Wednesday, December 31, 2014

2014 in Shit: The Wind Rises

I had dreams of writing a big defense of The Wind Rises, Hayao Miyazaki's maybe-it's-real-this-time retirement film about the designer of the Zero fighter aircraft that Imperial Japan employed extensively throughout the Pacific War. I thought I would have the time to dedicate and the energy to follow through in a way that didn't end up coming off as an apology for Japanese imperialism. I don't have either. I'll try, to a certain extent, but the best takeaway I can give is this: The Wind Rises is one of Miyazaki's most gorgeous films, and is significantly more complicated and ambivalent than even its greatest defenders have given it credit for.

Here's the thing: it isn't untrue that The Wind Rises is ultimately difficult to disentangle from mainstream right wing rhetoric and political action in contemporary Japan. There is a reason that Miyazaki had to write an Op Ed decrying the prime minister (and many others) plans to revise Article 9, the piece of the Japanese Constitution that forbids the country from having a standing military. There's nothing directly in the movie that condemns the consequences of the actions of its hero. There is, in fact, a number of arguments made that are clearly attempts to dissociate those consequences from the story being told. Which, at least as long as we're here, I don't think is entirely unfair, given how many of the condemnations of the valorization of Jiro Horikoshi seem like they border on the sort of tactical ahistoricity that they are accusing the film of*. Horikoshi's actions contributed to many horrific things, but saying that the movie is bad because of that is ignoring the conditions that lead to the rise of Japanese Imperialism and allowed for his work in the first place. Which is all to say, I suppose, in a roundabout way: what has been completely absent from the various discourses around The Wind Rises is that Horikoshi couldn't have done what he did without the material conditions permitting it, and those material conditions were ascendant imperialism and military dominance in a then-recently industrialized nation that was undergoing all the social upheaval that goes with those things, and that this all happened at a historical moment coinciding with the rapid development of the technology of airflight. So Miyazaki's "he didn't really mean to/he was a genius used for evil" tack is bullshit because a "genius" for aircraft design is only recognized when the conditions are there for it to be used (and created).

The point, though, is that talking about the designer of these planes should allow us to talk about the conditions under which he designed them, whether or not the dialogue in the movie is amenable to that conversation. Perhaps especially if not. The Western conversation around Japanese Imperialism in the 20th century is still so nasty and useless; so much of it reads like a "but yes look over here," an implicit denial of white supremacy, yet another way to frame the nation as Weird Japan without doing so quite so explicitly. Any discussion of Japanese Imperialism without a discussion of the resistance to it is fetishizing.

And yeah, I think that means The Wind Rises is a fetishizing movie as well. The other evidence for that: the real big narrative about it was that Miyazaki was retiring after this one. It's hard to tell whether that's stuck, but there is a lot about the movie that makes it feel like it is meant to be a retirement film. Not the least of that is how much the narrative of Horikoshi is transformed into a "noble artist working in a compromised medium, but still forging ahead." It's hard not to see the parallel to the man who still insists on the hand drawn animation technique that has been dead or dying for decades in the industry which he leads. So much of the film is an elegy for artistry, and, as gross as that sounds, it can be incredibly touching. There are moments where it feels like Miyazaki knew he had to pull out all the stops, and others where it seems like he just always wanted an excuse to animate a particular thing, so he shoehorned it in to be able to. The meet-cute during an earthquake certainly reads this way to me, and it is easily one of the most effective moments of the film.

But then, that's also how I read the film's end, with the Zero planes ascending into the heavens. Others have taken this as evidence that Miyazaki is intentionally turning a blind eye to the real effects of imperialism, seeing it as a valedictory ascendance, a happy ending for the man who designed the deaths and enslavement of many. Maybe I simply remember it wrong, but I have trouble seeing that argument at all. From my memory, it was bittersweet at best; the final refusal of Horikoshi to come to grips with what he had had a hand in. It was a moment of the artist, final giving up the fight, cedes the meaning of his creation to history, knowing -- no matter how strongly he will deny it -- that the verdict will not be in his favor.

Which is what I mean, also, by saying that The Wind Rises is fetishizing. It is a catalogue of absences, a contorting of what's there into an object that can only ever represent what isn't. And it is beautiful, in a way that means something. Someday I will find the words to say what.

*I'm not including any criticism of the film from South Korea, for obvious reasons.

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