Sunday, 22 June 2014

Artists and the machines of death: The Wind Rises (2013) and The First of the Few (1942)

Hayao Miyazaki's The Wind Rises was pitched as the director's final film, and as such has an extra weight of expectation attached to it, as if it should not only match up to the rest of his celebrated oeuvre, but also somehow act as a coda, a definitive statement, a portrait of the man as an artist. It tells the heavily fictionalised tale of Japanese aircraft designer Jiro Horikoshi, creator of the legendary Second World War fighter the Mitsubishi A6M “Zero”, and given Miyazaki's love of flying machines of all kinds, it's easy to see it as a metaphor for the man himself.

In watching The Wind Rises, I decided to take it in as a double feature with another film about an aviation designer, the British wartime drama The First of the Few, which told the story of Reginald J Mitchell, the designer of the Supermarine Spitfire. Between the two films, there are a number of interesting points of comparison relating to their portrayals of the engineer as artist, of the creator who makes machines of destruction, and of relationships and obsession.

Both films make it explicit that they regard their protagonists as artists, somehow above mere engineers, and they do this partly through portraying Horikoshi and Mitchell's interests in and appropriation of natural forms. Horikoshi's admiration of the elegant curve of a herring bone that he picks out of his lunch isn't of any real practical use, since the curve of a wing for maximum aerodynamic efficiency is a matter of mathematics, but his appreciation of this natural form tells us that he is not just an engineer: he is a man of inspiration, who searches not just for engineering efficiency but also for elegance.

Similarly, when we first meet Mitchell in The First of the Few, he is birdwatching during a seaside picnic with his wife. The circumstances of both Mitchell's and Horikoshi's moments of inspiration come during moments away from work, but both find their attention drawn from their food and companions by the power of sublime nature. In Mitchell's case, the focal point of his inspiration lies in the simple elegance of the bird's form which he seeks to emulate in contrast to the ungainly network of struts and wires that make up most aircraft of the early 1920s.

One big difference between the films is in the relative weight placed on dreams and reality. Horikoshi is portrayed as a dreamer and The Wind Rises frequently disappears without warning into his (and by extension Miyazaki's) fantasies. The First of the Few, however, explicitly anchors itself in reality. This contrast is exemplified by the opening scenes of the respective films.

The Wind Rises opens with a dream of the young Horikoshi taking to the skies in a homemade flyer, soaring over the peaceful countryside of early Taisho period Japan, only for the peace and purity of his airborne antics to be shattered by the arrival of a vast, German airship (Japan was Britain's ally during the First World War and fought against Germany, although this also foreshadows other aspects of the film) and a fleet of idiosyncratic flying bombs.

The First of the Few, on the other hand, rubs your face in reality. It begins right in the thick of The Battle of Britain, with newsreel footage of German conquests, genuine footage of German bomber squadrons over southeast England, and the words of Hitler, Goebbels, Goering, Lord Haw Haw and Churchill. The acting of the extras who trade quips and banter between sorties may seem unnaturally awkward and stilted, but that's largely because many of them were genuine RAF pilots who had been drafted into the film for propaganda purposes.

And that's a core difference between the films. Made in 1942, right in the middle of the war, The First of the Few is essentially a propaganda film, while The Wind Rises is divorced from the most immediate implications of the war by nearly seventy years. The Wind Rises has an ambiguous relationship with the war, reflecting the work of a director who hates war but loves its machinery, and Miyazaki feeds that attitude into his central character. Horikoshi experiences the destruction of Tokyo firsthand near the beginning of the film, as the Great Kanto Earthquake hits in a terrifying scene just as his train is approaching Tokyo, and this is a clear foreshadowing of the destruction from the air that is to be visited upon Tokyo from the kind of machines he is set on creating. Later on, Horikoshi's befriends German dissident Castorp, who warns him of the destructive path Germany and Japan have set themselves on, and Horikoshi must wrestle with his love for his art and the knowledge of the ends to which his work is being put. He does this primarily by doubling down on his work, immersing himself in it to such an extent that he doesn't even think about the war. Basically, he decides that art supersedes all other concerns.

