Historical fiction has always had a tricky role to play. First and foremost, it must be a historically accurate portrayal of the time period; otherwise, you risk offending those who are knowledgeable about the subject or who was even part of it. Second, it must be a captivating story in its own right to justify its existence, because there is no sense in looking into the past if people at the time saw nothing of value in it. There is also a third even more complicated layer that arises when we do not ask the essential questions of “When” or “Why,” but rather “Who.”
Finding the right balance with historical fiction
The finest works of historical fiction strike the right mix between asking the right questions and delivering a historically accurate and fascinating narrative all the while informing us about the author himself.
A recent example is Nobel prize winner Mario Vargas Llosa and his novel The feast of the goat where he tells the real-life story of a Dominican Republic family during the dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo. Vargas Llosa’s disdain for authoritarianism was actually a letter to his father, who was an oppressive figure in his life. There are countless examples of great historical pieces of media, but none that perplexes me and haunts me as much as Hayao Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises.
The story follows a fictionalised biography of Jiro Horikoshi, the designer of the famous Warplane Mitsubishi A5M and its successor, the Mitsubishi A6M “Zero”, used by the Empire of Japan during World War II. The film is based on Miyazaki’s manga of the same name, which was partly based on Tatsuo Hori’s 1937 novel The Wind Has Risen and Jiro Horikoshi’s biography.
After discovering he can’t be a pilot due to sight problems, Jiro becomes an engineer and aspires to build the most beautiful planes that have ever graced the open skies. The film is set between the 1920s and the 1950s and focuses on all of the horrors of that time period, such as the Great Depression, World War II, TB (Tuberculosis), and so on.
The Wind Rises also has a love story as a subplot. In one of the sweetest animated stories ever, we watch the blossoming of a relationship between Jiro and a younger woman Nahoko. Even with all of these elements, we spend most of our time watching Jiro daydream and work on ways to improve his designs and performance
At first, the film appears to be deceptively simple, as we only witness Jiro dreaming about the skies and his aircraft. He is less concerned with the result of the war than he is with the creation of a plane that many people will love flying in. He doesn’t appear to have an opinion on the war itself, either for or against it. Even his famous connection with Nahoko doesn’t get much screen time.
In real life Nahoko did have TB, which is handled well in the film, thus their time together is limited both in fact and in film. The film’s finale indicates that Jiro has ignored the most essential aspects of his life in order to pursue his ambition. That he didn’t pause to consider whether he was endangering others or himself.
Finally, the film concludes with him recognising the time he squandered, the fact that his aircraft does not belong to him but rather to the wind, and that it is time to go on and live.
The Designers Ethical Dilemma
Given Miyazaki’s reputation for creating magical and joy-filled worlds, it’s fascinating that he’d want to make a picture grounded in reality. However, when you delve into his life, things start to make a lot more sense. Miyazaki’s father was an aircraft manufacturing worker who actually worked on the plane shown in the film, his mother died of TB, and he grew up in post-war Japan.
So his decision to come out of retirement (for the 5th time) to direct this picture has deep roots in his own experience. However, according to Miyazaki, he was persuaded to pursue the project after reading a remark from Jiro himself.
“All I wanted to do was create beautiful things”
This is tragic, given that he designed warplanes. Miyazaki is conveying to his audience a message about his own errors, thoughts, and recommendations. All he wanted was to make beautiful things, amazing animation that defined reality and demonstrated how much we might dream of a more peaceful future.
However, with the popularity of his films, he was left wondering whether the ideas he generated with the film were the right ones, or if he was misunderstood.
You have to live now
Watching Miyazaki in interviews is eye-opening as you see the man battle with the idea that he has contributed so much to an industry he doesn’t feel fond of. You may be familiar with the quote “anime was a mistake” which is false, but the interview does reveal a lot of Miyazaki’s problems “it’s made by humans that can’t stand to look at other humans”.
Nahoko’s final words to Jiro before she vanished were, “You have to live now.” The acclaimed director has come out of retirement numerous times, and he is currently working on a new picture. Working is life for Miyazaki, but The Wind Rises indicates that he paused to consider whether it was the right thing to do. If he should be spending more time with his loved ones, I believe he has thought about it sufficiently to strike a healthy balance.
The movie is not a lament for Miyazaki’s previous work; rather, it is a meditation on his life. In the end, Jiro, like Miyazaki, accepts that his planes are for the wind. His films do not belong to him; they belong to the audience, who can do anything they want with them. According to Roland Barthes, the author dies in the process of making art, but this is with the birth of the reader. To respect Miyazaki’s legendary legacy, we must become better and more keen readers and, if possible, try to create something that would make him proud.