Jiaqi Kang is an Oxford Blue Film & TV columnist. Every week, join Jiaqi in discussion with friends, fellow cinephiles, and film foes on what they’ve been watching.
My friend Emily is a jack-of-all-trades. She studies poetry, political economy and comparative literature, plays Pokemon Go, has some brilliant skin care tips, and is also involved in some law stuff I think? She’s currently in her second year at Williams College in the US. We worked together on Sine Theta Magazine and we physically met this summer when I visited San José, California, where I discovered that she has extremely soft cheeks, thanks to the aforementioned skincare. Even though she’s easily scared by violence on screen, Emily is passionate about film- in high school she wrote a 99-page research paper comparing Chinese cinema to French New Wave- and we can spend hours online texting about the movies we manage to catch on opposite sides of the world. The difference is she actually knows what she’s talking about.
Netflix has begun rolling out films by the Japanese animation company Studio Ghibli, who have created unanimously beloved works like My Neighbor Totoro thanks to their central director Hayao Miyazaki. We met up virtually to discuss Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises. The quietly elegant 2013 film about WWII airplane designer Jiro Horikoshi was supposed to be Miyazaki’s last one- though he’s now announced he’s coming out of retirement, for the umpteenth time. Emily loves this movie, but I was bored by it when I first caught it in the cinema and I’m still ambivalent. Is The Wind Rises Miyazaki’s magnum opus?
Jiaqi: I know it doesn’t endorse fascism, but I can’t help but be a little uncomfortable with a film about some guy who made planes for the Japanese imperial army.
Emily: Yeah, absolutely. It’s unhelpful that it’s a biopic on a real person. I do think that the film is quite pessimistic in its outlook and, like past Miyazaki films, anti-war but this fulfills the nationalistic sentiment that Horikoshi himself espoused. “War is bad because it’s decimated Japan.”
Jiaqi: Like other Ghibli films, there’s a stillness, peace, and beauty to the movie –– but that only accentuates the inhumanity of what Jiro’s job is.
Emily: I think that’s purposeful! The film opens in a young Jiro’s dream of what aviation could become, for himself and for the world, that’s quickly dashed. At the end, his planes have been used to wreak havoc, his wife has died, and he is halfheartedly reassured by the dream-figure of Caproni that he did build beautiful planes. None of that undoes any of the carnage and hatred depicted in the film. It’s all about dreams, literal and figurative, that come to no fruition.
Jiaqi: The dreams that bookend the story give the whole movie a surreal quality, as if everything in the narrative is a fantasy. Miyazaki is really good at flitting between worlds and finding some inbetween space between ‘here’ and ‘there’. I really love Howl’s Moving Castle– both the book and the film- but I still have no idea what went on in the Ghibli adaptation. He does such a good job of creating that unreal feeling.
Emily: Honestly, I don’t think anyone really ‘got’ Howl’s Moving Castle. It’s such a strange film. Ghibli movies are undeniably bolstered by their scores; Hisaishi worked on The Wind Rises, and the main theme contributes to the fantastical, removed quality of the film. The whole thing feels like a dream, and it is a dream. The watercolors, symphonic music, and everyday characters bring us into Miyazaki’s world, but that is also ultimately a dream of his own fabrication.
Jiaqi: In the ways you’ve listed, The Wind Rises is a culmination of ideas Miyazaki had been developing his whole career. But is it his best? And do directors necessarily get better as time goes on?
Emily: I disagree with the popular consensus that Spirited Away was his best work, and I don’t think The Wind Rises is necessarily a singular masterpiece. In the Ghibli documentary The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness, you witness Miyazaki’s declining optimism and enthusiasm for the narrative potential of animation. I think that’s why his films have gotten more reflective, less overtly fantastical, and perhaps even a bit fatalistic. They’re Still tinged with children-friendly cheeriness, of course.
Jiaqi: Ghibli is such a childhood thing for me; we watched the film dubbed in French at our community center (one of the supervisors was a weeb). Does this increasing fatalism make his work less appropriate for kids?
Emily: Are kids smart enough to know what fatalism is? Miyazaki has such a diverse audience, and I think that makes for diverse interpretations of his works. And that’s part of what’s fun about Ghibli: the ardent range of community it’s built around itself.
Consensus: The Wind Rises isn’t some ultimate Miyazaki film and it’s best appreciated by fans who understand his oeuvre. If you want to introduce him to (terrorize) your children, watch Spirited Away instead.