A few weeks ago a friend, commenting on something I’d written, directed me to “The Stolen Child,” a poem by W.B. Yeats based on an Irish legend about faeries beguiling human children and luring them away from their parents. The first three stanzas end with the lines:
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery , hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of
weeping than you can understand.
In the fourth and final stanza,the first refrain is deftly altered to “For he comes, the human child …”. The faeries have succeeded. They have won their prize, spirited away their prey, who doesn’t realize the cruelty he contributes to the world he has left behind.He has gone to live among the strange, magic creatures of the woods.
What the poem doesn’t say, but what contemporary readers know of the legend, is that while the faeries weren’t evil, neither were they prepared to care for a human child. They weren’t leading the child off to paradise, but to a lonely death. You can sense in the rhythms of Yeats’ poem something of this beauty and sadness, this dithering of the lines between naive, wishful hope and adult anxiety.
This is the same effect Hayao Miyazaki’s animated movies have on us. That Miyazaki is almost universally referred to as the “Japanese Walt Disney” has always struck me as facile. Disney warmed up his narratives - a first-act death is always redeemed in the end, there is always some sort of ultimate reassurance. A world might fracture, but it could be brought back into balance. But when Miyazaki’s worlds crack open, out slide things horrible and sublime.
This is why he is one of the signal filmmakers of our time. Miyazaki introduces fantastic creatures into our dreams and shows us that no matter how innocent or well-intentioned we may be, we are subject to being broken and forgotten, to being left bereft or behind. Children appear in his films, but they aren’t privileged the way Disney’s princesses are. They are just smaller people, no less vulnerable or pure than anyone else. Sometimes they are more attuned to mystery.
The Wind Rises, Miyazaki’s ostensible swan song (although we’ve heard rumors he’s not really done), isn’t about children. In fact, it could be described as a fairly conventional bio-pic of a real-life Japanese engineer, albeit one rendered in the beautiful, precisely detailed cels that are Studio Ghibli’s trademark.While the inclusion of a few dream sequences allows for some madcap fantasy, for the most part the movie takes place in a recognizable world.
This is the story of Jiro Horikoshi (voiced by Joseph Gordon-Leavitt in the dubbed version), the designer of many of Japan’s fighter planes, including the Mitsubishi AM5 and its famous successor, the AM6 Zero, in the run-up to World War II. Horikoshi was a real person - he died in 1982 - and his story (or legend) is well-known in Japan. We can assume Miyazaki’s take on Jiro’s private life is highly imagined and somewhat fictionalized (although probably no more than Disney’s recent Saving Mr. Banks), but it does incorporate several actual incidents from his career.
We meet Jiro as a flight-obsessed boy, communing with the spirit of Italian aviator Giovanni Battista Caproni (Stanley Tucci in the English version). Jiro’s eyesight will not allow him to be a pilot, so he hits on the next best thing, a designer of beautiful aircraft. He is an artist whose work will be subverted by an empire-obsessed government for its own pragmatically murderous ends.
But the heart of the film is a love story - and this is the made-up part - between Jiro and Naoko (Emily Blunt), whom he first encounters as a little girl during the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923. (The earthquake is one of the small miracles of animation that we’ve come to expect from Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli - the rippling earth and utter destruction anticipates the devastation that Jiro’s beautiful airplanes will eventually reap when the bombs fall on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.)
Naoko re-enters the picture as a young woman, a tubercular artist who eventually marries Jiro. The depiction of their life as young marrieds, with Jiro striving to become one of the world’s foremost aircraft designers, is set against the inexorable progress toward war and annihilation. While arguably none of Miyazaki’s films are made exclusively for children,it’s difficult to imagine harried parents using The Wind Rises as a kind of video baby sitter the way they might Miyazaki’s Ponyo (2008) or even his Spirited Away (2001).
Fans of Miyazaki’s work might be surprised by the overt political message of this film, although there’s nothing terrifically polarizing about pointing out the ways political systems subvert art. Here his strong environmental feelings are expressed subtly through his tender depictions of nature as a gorgeous force with even more power to destroy than man. Miyazaki’s fatalism has never been more in evidence. Neither has his imperative to create beautiful things, though the world’s more full of weeping than he can understand.
The Wind Rises
90 Cast: Animated with voices of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, John Krasinski, Emily Blunt, Martin Short, Stanley Tucci Director: Hayao Miyazaki Rating: PG-13 for disturbing images, smoking Running time: 126 minutes
MovieStyle, Pages 33 on 02/28/2014
Print Headline: Fantastic, fatal and forgotten/The Wind Rises shows nature has the power to destroy