The First of the Few is, in a way, by its very nature far more honest and direct in how it confronts the issue of war, but it deals with the same conflict between art and the destructive purposes to which this particular art is put. Rather than have Mitchell wrestle with it as a moral dilemma, however, the film is divided into two parts, each reflecting a different side of aviation technology. The first part deals with the Schneider Trophy and how Mitchell's Supermarine S5 and S6 designs first won and then permanently retained the trophy. The romance of the high speed air race is something Miyazaki had touched upon previously in Porco Rosso, which references the Schneider Trophy and in the name of American pilot Donald Curtis references the same Curtiss R3C biplane that is shown in The First of the Few beating Mitchell's prototype Supermarine S4 to the 1925 trophy. The second part of the film kicks off with Mitchell's visit to Germany to see one of Hitler's glider clubs. His awe at the purity of the German gliders, so close to his own vision of birdlike simplicity, soon gives way to the realisation of the Nazis' ambitions for their own military airforce, and like any true patriot, he is from then on fully invested in making machines of war.

Part of this reflects the circumstances and timing of each film's creation, but it also reflects the contrasting natures of each country's involvement in the war. Britain could easily justify its military air programme as the island itself was under immediate threat. The Spitfire was a short range, land-based interceptor, designed to shoot down enemy bombers attacking the homeland and their escorts. The Zero, on the other hand, was a carrier-based fighter, whose role included escorting bombers and projecting Japanese power far overseas, while Japan's own role in the war was offensive before any need for defence of the homeland came into play. Miyazaki acknowledges this when Horikoshi is inspecting a new bomber aircraft built by his friend Kiro Honjo and asks who it's going to be used on. Honjo rattles off a list of countries including America, China, Britain and the Netherlands that makes it abundantly clear that Japan's intentions lie in expansion. The differing circumstances are also reflected in the differing attitudes of the respective establishments to money. While Horikoshi's Japan labours in poverty during the Depression, the expansionist government pours money into the aviation industry; meanwhile Mitchell's Britain, still war-weary after the trials of 1914-18, is unwilling to fund new aircraft development during such straitened times.

It is interesting that in both films a trip by the protagonist to Germany proves an important turning point for the characters. For Mitchell, his it is what resolves him to invest himself fully into making machines of war. True to the film's propaganda origins, the Germans are portrayed as arrogant and megalomaniacal, making use of all the contemporary stereotypes that still to some degree form the core of British prejudices towards our Teutonic cousins. Significantly, the practical, unsentimental Germans also gently mock Mitchell's romantic notions of the poetry of flight as being essentially British sentimentality. In The Wind Rises, Horikoshi and Honjo's visit to the Junkers production facility in Dessau demonstrates the junior status the Germans consider Japan to hold in their partnership, and the two Japanese engineers are constantly being barred from inspection of certain pieces of technology. The only place where The Wind Rises could be called explicitly patriotic is where Horikoshi and Honjo are forced to assert themselves against the arrogant Germans, again reinforcing the film's conflicted attitude towards its protagonist's work and what it represented.

Another interesting moment from the scene at the Junkers yard comes when Horikoshi is involved in a fracas with a German guard over his wishes to more closely inspect one of the new all-metal aircraft. In that moment, the elderly Hugo Junkers himself intervenes on Horikoshi's side. This moment of solidarity from a fellow artist is given greater significance later on, when Castorp reveals that Junkers is not on good terms with the Nazis (he was a socialist and a pacifist who hated the Nazis and ended his days under house arrest). A much bigger relationship with a fellow aircraft designer is the friendship that Horikoshi strikes up in his dreams with Giovanni Battista Caproni. Caproni was prone to plenty of errors and failed experiments himself, and his bizarre Ca.60 Noviplano makes a brief appearance in one of the dream sequences, wobbling and warping as it flies. Caproni takes on the role of a sort of spirit guide, representing unfettered creativity, the dream of aviation as a peaceful technology, as well as the compromises an artist must make to pursue his dreams.

