Monday, July 25, 2016
Current Genres of Fate: Wind in Miyazaki
by Paul North
Wind is low on the list of the awe-inspiring invisible powers. In other eras it ranked among the top forces beyond human control, blowing us this way and that. Today we think of wind as easily harnessed for human uses, as a mild amusement or nuisance, or as a fairy-tale character with puffed up cheeks and pursed lips.
If those lips could talk, we would hear some stories about uncontrollable forces. Although there hasn't been much talk of wind lately, a serious anemological investigation has been being carried out over the last three decades by the anime director Hayao Miyazaki. Wind is always blowing in Miyazaki, or almost always. Nevertheless, it doesn't always do the same thing. The main question driving his investigation into wind is: does wind liberate us or blow us in the direction of our destiny? One thing does stay steady across his films. Whatever we do on and in the wind, we never gain control over it. This doesn't mean that wind is in control of us. Miyazaki's is a control-less view of fate. Wind is the basic element in a fluid cosmic system that strews and carries, resists and supports, lifts upward and slams to earth with abandon. Where fate is King, wind is his advance scout, his highest ambassador and field marshal. It decides nothing: wind simply executes. In contrast, fate is rather abstract, a faint inkling of limits on what you can do or hope. When you face fate, however, you don't face a concept but a force. Wind is the force against which you push when you resist your fate, and when pushed, wind reveals itself to be only air. And you cannot push against air.
You can however ride it. Many things ride the wind in Miyazaki's landscapes. Pollution. War machines. Clouds. And depending how it is ridden, depending whether your calculations include the wind as the most salient factor, your endeavors may come out well or extremely ill.
In classical myths and tales wind is either a brutish force or a changeable force. The Aesop's fable about the North Wind and the Sun tells of wind's brutishness. Sun and North Wind argue: who can strip a traveler's clothes off more quickly? Wind goes first, blowing its all. Yet it doesn't loosen a button. Sun only shines on the traveler long enough and she starts to undress of her own accord. Persuasion wins over force—that's the moral of the tale. Both are forces—soft, effective persuasion and brutish, direct assault. But as a form of force, the sun is more pernicious. It disguises its violence as reason and presents its strength as gentility. Worse than this, whereas it exerts deadly force, the force appears to come from the victim—the traveler believes the decision to undress has been a free decision of her own. In contrast, the cold North Wind, Boreas, comes openly and directly, and human ingenuity can resist it, at least when it comes to clothing. Notice that both these fateful forces aim to render the traveler defenseless and naked, a plaything for nature's sadism.
Wind is a signifier for a force it's futile to resist. There is also a long tradition in which wind signifies changeableness. Wind is of course not just a signifier, it is also a cause. It is not just a symbol, it is also a force. This is how it is when talking about fate. Fate is perhaps the only sphere of human concern in which signs are also forces. Wind, to give one example, means what it does. Fate is never there only for contemplation or worship. It is a moving vigor whose outcome is an effect. From its effect derives its meaning in folklore and in thought. Meaning is secondary to effect with fate. When it comes as an unstoppable force, wind's effect is to strip us of protections. When it comes as fitful, protean, inconstant and disruptive bursts, wind's effect is to block calculations about the future. The archaic master of the winds, Aeolus, lives on an island bounded by massive bronze walls and sheer cliffs. This is not really necessary, since the island of the winds floats; it is never found in the same place. Odysseus finds it though, and the gift Aeolus gives him is legendary. He ties all the other winds up in a bag except the West Wind, so it will blow Odysseus and his crew home to Ithaca. When at last they come in sight of the island, Odysseus succumbs to sleep. He stops being a hero for a moment, and in that moment his men succumb to humanness. They open the fateful bag and the ship is blown off course.
This ambiguity between direct, unstoppable force and changeable, disruptive force, the duality of the implacable wind and the incalculable wind, is not so important in Miyazaki's films. His winds blow differently, whirling out of his early Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984), through his well-known movies into what he has called his final film, The Wind Rises (2013) [Watch the trailer here]. The last film is the one I want to look at, because its breezes are a real departure from the rest.
In his earlier films, the best description of wind's effect is "to set dancing." Figures, landscapes, machines—the drawings of the animation cells themselves—shuffle in and out of their outlines. Hair sways in and out of form, so does clothing. Grass and leaves never stay still. Tresses, dress hems, shirt collars, tall grasses and tree fronds lift and fall. Figures are animated by animators but their bodies are set dancing by wind. It is as if Miyazaki and his crew set out to break the animator's commandments: "Align your cells!" "Hide the jitter of disjointed frames!" "Make it steady and continuous!" The enchanted bouncy movements of these images become especially frenetic when the plot is about to change directions. At crucial moments nothing stays still. It is as if the forces swirling around everyone outside of their awareness all the time at these moments leap into view. In this sense, viewers of his films are like spectators of Greek tragic theater, when the wind rises. We sense the wind rising with equal parts fear and pity.
"Studio Ghibli," the name Miyazaki gave to his new undertaking in the ‘80s, refers to an Italian war plane named after the desert sirocco—ghibli—that lavishes North African heat across the Mediterranean onto southern Europe. Wind can be seen in this way too, through the foreign things it carries into our domestic spaces. German poet Friedrich Hölderlin saw it this way in the late poem, Andenken: "The Noreaster wafts/ Most beloved among the winds/ To me, because fiery spirit/ And good journey he promises sailors." Wind can be a bringer of goods, seeds, scents, spirit, omens. Things certainly arrive on the wind in Studio Ghibli movies. Often giant clunky war machines. These however are always in service of a story. The wind animates technology and nature so that a story can begin. In the main body of Miyazaki's work, wind is the motive force for stories—not the breath of the soul but the physical buoyancy that allows things to move or happen. Through this effect, wind is also a parable of animation. Without wind nothing would have the lift, the lubrication, the space or the potential to move. The world would be disanimated.
