Knowing Better: Thoughts After The Wind Rises
Last night, I saw The Wind Rises. My immediate thoughts upon walking out of the cinema were “that film was extremely beautiful, but I would have done so many things differently had I written and directed it.” Now, I am not a director, nor have I ever written a feature-length screenplay (despite my best efforts), and I started to think about what gives me the right, as a fan of Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli, to argue that I could have done a better job. These are just a few of the complicated thoughts I have about this movie.
The Wind Rises is supposedly Hayao Miyazaki’s final film before retirement. Being a devoted fan of the works of Studio Ghibil, especially those written and directed by Miyazaki, the fact that we may never get another film by one of the greatest living animators fills me with sadness. This sadness is compounded by the fact that The Wind Rises has received criticism concerning its presentation of imperialist, World War II-era Japan. In telling a fictionalized version of the life of Jiro Horikoshi, the man who designed the Mitsubishi A5M and A6M Zero fighter planes, Miyazaki addresses without engaging multiple moral quandaries about war, fascism, and dedication. For me to supply my own analysis of the film’s controversial choices would be to add little to a subject that has already been extensively analyzed. (For a great, in-depth analysis of the film’s problematic nature, allow me to direct you to Tasha Robinson’s film review at The Dissolve.)
Instead, I will address how the film’s strange refusal to fully engage with certain ideas leaves me conflicted about my role as a fan of Miyazaki’s works.In The Wind Rises, we watch as Jiro follows his dream of becoming an aeronautical engineer. As a young boy, he was captivated by flight, so much so that he would read English-language aviation magazines, with the aid of an English-to-Japanese dictionary, to learn everything he could about the science of heavier-than-air flight. He idolizes Count Caproni, an aeronautical engineer from Italy (another future member of the Axis Powers), and comes to see “beautiful airplanes” as a wonderful dream. As an adult, he is hired by Mitsubishi to design planes for military use. Throughout the film, Jiro laments that the military will use his planes as tools of war when, ideally, airplanes should be made to allow man to experience the joy and exhilaration of flight for the sake of the joy and exhilaration. But, even as the film repeatedly shows the governments of Germany and Japan as increasingly fascist, as it repeatedly foreshadows the impending destruction of war, Jiro never gives up on his dream of designing “beautiful airplanes.” The film admits knows that they will be used as fighters. The film ends by reminding us that the planes caused death and destruction. (Although, the destruction element is much more emphasized; a shot of a graveyard of destroyed Zeroes causes Jiro to lament that none of his masterpieces ever returned, almost arguing that the loss of art was a greater tragedy than the loss of life.) The film does not address that, allegedly,* many of the laborers who constructed planes based on Jiro’s designs were enslaved Koreans. Miyazaki wanted to tell the story of a man who wanted to make something beautiful. To me, he told the story of a man who was so devoted to his dreams that he was willing to pursue them, even though he knew that they would be paid for with blood.
And so, when I walked out of the cinema, I thought that Miyazaki should have made that the focus. To question whether our dreams are worth pursuing when we know that others will pay a high price for them is a very potent, very tragic idea. As told by Miyazaki, Jiro Horikoshi had the misfortune of living in an era when the only way he could pursue his dreams would be to sell out his principles. How do you make such a choice? Do you give up on your dreams, the desires that have motivated you since childhood? If you do choose to abandon your dreams in favor of your principles, won’t somebody else just step in and provide the military with planes, thus making your sacrifice futile? But is the “someone’s going to do it anyway” truly a valid argument for violating your beliefs? And if you do decide to knowingly make war machines, can you live with the blood on your hands? These ideas are very superficially addressed in the film. Jiro and Caproni discuss their disappointment that their work will be corrupted by the military, but neither ever consider refusing to design planes for the military or finding other ways - assuming there are other ways, as there might not have been any entity powerful and rich enough to bankroll airplane design - to realize their dreams.
