What Japan’s Latest Anime Blockbuster Says About Country’s Wartime Past

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Kim Kyung-Hoon / REUTERS

The writer and director of The Wind Rises, Hayao Miyazaki.

Anyone looking for evidence of Japan’s conflicted view of its wartime past can find plenty in this summer’s box-office hit: A lyrical, animated film that pays homage to the designer of the feared World War II-era Zero fighter plane — but is studded with criticism of Japan’s colonial and wartime aggression.

The Wind Rises has claimed more than $80 million in ticket sales since opening last month and is on track to become Japan’s top grossing film of the year.

It was written and directed by Academy Award winner Hayao Miyazaki, an ardent pacifist and aviation buff, who once tried to buy a restored Zero for himself. The 72-year-old Miyazaki is a beloved figure in Japan, producing family-oriented summer movies for more than two decades, but his latest film has been denounced by nationalists as “anti-Japanese.”

The Wind Rises was released amid tense territorial disputes with neighboring China and South Korea and renewed debate over Japan’s wartime responsibility. Conservative Prime Minister Shinzo Abe stirred controversy during a Diet session earlier this year when he seemed to deny that Japan had committed wartime “aggression.” Abe wants to revise Japan’s pacifist constitution and ease restrictions on the military.

(MORE: Shinzo Abe — Japan’s Not-Quite-So Nationalist Leader)

Whether The Wind Rises will help, remains unclear. The film focuses on the early life of Jiro Horikoshi, a brilliant engineer who designed several warplanes, including the Mitsubishi Zero. The light, agile fighter ruled the skies at the outset of the war and figured prominently in the attack on Pearl Harbor.

But, perhaps surprisingly, the film includes few battle scenes or direct references to the war. The Zero itself is not seen until the very end of the film — lying by the thousands in ruined heaps.

Instead, the film is built largely around a fictional love story between Jiro and a young woman he meets by chance during the 1923 Tokyo earthquake.  The film includes numerous dream sequences in which Jiro speaks with an Italian aircraft designer who serves as his inspiration, long stretches of aircraft soaring majestically through the sky, and the richly detailed backgrounds for which Miyazaki’s films are known.

Yet glimpses of the darkness of that era are scattered throughout.

Jiro’s colleague notes that the government has plenty of money to spend on weapons, but none to feed the poor. Jiro is forced to hide from the Kenpeitai “thought police” for reasons never fully explained.  A visiting engineer from Germany (Japan’s Nazi ally) notes that the Japanese are good at shutting out unpleasant realities: the break with the League of Nations, the ongoing war with China, and a history of “making enemies of the world.”

(MORE: The Identity Crisis That Lurks Behind Japan’s Right-Wing Rhetoric)

Some reviewers and moviegoers have found the message ambiguous. Jiro works tirelessly to build powerful warplanes, but never questions how they will be used. The government is seen at fault, but no mention is made of the role of the emperor.

Still, for most Japanese the message is clear, says Mark Schilling, a longtime film critic in Japan.

“It’s the images toward the end where you understand what Miyazaki is trying to say. He gives you very striking, dramatic images of destruction — the planes dissolving in front of the hero. Jiro doesn’t get up and make a speech against the war because he doesn’t have to. This is Miyazaki — he can sum it all up in one image,” says Schilling.

Miyazaki says he was motivated to make the film in part to correct the record on the war era. Normally reticent to speak in public, Miyazaki authored a scathing attack on what he says is a “lack of knowledge” among political leaders about the war and its consequences. In particular, he said he was “disgusted” by the Abe administration’s plans to alter the constitution.

(MORE: Japan Marks 68th Anniversary of Hiroshima Bombing)

“Miyazaki has always been known for his liberal, pacifist tendencies, but it is nevertheless surprising that he chose to speak out so clearly against the policies of the incumbent prime minister. Political statements by famous figures in show business are much less common in Japan than the U.S.,” says Koichi Nakano, a professor of comparative politics at Tokyo’s Sophia University.

Miyazaki also admits to a long, personal connection with the Zero itself. His father worked for a wartime company that made parts for the Zero, and Miyazaki once tried to buy a restored Zero but gave up when his wife refused permission.

He says he understands the inherent contradictions.

“A generation of Japanese men who grew up during a certain period have very complex feelings about World War II, and the Zero symbolizes our collective psyche,” Miyazaki said in a recent interview. “Japan went to war out of foolish arrogance, caused trouble throughout the entire East Asia, and ultimately brought destruction upon itself… For all this humiliating history, the Zero represented one of the few things that we Japanese could be proud of.”

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12 comments
bang
bang

Unfortunately, this very one of few things that the Japanese could be proud of is the ruthless machine of killing innocent people.

Requiescator
Requiescator

@nananonina 우리나라에서 '극우'라고 하시는 분들은 '전쟁이 일어났다(일본이 일으킨게 아닌 마치 다른 세력에 의해 강제로 전쟁이 벌여진것같은 뉘앙스라)'이라는 말과 '제로센'을 만든 사람이라서 극우라고 하는거거든요.

Alex1993
Alex1993

OK!! My respect for Miyazaki has just sky rocketed!! WOW!! FINALLY! A well known figure in Japan willing to speak out and say the truth!! This is amazing! Miyazaki! You truly are amazing Miyazaki! It is about time for the right wing in Japan to finally pull their heads out of where the sun don't shine and look at the big picture! 

silverose
silverose

Well, it's about time Japan stop making childish animes about cheap romance and magic and histrionic expressions, if you know what I mean.

ruraynor
ruraynor

@silverose Studio Ghibli have been putting out work with heart and complex messages for years. Their characters run rings around Western animation in terms of character development. Plus their the only animated films I can think of with an eco-friendly message that isn't crammed down your throat a la Fern Gully.

GreatWormSpirit
GreatWormSpirit

@silverose 

Give me a break.  They've been doing meaningful work in Animation for decades.  Maybe The US can start doing the same.

Requiescator
Requiescator

@nananonina 아시다시피 하야오의 성향은 '극우'라기보다는 무정부주의자나 되려 좌파에 가까운데 원작 연애소설을 잘못 골라서 순식간에 성향이 정 반대가 되버렸네요.

Requiescator
Requiescator

@nananonina 우리 덕질이 동방인 것처럼 하야오의 덕질이 비행기다보니... 사실 바람이 분다 자체는 애니메이션 상영화를 염두해둔게 아니라 만화로 그렸던걸 주위의 부추김과 스스로가 오랜 숙제를 해치워야할때가 왔다. 라는 느낌이라

nananonina
nananonina

@Requiescator 아하... 잘못 고른...거 인가요. 하지만 하야오님이 극우라는 증거가 있는데... 하야오님이 직접 제로센을 소지할려고 살 뻔도 있다고 했습니다...