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Animated Film On The 'Kamikaze Plane' Hits A Nerve In Asia

The latest film from celebrated Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki, The Wind Rises, centers on the engineer who designed the plane used in the kamikaze attacks during World War II. (Walt Disney)

Oscar-winning Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki created beloved films such as Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away. But his latest film is drawing unusually sharp criticism.

The Wind Rises is no ordinary tale: It tells the story of Jiro Horikoshi, the Japanese engineer who designed the Mitsubishi Zero, the fighter plane (in)famously used in kamikaze attacks in World War II.

Commentators in South Korea have called the film "right wing" and said it "glorifies Japanese imperialism" and "depict[s] oneself as the victim and portray[s] the calamity of war, but fail[s] to point out the cause."

Criticism in Japan has been no less vociferous: it's been called "anti-Japanese" and "dim-witted." One commenter asked, "Wouldn't it be good to ban the movie that this traitor created?"

These intense responses have their roots in the sensitive issue of World War II history — particularly in Asia, where memories of Japanese aggression and atrocities are still very much alive.

A warplane designer may seem like an unusual subject for Miyazaki. His last film, Ponyo, told the story of a goldfish princess. But he's long been fascinated by aircraft and aviation — and in fact, his father worked at a company that provided the rudders for the Zero.

No Clear Heroes Or Villians

The Wind Rises is much like Miyazaki's previous works. His stories don't have clear heroes and villains; The Wind Rises is no different.

Miyazaki says he knew what he was getting himself into with the film.

"I knew a film about a warplane designer would raise questions among our staff and the rest of Japan. So I hesitated before making this film," Miyazaki tells NPR. "It has been a long time since the war ended in 1945, but Japan has not really come to terms with neighboring countries about that part of history."

World War II history has led to contentious relations among East Asian countries.

South Korean commenters point out the Zero was made with forced Korean labor. South Korean President Park Geun-hye refused to meet the Japanese leader without an apology for wartime "wrongdoing."

In China, the anniversary of the 1931 Japanese invasion, and an ongoing conflict over a group of islands, has led to violent anti-Japanese protests.

And in Japan itself, there have been hate rallies targeting ethnic Koreans, and calls to change the country's "Peace Constitution," which was adopted after the war.

Miyazaki, who was born in 1941, says "outdated nationalism" in Japan reminds him of the time leading up to World War II — which led to his decision to make this film.

A Complicated Character

The director is adamantly pacifist, yet The Wind Rises revolves around a complicated paradox.

"The central character is a young man who dreams of creating the most efficient, the most beautiful plane," says filmmaker Linda Hoaglund, Miyazaki's former translator who has subtitled five of his films. "Because of the historical circumstance, he has no choice but to be complicit in a war that winds up proving disastrous for his country."

She points out American audiences are likely to see the film differently than those in Asia — an outgrowth of U.S. victory in the war.

Hoaglund grew up in Japan. In school there, she was taught that kamikaze pilots were heroic martyrs. Later, she realized many Americans considered them suicidal fanatics. That led her to make her own film about surviving kamikaze pilots, who she says face the same problem as the engineer who designed their planes.

"They were 18-, 19-year-olds desperate to live, but their country and their military had backed them into a situation where they had no choice but to accept the order," Hoaglund says. "This image of young people who are idealistic and want to serve their country, but are ultimately betrayed by their country in their choice for war, is something that you can also see in The Wind Rises."

When Miyazaki is asked if Horikoshi, the Zero engineer, is a tragic figure, he responds: "Everyone who lived during that doomed era was a tragic figure. All we individuals can do is live our lives as best we can."

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Transcript

DON GONYEA, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Don Gonyea. Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki is behind the hand-drawn fantasy films "Ponyo" and "Spirited Away," which won him an Oscar.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "SPIRITED AWAY")

UNIDENTIFIED BOY: (as character) I'm dreaming. I'm dreaming. Come on, wake up. Wake up. Wake up.