I kept waiting for the film to force Jiro to address this conflict. There is even a scene between Jiro and a German critical of Hitler in which the two men discuss that the militarism both countries are expressing will ultimately doom them. (Consequently, this was one of my favorite scenes in the film.) Instead, Jiro remains rather passive. Conflict happens, but he largely side-steps it. When the Japanese government starts investigating him, he never considers leaving his job in which he works on government contracts. Most of the shown-not-told inner conflict comes from Jiro’s love of a tuberculosis-stricken woman. As a result, I could never get fully invested in the movie. In addition to the film’s more objective storytelling problems (slow pace, problems creating relevant conflict), it never became what I wanted it to become. Which raises the question: who am I to demand that Miyazaki’s film be what I want it to be?
I’m certain that fan fiction has existed long before the internet, but easy access to self-publishing options and free libraries has made fan fiction almost mainstream. Online forums allow fans from all over the world to pick apart their favorite films, books, and TV shows, analyzing themes and predicting the direction of ongoing series. The internet is an amplifier for opinions, and it’s inevitable that people will voice their thoughts about where a story should have gone or whether they thought an author made a mistake. People are entitled to these opinions. My question is whether they justify not fully engaging with a work when the author goes against what the fan wants.
A few weeks ago, a friend posted this blog post, which argues that the nature of fandom is loving a work so much and being so familiar with the characters and world that the fans know better than the author.** Needless to say, both he and I disagreed with that conclusion. The blogger seems to miss the point of what it means to be a fan; if you know better than the author of what you are a fan of, why are you a fan? The characters and world you love sprung from the author, and even if you disagree with the direction in which the author is going, the author is not “destroying” your characters or your world. The love fans feel for a work originated with the author; the author did something to make the fan appreciate something about the work, and a fan can become upset with later choices made by the author, but to argue that the fan knows better than the author is to forget where your adoration came from. An author may make a silly choice or write a story in a way that upsets you, but it was the author’s choice to make. An author may listen to criticism (see: the fates of Nikki and Paulo on LOST) or an author may not. That is the choice s/he is entitled to in his/her role as author. We as fans do not have to enjoy every part of an author’s story, but it is ultimately futile to say we know better than the author, because the work that exists is the work that exists. For all the fan fic written, the author’s vision will always be there and will be the basis for the fandom.*** (Except in the case of Friday Night Lights, wherein the second season, despite still existing, was pretty much unwritten in later seasons.)
Keeping this in mind, where do my thoughts about The Wind Rises fit in to this viewpoint? I have the right to think what I do about the film, but is doing so useless? The Wind Rises will always be what it is. It will always be Miyazaki’s vision, which is that of the story of a man who wanted to create something beautiful. I can criticize it. I can choose to write a story about the struggle between following your dreams when you know doing so will have adverse consequences on others. I know that the film is astoundingly beautiful and has many positive elements. But is the fact that it isn’t what I want it to be a justifiable reason for not being able to engage with it the way I do for Miyazaki’s other films? Ultimately, I believe that this can be a constructive lesson. If nothing else, The Wind Rises has given me inspiration to tell the story I want to tell using my own world and characters. The Wind Rises will never be my favorite Ghibli film, and, while I am happy that I saw it, I may never need to see it again. But I can be thankful that, in telling his story, Hayao Miyazaki has inspired me to tell the story I want to see. Art should inspire, and, in its own way, The Wind Rises has succeeded in doing so. I won’t pretend to think I know better than Hayao Miyazaki, but his art has raised questions to me that I would like to see pursued. And that, to me, is why I am a great admirer of Miyazaki; even when he creates something that I find lacking, he still succeeds in inspiring me. Spirited Away and My Neighbor Totoro engage my imagination. The Wind Rises engaged my desire to tell stories.
*I say “allegedly” because I cannot confirm this to be true, but, based on the documented treatment of other Asian nations and POWs during World War II, I am willing to include this assertion in my analysis. If anyone can point to a source to confirm this point, please forward it.
**This article is not from a “professional” writer, so one might think that we can simply discount it. But the idea presented by it did not come solely from the author, but is the result of a collective attitude. It is also of such an extreme view that I find it worth addressing, even if it is a fringe view.
***This is not to say that fan fic has no place. Leigh Lahav presented a very positive view of what fan fic can do and what its “purpose” is.