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.

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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.”

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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.

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“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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