Living With Miyazaki, Part 11 – THE WIND RISES

The piece below was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the art being covered in this piece wouldn't exist.

The Final Life Lesson From the Animation Maestro

Previous life lessons:

Part 10: PONYO

And so we come to the final lesson.

For now.

Even as I write this, Japanese audiences are getting a look at How Do You Live, the new “final” film from Hayao Miyazaki (although this time, retirement probably will take, whether Miyazaki wishes it to or not). GKIDS will be releasing the film under the title The Boy and the Heron in America sometime this year.

But for the moment, the journey ends here. Not with a fantastical kingdom under siege. Not with magical creatures running amok. When characters take to the skies in The Wind Rises, it is only possible through dreams or machines that extract an awful cost in exchange for bringing those dreams to life.

It is impossible to view The Wind Rises independently from its framing as the intended final statement from Miyazaki, capping off a decades-long run as the world’s preeminent animation master and one of the shining paragons of the cinematic form regardless of genre or medium.

When viewed through that prism, or simply in contrast to the candy-colored fantasia that was his previous film, the steadfastly earthbound nature of The Wind Rises can’t help but shock. Gone is the whimsy and the (literal) flights of fancy. We are bound to the unmoving province of the real world, where disease can consume true love and war can consume continents. No reprieves. No magic fixes. No happily ever after.

Instead, Miyazaki takes you through the life of an artist, from youthful idylls and daydreaming through the diligence required of mastering a craft, through careers ups and downs, trials and errors, up to and including those electric moments of sudden inspiration and revelation where the artist has their art revealed to them as if it has been whole and complete the entire time, waiting to be revealed.

The only problem is that the artist is creating something horrifying.

Jiro just wants to create planes. Well, actually, what he really wants to do is fly, but his lifelong nearsightedness puts an end to that dream before it can even really begin. Instead he devotes himself to the study of building planes rather than flying them, years of study bringing him to the forefront of the industry while he pursues his perfect, purest design. Except as anyone who sits down to watch The Wind Rises will most likely already know going in, what Jiro is building towards is the creation of the “Zero”, the notorious plane used for kamikaze suicide raids by Japanese pilots during World War II. In his pursuit of creating beauty, Jiro is enabling, maybe even strengthening, true evil in the world.

Does Miyazaki feel the same way about his own work? Does he look back at one of the most illustrious careers in all of film and animation and think, ‘What have I done?’ Throughout The Wind Rises, Jiro visits an ethereal dream-space shared with his hero, the Italian aeronaut Giovanni Caproni. There Caproni (in what is either a visitation to a spiritual realm or Jiro’s own subconscious sounding alarms) remarks that while planes are a beautiful dream, they are also a “cursed dream” and will only lead to war, death, and ruin.

Is the dream worth the cost? Can any dream be worth such a cost?

On initial release, some took issue with The Wind Rises, viewing it as an apologia for Japanese war crimes during the Second World War. In another dream sequence, Caproni compares planes to pyramids, another astounding achievement that cost unfathomable amounts of human lives and human suffering in order to exist. Caproni phrases it as a choice, and asserts that he has chosen a world with pyramids in it. To the naysayers, this is Miyazaki letting his heavily fictionalized version of Jiro off the hook.

But The Wind Rises does not actually presume to answer the question it poses. It spends two hours laying the question out and leaves you to wrestle with it for the rest of your life. How responsible is the artist for how their art is used? Where does that responsibility begin and end? What is the acceptable price we will pay for advancement (technological, artistic, personal, etc.)?

I don’t have an answer. I’m not convinced that Miyazaki has an answer. I think it’s the kind of question most people get angry at having to consider if you don’t frame it to them in a gorgeous, entertaining movie that doesn’t announce the barbed hooks until they’re safely planted under your skin and about to tug.

But the real life lesson from this film, and from all of Miyazaki’s films, is right there in the title, taken from Paul Valéry’s “Le Cimetière Marin”:

“The wind rises! We must try to live!”

It may only be Miyazaki’s final film that is actually titled How Do You Live, but each film in his career is essentially asking and answering that question over and over again. And not just “How?” but “Why?”.

Why keep going when all seems lost? Why try to make tomorrow better when all signs point to it being every bit as bad as today? Whether his characters are eking out an existence at the edge of an ever-growing radioactive wasteland or simply young people lost in an adult world that makes no sense and doesn’t play fair, again and again Miyazaki brings his protagonists face to face with the inevitability of doom, failure, decay, hopelessness, and dares them to give up.

But…they don’t.

As one of the lepers says in Princess Mononoke, “Life is suffering and pain. This world and its people are cursed, but we still wish to live.”

The trademark beauties of Miyazaki’s films and Studio Ghibli’s output in general become more meaningful when viewed in contrast to the statements of this nature present throughout the various works. The world may be cursed, but there is still wonder to be found in a sizzling plate of delectable food, in the music of water rushing over stones, in the feel of wind on your skin as it wraps all around you. You may write these things off, in movies and in life, as passing fancies. As incidental, forgettable distraction in between the important achievements and moments of your life.

But it is these things that keep you alive, that make the world so beautiful that you fight to remain in it, no matter how painful things might get. Loss and suffering and death are what we inherit as humans brought to life upon this planet, but in between these certainties we can steal all the joy and wonder that our hearts can possibly bear.

We can’t control the times we live in. But we can choose how we live during it.

At the close of The Wind Rises, Jiro is confronted by the devastation his creation wrought and by the woman he loved but lost to a terminal illness.

In a kingdom of ruin, in the land of the dead, a man is still moved to tears and can only speak of gratitude.

The wind rises.

But we will try to live.

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