In The First of the Few, there is no fellow designer or engineer with a comparably large role, but again during the visit to Germany, Mitchell encounters one of his opposite numbers in the form of Willy Messerschmitt, designer of the Messerschmitt Bf 109, the plane which would be the Spitfire's primary opponent during the Battle of Britain. Mitchell and Messerschmitt's encounter is terse and brief, but lasts long enough to give the enduring impression of two opponents sizing each other up in advance of a fight. Other than that moment, Mitchell's only encounters with his contemporaries are in his encounters with the likes of Robert McLean and Henry Royce, both of whom are allies, who assist Mitchell in creating his masterwork.

Mitchell's primary confidant is his test pilot, the debonair ladies' man Geoffrey Crisp, whose role can perhaps best be explained by the need for a sizeable role for the eminently bankable David Niven. Nevertheless, Mitchell's wife Diana also plays a key role in supporting her husbands dreams while at the same time keeping him grounded. Diana is portrayed as an archetypal domestic goddess and dutiful wife, willing to sacrifice her own happiness for the sake of her husband's dreams. In one poignant moment, as she begs her sick husband to stop his work and go away with her, he confronts her directly with the idea that the looming war and the work he is doing is “more important than us”.

While Mitchell and Diana are presented from the start as a fully-formed couple, Horikoshi's relationship with Naoko is shown from their first awkward meetings, gradually blossoming through their courtship at a rural holiday retreat, and their eventual marriage. Like Diana, Naoko is self-sacrificing to a fault, eventually leaving for the mountains to avoid distracting Horikoshi from his work.

Both films follow the traditional pattern of studies in artistic obsession by interweaving the artist's passion for his work with the notion of death. The sacrifices the women make for their men are also harbingers of death, symbolising the victory of art and its eternal legacy over life in the present and now. In Naoko's case it is her own death from tuberculosis, while in Diana's case, it is resigning herself to Mitchell's own self-destruction via an unnamed disease (the real RJ Mitchell died of cancer, although for dramatic reasons this is not stated in the film, in order to keep the possibility of his recovery open).

Also, in both films this relationship between obsession and death takes on a mystical significance. In The Wind Rises, the wind itself takes on a metaphorical role, with Horikoshi and Naoko's meetings always accompanied by strong gusts of wind. It is the appearance of one of these gusts as he watches the successful test flight of his new plane that tells Horikoshi that Naoko has died. In The First of the Few, it is Diana who is present to see the Spitfire's test flight while the now very unwell Mitchell watches it fly over him in his garden. After the flight, Diana returns with the news and leaves him to rest in the garden, surrounded (perhaps significantly) by birdsong, and as she enters the house, she is struck by a similar psychic realisation of a life passing from this world.

These mystically-inflected moments of death link back to the mystical nature of the inspiration that Horikoshi and Mitchell themselves are portrayed as having discovered at the start of their stories. Just as the word inspire, to breathe in, can also mean breathing in the life of creativity, so its opposite, expire, can also mean death. In each case, a life must be traded for the creation of a work of art.

While The Wind Rises is an antiwar film that appears conflicted in its love for its subject matter, The First of the Few has no time for pacifism and is unambiguous about the necessity of war. Still, both films make a point of contrasting their artist-heroes with the warmongering Nazis, in the British film's case quite explicitly, while in the Japanese film's case more subtly, using Horikoshi's encounter with the Germans to define Japanese national pride against an enemy everyone can agree on. It's tempting to see this as an adoption by Miyazaki of the postwar Allied consensus of who World War II's goodies and baddies were, but it also serves to draw attention to the confused and troubled nature of Japan's involvement in the war, as a partner to a regime that saw Asians as inherently racially inferior. While The First of the Few is a propaganda film and The Wind Rises is essentially a personal work that could be seen in some ways as a partially cloaked autobiography by Miyazaki, they both follow certain generic patterns of the obsessive artist subgenre, and both are films about men who sacrifice their marriages, albeit ultimately with their women's active consent and support, in their obsessive pursuit of creating machines of destruction. In the end, Mitchell sacrifices his life with Diana for the Greater National Good, while Horikoshi sacrifices his life with Naoko for something far more abstract and intangible. Miyazaki attempts in the final scenes to show some sort of cosmic balance between the horror of the war's destruction and the beauty of the planes that Horikoshi built. The First of the Few ends where it began, in the midst of the war with the RAF pilots fighting for their lives in Mitchell's planes.

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