This movie is somewhat different from what we normally cover since it’s not about military anime per se. The movie Kaze Tachinu is about Jiro Horikoshi, the creator of the legendary A6M Zero fighter, so it does have a connection to military aircraft. Unfortunately, we see only a glimpse of the Zero and very little of Jiro’s previous creation the A5M “Claude”. Even with the limited screen time of these two iconic Japanese planes, we are treated to a number of pre WWII military aircraft and a look into how Japan’s aircraft industry developed pre WWII.
I’m somewhat unsure as to how to approach this review. Honestly, I have mixed feelings about this anime, and I finally decided that I could treat the movie as a combination of three different movies, each with a different style and subject. We have a fantasy story, which is comprised of Jiro’s dreams of flight and of his hero the Italian aviation pioneer, Giovanni Battista Caproni, which includes a coda set at the end of WWII. We have the bittersweet and tragic romance of his love for the girl Nahoko. Finally, we have a biography of Jiro (though with a great deal of fictional elements) from approximately 1918 (based on the date on the magazine he borrowed) to 1935 (based on the flight of the A5M prototype). All three stories intersect and overlap, but I feel that the stylistic differences create a dissonance that makes them feel disjointed to me. So indulge me while I do three reviews in one.
Kaze Tachinu as a Fantasy
While watching the fantasy part of Kaze, one certainly recognizes Miyazaki’s style. Planes can fly at walking speed, and characters can walk on wings like they are walking on the ground. Mechanical objects vibrate as if they were made of jello. There is a plasticity to everything that’s reminiscent of Disney’s early work. While this carries over somewhat into the other parts, it is most evident in this part. Of course, these are all dreams that Jiro is having so the cartoonish nature is appropriate.
The first dream sequence opens the movie as we see a young Jiro dreaming of flying a plane off of the roof of his house. Interestingly, the airship that attacks him has a German Iron Cross on it. In WWI Japan actually fought against Germany so there is a real world connection. Later sequences are involved with his discussions with an imaginary version of Caproni about flying and the creation of airplanes. Caprioni provides Miyazaki with a forum to talk about the creation of beautiful things and Miyazaki’s fascination with flight. It also gives him the ability to indulge in his love of things Italian. Even the background music has an Italian style to it. We’ve seen this in his other film Porco Roso which is both Italian and flight themed. Three of the fantasy dream segments do show the darker aspects of the use of aircraft: The opening segment with it’s nightmarish bombs, a scene of a Japanese bomber crashing in flames and Jiro’s final dream with Caprioni at the end of the war. The middle scene is puzzling in that it occurs during Jiro’s trip to Germany and features a train stopping in the middle of a snowy wasteland and the bomber falling in flames with the wreckage scattering around Jiro as he approaches the stopped train. I suppose this is supposed to portend the future war and the defeat of Japan but it strikes me as rather vague. The final dream sequence is of Jiro in a field of destroyed aircraft with him meeting with Caprioni. Caprioni again is used to make the argument that designers and engineers only want to make something beautiful and it is not their fault that others use it for destruction.
Kaze Tachinu as a Romance
This section is puzzling. While it is a touching story, it is taken from a short story by the same name that has nothing to do with Jiro’s actual life. It does provide a romance and may humanize Jiro though its fictional and tragic elements. In many ways the best part of the film from a story perspective.
He first meets Nahoko occurs during the 1923 Kanto quake, saving her and her maid from the fires that ravaged Tokyo. We will see her again years later when he meets her while on a vacation that occurs halfway though the movie. This appears to be set in 1932. Caught in a rainstorm, they reconnect, but she comes down with a fever. Separated by her confinement to her room, Jiro winds up courting her by means of, what else, paper airplanes. She later tells him that she had tuberculosis and wants to get well before they marry. Nahoko goes to a mountain tubercular sanatorium, which was the standard procedure for the treatment of tuberculosis until the introduction of antibiotics. Supposedly dry cold air helped which is why we see her and the other patients wrapped in blankets on the deck. Her realization that she is not going to recover causes her to leave the sanitarium and return to him.
Her return and their marriage ceremony was wonderful to watch, but from then on she is mostly confined to her bed. Given Jiro’s long working hours, there is little that happens with the two of them, though the scenes we do see show how much they care for each other. Finally, she returns to the sanitarium to die, leaving while Jiro is flight testing the A5M, because she doesn’t want his memory of her to be of her death.