GONYEA: Miyazaki's latest, "The Wind Rises," is quite different. It's a controversial bio-pic of the engineer who designed the Japanese fighter plane used in kamikaze attacks during World War Two. The film was screened here in America this week for a limited run, just enough to qualify it for an Oscar. NPR's Alan Yu reports.

ALAN YU, BYLINE: Hayao Miyazaki not only inspires fans but also fellow filmmakers, including the creative team behind "Toy Story" and "Wall-E." Critic Charles Solomon teaches animation history at the University of California Los Angeles.

CHARLES SOLOMON: John Lasseter has said that when they really come to a block in a Pixar film, when something just isn't working, they're not sure what to do, they take a little time off, they go into their screening room and watch one of Miyazaki's movies. And they go back to their work and solve the problem.

YU: A lot of Miyazaki's work is aimed at children, according to Linda Hoaglund, a filmmaker who used to translate for Miyazaki and subtitled five of his films. She points out Miyazaki even built a preschool next to his studio.

LINDA HOAGLUND: This was a deliberate attempt on his part as a constant reminder to hear and see young children at play that this is who he was making his films for, to inspire in them hopes for the future and a way to think about their lives.

YU: That makes Miyazaki's latest film all the more radical - it's not for children.

HAYAO MIYAZAKI: (Through Translator) Actually, that was one of the reasons I hesitated in making this into a movie. I was worried that children won't understand this, what we were trying to depict in the movie.

YU: "The Wind Rises" tells the story of Jiro Horikoshi, the Japanese engineer who designed the Mitsubishi Zero, the Japanese fighter plane used in kamikaze attacks during WWII. Miyazaki says he finally decided to make the film because he was worried about Japan going back to the nationalism that took it to war more than 70 years ago.

MIYAZAKI: (Through Translator) There's a lot in common between the historic changes that Jiro Horikoshi lived through, and the present.

YU: There's one scene in "The Wind Rises" in which Japan's past and present seem to overlap. The character of Jiro is on a train rolling through lush green hills when a huge earthquake hits.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

YU: The ground rises up in a massive wave. The vibrant colors turn muted and gray and buildings are reduced to rubble. A maid breaks her leg, and Jiro saves her by carrying her to safety on his back. It draws on Miyazaki's own experiences and those of his father.

MIYAZAKI: (Through Translator) During the war in Japan, we had raids and my father carried me on his back and we would run. Also, in the Great Earthquake that happened in 1923, my father, he was 9 years old then. He told me many, many times how he would flee, holding hands with his younger sister and how proud he was that he defended her.

YU: Past and present converge in another way in the film. Japan is still recovering from the earthquake and tsunami of 2011. Linda Hoaglund, who grew up in Japan, says that, plus the recession and the rise of China, have left many Japanese feeling weak. And that's led to proposed reforms to Japan's so-called Peace Constitution.

HOAGLUND: There is a political movement afoot in Japan to repeal Article 9, which forswears Japan from ever going to war again. Many people are arguing that if only they could export weapons and go back to war, they could regain kind of a threatened international superiority.

YU: So, Miyazaki did something else he's never done before; he wrote a controversial op-ed against the proposed reforms. That turned some Japanese against their beloved filmmaker. Others in East Asia have criticized him for celebrating a warplane designer. Some have even drawn comparisons between the character and its creator, but Miyazaki insists they only have one thing in common.

MIYAZAKI: (Through Translator) Jiro is greatly affected by the historic events and disaster around him, as am I. We have experienced a great earthquake and our nuclear power plant is still leaking radiation. But instead of helping to contain the radiation, my job is to be an animator, to make movies. Jiro did the same; his job was to design airplanes.

YU: After watching "The Wind Rises" and reading Miyazaki's article against constitutional reform, Linda Hoaglund says the filmmaker's message is clear.

HOAGLUND: What he's trying to do is to portray the fact that there were actually people involved in that war effort and that people made compromised decisions. He's trying to say we've already been down the path of war and it nearly ruined us. Let's not go back.

YU: It could be Hayao Miyazaki's final statement. He has announced "The Wind Rises" will be his last feature film. Alan Yu, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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