Being aloft is standard for Miyazaki's protagonists. They rarely walk or commute but surf or slide on glissades of gas. Are they agents of their actions or does the air carry them along? This is indeed the question. Again, the salient question is: does the wind liberate us from fetters or carry us toward our fate? The truth is something different: at the best moments, Miyazaki figures let themselves be taken away and do what they can with the little they are able to do. Miyazaki heroes are experts at "letting." It is often girls who are best at this. Nausicaä lets the wind take her, and helps it to help her arrive at surprising places. Sure, she is expert at using a special glider, yet the glider does not make or force but lets. Gliding is not so much a skill as a practice of strategically ceding control to one much more skilled than you—wind. The witch in training Kiki also learns—in the sense of ceding mastery to another—the caprices of the air. This is a witch's privilege. It's why a witch can travel on an object as mundane and earth-bound as a broom. Air flies, not the witch. A good witch knows this.
The opposite of witches' brooms and air gliders are of course airplanes and specifically fighters and bombers. Underlying Miyazaki's romance with moving air are experiences of war in the Japanese islands—this is well known. You could say that bombs and nuclear bombs above all gave a stark picture of the degree to which, in modern warfare, civilians are marooned on the ground. Perhaps this is why he wishes everyone could take to the air together. For a century or so, human settlements have been at the mercy of the air in a new way. Air technology turns the tides on wind. It can no longer be depicted as a happy, puffy face. Our "territoriality" has become an advantage to attackers—obviously a strategic fact in our new drone wars. At times Miyazaki's movies show the wind fighting back against air technology. Wind reclaims flying machines in The Castle in the Sky (1986), outlasts them in Nausicaä, lets them do work in Kiki's Delivery Service (1990). These films show the metaphorical wind of fate blowing back against attempts to use it for destruction. In these situations, though, wind eventually gets the upper hand. If it is used for destruction, it comes back and destroys the destroyers and then blows serenely across the resulting wasteland. There is a deeply karmic aspect to wind in Miyazaki.
Yet the karmic aspect all but disappears in the last film. Miyazaki has put away the tools of fantasy and taken up the tools of history. Wind is now a historical thing, and it no longer follows a rule of requital. This makes all sorts of problems for the theory of wind Miyazaki had built up over decades. "What goes around comes around," "what goes up must come down"—these wind principles are much too simplistic now, where the medium is not nature or human nature—the eternal battle of bad against good, lust for power against serene plant life—but history. The film's epigram, a quotation from the last stanza of a poem by Paul Valéry is much more complex. "The wind is rising!… We must try to live!" Le vent se lève!... Il faut tenter de vivre! This line is also quoted within the film by the protagonist, the airplane designer Jiro Horikoshi. One of the complexities in this film is that Miyazaki has a personal connection to Horikoshi. During the Second World War, the rudders of Horikoshi's long-range fighters were manufactured by the aeronautics factory run by Miyazaki's father. The other personal connection is that, for his whole career, Miyazaki has been a wind engineer too, using the wind and worrying about how others misuse it.
What does it mean, the wind is rising? We should try to live? Miyazaki has some momentous historical winds in mind. The wind of technology, for one. War machines grow stronger and stronger, until they can move the earth. The earth also moves itself. Natural disasters like the earthquake that mars the first part of The Wind Rises show that nature itself is still fateful. Nationalism and the police state are also on the rise, in Japan as much as in Germany. In short, the world surrounding the young Jiro has capitulated to the biggest forces. Jiro is in a tight spot, not unlike the one we are in today. We can call this the "engineer's dilemma" (it was identified a century ago by Oswald Spengler). An engineer thinks: can this be done? An engineer does not think: should I do this? The engineer's dilemma—am I a force of nature bringing out the inner possibilities of matter, or am I an actor in history, affecting the way human beings live—is obviously close to Miyazaki's heart and very close to the argument about wind in the last film. Jiro, the main character, the wind engineer, walks through history like a somnambulist, living by a mantra something like: a slide rule is not a gun.
It's a terrible contradiction that constructiveness, a love of beauty, and receptivity to the play of forces can turn, in an instant and without transition, into carnage, ugliness, and domination. Despite being caught in the engineer's dilemma, Jiro repeatedly demurs to the wind. The only ones better at doing this are the clouds, which populate every sky in the film. The white, swooped flying machine that Jiro dreams of and finally builds responds to the air's parries and thrusts; it does not manipulate them for nefarious purposes. At one point Jiro suggests to his design team, to make the plane lighter, that they remove the guns. But the plane needs to be ever lighter only in order to carry more guns. This is the engineer's dilemma in concrete form.
If you subscribe to the dictum of critical theory that whatever is potentially usable for doing evil is evil—a dictum hard to imagine before WWII—if you subscribe to this dictum, you are a fatalist. The wind in Miyazaki's last film has its own dictum: the effects of our actions in the future are uncertain. We can't know which of our actions, if any, will have effects. That is because history is the sworn enemy of fate. Miyazaki meets a problem here that has dogged him from early in his animating career. Fate is a type of history, to be sure. And yet it imports into history a naturalistic category, force. As soon as the metaphor of "forces" (envisioned as winds) is used to describe history, history becomes a mystical arena for secret powers that produce events which cannot be avoided. When wind is a metaphor for history, naturalistic fate replaces history's contingencies. Facing the wind, the only actions possible are resistance or surrender. "Force" is a physical metaphor, but who said history was analogous to physics? In history, there is not an equal and opposite reaction for each and every action. Things at rest don't necessarily stay at rest.
Posted by Paul North at 12:30 AM | Permalink