyazaki do before, and often better.