Hayao Miyazaki’s Final Film Is an Uneasy Love Letter to a War Machine

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Hayao Miyazaki is one of the most acclaimed animated filmmakers of our time. A generation of American kids has grown up with My Neighbor TotoroSpirited Away, and Princess Mononoke — films of mythical creatures, flight, and magical transformations. (The movies are distributed by Disney, and carefully dubbed with the help of Pixar's John Lasseter.) The 73-year-old director just released what he says is his final film, The Wind Rises, and it has caused some consternation both in this country and in Japan.

Unlike his magical films, The Wind Rises is set mostly in the real world. Its sympathetic hero is a celebrated engineer, Jiro Horikoshi, who designed the Zero fighter planes that dominated much of Asia, attacked Pearl Harbor, and were later flown by kamikaze pilots. But in the film, Horikoshi is an artist lost in his imagination, motivated by the love of flight and trying not to think about the deaths his planes will cause. Horikoshi is shown working with the Nazis; he doesn't like their brusque tone, but is in love with German industrial engineering. "This war memory and the question of guilt and who was guilty,” Linda Hoaglund tells Kurt Andersen, “has not been dealt with [in Japan] in the way it has been in Germany." Hoaglund is a documentary filmmaker who has worked with Miyazaki and translated for him. “He's also, as we know, in love with flight. He thinks airplanes are beautiful. They're also used in war. So how do you spin a work of art out of this?"

This scenario is particularly surprising since Miyazaki is an outspoken liberal and pacifist who has rejected the right-wing revisionism of the war taking place in Japan. It’s certainly significant that Miyazaki’s father helped build planes during the war. "Miyazaki felt that he had to confront this,” Hoaglund explains.

The Wind Rises has been a big hit in Japan, as has the recent live action film The Eternal Zero, which glorifies kamikaze pilots. Hoaglund says Miyzaki would be "very hurt" to hear his film compared to The Eternal Zero, but she isn't surprised by Japan's recent turn to nationalism. "People are so exhausted between the economic downturn, the tsunami, the nuclear [disaster]. All of these things make them want to cling first to an identity as a Japanese, and second as an individual," she says, "because the identity as a Japanese is safe."

What do you think of recent Japanese movies glorifying World War II? Tell us in a Comment below.

Music Playlist

  1. My Neighbor Totoro

    Label: Disney Presents Studio Ghibli
  2. Squad Falcon

    Album: The Wind Rises
    Label: Ponycanyon Kr