Hero to Zero
Overview of the anime The Wind Rises by Hayao Miyazaki, 2013.
Reviewed by Everard Cunion in August 2015. This overview is of the ‘Studio Ghibli Collection’ DVD.
This anime is a fictionalised biography of aeronautical engineer Jiro Horikoshi, who was the chief designer of the most famous fighter aircraft made in Japan during World War 2, the Mitsubishi Zero. While it recounts his aircraft design career, his personal life is made up, according to the wiki anyway.
Art for art’s sake
Early in the story, a tsunami and accompanying earthquake devastate the part of Japan where the young Horikoshi is traveling by train. Nothing new there then.
The story includes encounters with his hero, the Italian aeronautical engineer Caproni, in a series of dreams.
Being near-sighted, Horikoshi was unable to qualify as a pilot, but he could see well enough to design aircraft. (His experience contrasts with that of John Maynard Smith, who designed British military aircraft that fought Horikoshi’s Zeros during World War 2. Smith was de-motivated by his inability to fly and, after the war, he changed career to become a leading evolutionary biologist.)
Horikoshi complains to his companions how backward Japan is compared to the USA and Germany. The anime shows us this strange mixture of 20th century technology and ancient Japan. For example, their prototype fighter aircraft are transported from the assembly hangar to the airfield on a cart pulled by oxen.
As the anime progresses, we see more modern things in Japan, such as trams and automobiles, and styles of dress become more western.
Wall street shuffle
The anime depicts the impact on the people of Japan of the depression of the 1930s and the difference between the fortunate, including Horikoshi (eyesight not withstanding) and the rural poor. Horikoshi’s international world allows him to peruse airfoil data published by the NACA, while street children survive (or not) on charity. (NACA, unlike its later name NASA, is pronounced as its individual letters, not knacker.)
While I had heard of the ‘police state’ regime of Nazi Germany, fascist Italy, the Soviet Union, Red China, and McCarthyism in post-World War 2 USA (the latter fortunately short-lived) I did not realize that ‘thought police’ were out and about in pre-war Japan. It is perhaps not surprising, given the inherently corrupt system that prevailed there at that time. The anime clearly depicts Horikoshi’s opinion that Japan had no chance of winning their pointless war against the west. (For more on how that system affected Japan’s ability to wage war effectively, read the experiences of Zero ace Saburō Sakai.)
Horikoshi is sent to Germany to catch up on the latest aircraft technology. The Junkers G38 that he and his colleagues see there seems like science fiction, but it is based on fact. The G38 was an enormous four-engine aircraft with seating and windows in the wing leading edges. The flight engineer could stand up and walk around inside the wing to attend to the engines.
In a scene that can only be rendered artificially, the virtual camera in the walkway inside the wing moves upwards and outside, and the corrugated alloy upper surface of the wing fades into place. Similarly advanced animation techniques include close-ups of Horikoshi sketching some engineering drawings, the transparent rushing water of a stream, a rainbow against a varied sky, and snow falling (both lightly, and – in a different scene — depicting a snowstorm).
We also see remarkable animated close-ups of Horikoshi operating a slide rule. (I still have mine. Boy, does that make me feel part of a bygone age!)
The anime depicts some conflict between the Japanese visitors and their German hosts, who argue about what the visitors are allowed to see and what they cannot. (I previously assumed that the cooperation of Germany and Japan in World War 2 –- unlike that between Germany and Italy — was all sweetness and light.)
The makers of this anime use a vertical panning technique to include a wide (well, tall) view of action scenes or, sometimes, just scenery, such as the Mitsubishi aircraft factory in the 1930s.
When I designed and constructed experimental hang gliders in my back yard in England in the mid 1970s, I sometimes encountered difficulty obtaining aircraft grade aluminium alloy extrusions. In 1930s Japan, major aircraft manufacturers had even more difficulty, at least according to this anime.
Things we do for love
The love story, naturally, has a sad ending. The house where Horikoshi last sees his young wife resembles that in the adult sci-fi anime Elfen Lied. (See my review linked farther down.)
By the time US Air Force B-29s devastated the cities of Japan with incendiary bombs, the Zero fighter was outclassed by US Navy Hellcats and Corsairs. In any case, the B-29s flew so high and had such effective defensive armament, even the later Japanese fighters were unable to shoot them down in significant numbers. (Of course, if you were in one of those that they did shoot down, it was plenty significant…)
Anime is deliberately different from modern computer-generated photo-realistic animations, yet this one ‘blurs the line’ somewhat in that the backdrops, including some of the motion effects, are fairly realistic, while the human characters are cartoonish. That is itself a style clash.
Nothing on a modern PC works properly (it is all created for, if not from, the jumbled minds of Facebookers now) and the random turning off of the English subtitles is, I suppose, to be expected. It is easy enough to turn them back on. Not a fault of the anime itself, of course.
If you have an interest in aircraft design, the history of Japan in the first half of the 20th century, or you just want a love story with a sad ending, The Wind Rises is worth watching.
20th century Fauss, my review of the motorcycle racing movie Little Fauss and Big Halsy, 1970, in which a fictional individual overcomes poor eyesight
The Man Who Loved Women, in which a French aeronautical engineer is the central character
The Pacific in World War 2 plastic models, which includes my Tamiya 1/48th scale Mitsubishi Zero
Saving Major Tom, my review of an aerospace related James Bond adventure set largely in Japan
Saving Private Kouta, my review of the adult anime Elfen Lied
Caproni the Italian aeronautical engineer Wikipedia entry
Jiro Horikoshi Wikipedia entry
John Maynard Smith, British aeronautical engineer and evolutionary biologist on Wikipedia
Junkers G38 Wikipedia entry
Mitsubishi Zero Wikipedia entry
Saburō Sakai, the Zero fighter ace, on Wikipedia