Kaze Tachinu as a Biography
We first see Jiro as a young boy. Based on his date of birth (1903) and the aeronautical magazine he is given, he is about 15 though he looks more like 11 or 12. He is shown defending a younger boy from bullying. His mother admonishes him that fighting is never justified. This appears to be Miyazaki’s way of establishing Jiro’s pacifism, which is reiterated a various points in the film.
At the time of the Kanto quake, Jiro is in college studying to be an aeronautical engineer. The year is 1923 and he’s now 20. Here, Miyazaki’s style conflicts with the biographical nature of the story. We see the train thrown about by the quake but it’s a cartoonish train which takes away some of the drama of the scene. I almost expected the engine to have a horrified look on its face. The next scenes go back to a more realistic vision, but the damage was done to my sense of reality.
After some scenes of Jiro at school, we see Jiro meeting his friend and future coworker , Honjou, when he moves to Nagoya to start work at the Mitsubishi Internal Combustion Engine Company, Limited. His biography says this occurred in 1927. Scenes as they travel to the company’s plant with his friend allow them to discuss the wide-spread unemployment and bank failures of the time (known as The Showa Financial Crisis of 1927).
Again I found the animation style inconsistent with some scenes being very realistic and others more cartoonish. For example, they show a very detailed image of Jiro’s slide rule, but later they to show an aircraft breaking up in a less realistic fashion. The disconnect is even more pronounced with the crash being followed by Jiro and his boss reviewing the wreckage in the rain with a more realistic style. My critique is not that either style is bad, only that the inconsistencies bother me from a stylistic sense. I wish Myazaki had kept to one or the other.
At one point Jiro questions his friend Honjou while passing a field of oxen, about why there are oxen at the plant. Honjou responds that oxen are used to haul aircraft to the airfield and we see that process in the next scene as the prototype Falcon is taken there. This is accurate and was was still being done during WWII, even with the Zero production aircraft! Actually, this was due to problems with the roads between the factory and the airfield rather than a lack of motor transport.
Later on, Jiro is being searched for by the secret police. Possibly because of his conversations during his vacation with a Mr. Castrop, who may be wanted by the authorities. Why is never fully explained, but this again seems to be used to show that he is not a militarist, only someone who wants to build beautiful planes and to show the fascist state of the Japanese government at the time.
Finally, we reach the creation of the A5M “Claude”, his first big success. This is juxtaposed with Nahoko leaving by train to return to the sanatorium and Jiro seeing her off in the distance as his team celebrates the successful first flight of the aircraft.
“Airplanes are not tools of war.
They are not for making money.
Airplanes are beautiful dreams.
Engineers turn dreams into reality”
–Statement to Jiro by Miyazaki’s Caprioni character.
The dichotomy of a pacifist who spent much of his career working on machines for the military, reminded me Werhner von Braun, who saw no problem working with the Nazi’s to create missiles as long as it let him further his rocketry research. Von Braun’s collaboration, however, was much worse since he knew his rockets were being used to attack civilian targets and they were being built by slave labor. This does not relieve the character of Jiro as portrayed in the story of the charge of hypocrisy by professing pacifism while building instruments of war. Nor should it prevent criticism of Miyazaki for trying to whitewash Jiro’s actions if his intent was to justify the historical Jiro’s actions. By time represented by the end of the movie, Jiro should have been well aware of Japans aggressions in China and elsewhere. If he was such a pacifist why was he continuing to make military aircraft? Admittedly, almost any machine can be turned into something used for warfare, but he didn’t shirk from making one of the most effective fighters of WWII’s early days.
Certainly, I am always affected by Miyazaki’s beautiful backgrounds, but I wish he had focused both the story and the style on one thing. The romance might have made a great picture all by itself without grafting it only Jiro’s story. Same is true with the dream sequences. Telling a story of dreamers who wished to create beautiful things that allowed flight would have allowed Miyazaki to indulge himself both in his love of the subject and his artistic talent. Finally, trying to take on a real character who you wish to romanticize was questionable. Too many choices were made that told a false story of the real person by commission and omission. This is especially true in the sense of the accurate historical background that Miyazaki has included. While better than average it was not one I would include in Miyazaki’s best work.