History as Force of Nature: Godzilla and The Wind Rises

This week in cinemas two films hark back to Japan’s traumatic passage through war and atomic holocaust in the 1930s and 1940s – I discussed them both last night with Matthew Sweet, on BBC Radio 3’s Free Thinking [here, from 33 mins].

The original 'Gojira' film, 1954

The original ‘Gojira’ film, 1954

Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla is an attempt to reboot a franchise that began sixty years ago with a radiation-breathing monster emerging from the sea and trampling Tokyo under foot.

‘Gojira’ – a portmanteau of the Japanese words for ‘gorilla’ and ‘whale’ – was intended by director Ishiro Honda to be ‘the A-bomb made flesh'; a thrilling story and a way for Japan to process the experience of becoming the first country on earth to suffer the use of this terrible new weapon.

Honda had seen the devastation in Hiroshima at first hand, and wanted to find a way of confronting audiences with the terrifying reality of an unfathomable, unstoppable force. Taking inspiration along the way from the American King Kong franchise he brought to life a monster with a message – assisted by the master of the rubberized ‘kaiju’ [monster] suit, Eiji Tsuburaya, who later created Japanese pop culture legend Ultraman. Here’s a clip from the American version of Honda’s film:

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Nature, history, and sheer destructive power are central too to Hayao Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises, the beautiful farewell production from Japan’s beloved anime director and guiding hand of Studio Ghibli. The film charts the life of Jiro Horikoshi (below), the Mitsubishi engineer who designed the iconic ‘Zero’ fighter plane synonymous with Japan’s war effort from Pearl Harbour to the final kamikaze missions.

'Kaze Tachinu' - 'The Wind Rises'

‘Kaze Tachinu’ – ‘The Wind Rises’

Horikoshi is depicted here, by Miyazaki, as someone too much in love with aeroplanes to consider for very long how they might be used. Discovering, at one point, that his design is still too heavy, he wonders aloud to his colleagues ‘perhaps if we leave off the guns…?’

To be fair to Miyazaki he goes a long way, given the family-friendly orientation of Studio Ghibli, to try to represent the repressive elements of late 1930s Japan – showing Jiro at one point being hunted down by Japan’s infamous ‘thought police’.

And he includes a holiday resort scene, inspired by Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain, in which a mysterious German holiday-maker comments with gentle sarcasm that this place is useful for forgetting – ‘forget that Japan sets up a puppet state in Manchuria, forget that Japan leaves the League of Nations’, he says, warning that both Germany and Japan are about to ‘blow up’.

But both the original Godzilla and The Wind Rises play into a powerful narrative in Japan about the Second World War: that history is a force of nature, best understood not in terms of man-made events that require investigation and the taking of responsibility but as a series of unstoppable, almost inexplicable happenings that swept across Japan in the 1930s and ’40s much as Godzilla sweeps across Tokyo or the wind rushes through the trees, hair, skirts, and airfields of Miyazaki’s film.

This take on history means that like most mainstream Japanese artistic commentary on the war Godzilla and The Wind Rises end up drawing their drama from the lives of ordinary people caught up helplessly in  devastation, struggling to survive or seeking out, in Miyazaki’s words, ‘moments of beauty’. Here’s the trailer for another Ghibli production, Grave of the Fireflies, about a boy trying to keep himself and his sister alive in the final days of the war:

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Less passive, but no easier to watch, is Barefoot Gen: the story of a young boy doing all he can to hold his family together in the aftermath of the Hiroshima bomb. This is the terrifying scene depicting the bombing itself, showing the power of anime to do what live-action films probably never could:

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Jiro and Naoko

Jiro and Naoko

For all the value of paying close attention to how ordinary people – and children especially – experience war, by depersonalizing aggressors or allegorizing manmade tragedies filmmakers risk lending it a sense of guiltless inevitability. In Miyazaki’s film, for example, Jiro’s fictionalized relationship with a young girl suffering from tuberculosis is handled with the sweetest, lingering intimacy while gunners on Italian warplanes are drawn with no faces and their bombs are not weapons crafted by human beings but are depicted instead as wrathful, pulsating beings in their own right – Nature and inevitability incarnate.

Miyazaki achieved this effect, of turning human history and technology into ‘Nature’, and then Nature into a living, humming force, by having human voices produce all the sounds in his film. The 1923 Kanto Earthquake, which flattened large parts of Tokyo, is rendered as a deep, semi-human groan rising up from the depths of the earth, throwing Jiro’s train around like a toy:

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While the new Godzilla is disappointing – bar a few wonderful scenes of monster combat – Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises is well worth going to see. It would be a relief to find the next generation of mainstream Japanese animators tackling Japan’s recent past in a more head-on way. But we would be much the poorer without Miyazaki’s vision of a spiritualized Nature, the wind everywhere a sign of a great life and breath that envelops and enlivens human activity. Here’s the final song from this final film of Miyazaki’s: Hikouki Gumo [Aeroplane Trails] – ‘a whole life, a vapour trail’….

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