On terrible beauty
The boy Jiro wants to design planes. He dreams of flying. He cannot become a flier himself, because of his eyes, but he takes his hopes with him into engineering school. It’s important to notice early on that there is a kind of blindness in what he’s doing: It’s always going to be another man actually facing death in the plane. The beauty of flight is divorced from the experience of danger.
This transforms into Jiro’s eventual fate: He designed the Zero, which gave Japan such pride & power in the early years of WWII. This is another kind of blindness: He put power in the hands of monsters. Technological science is a blind giant & it is astonishing to witness what innocence & what ignorance of the world are tied up in the love of beauty that inspires people to do the hard, uncertain calculating & imagining how man might build a flying contraption.
Planes had already been used for war in The Great War. Politics almost everywhere in the world afterward degenerated. Civilization was collapsing. Violence replaced law; political assassinations became facts of life; & the organization of hatred became the test of loyalties. This is the world in which the dream of flight was pursued.
It is therefore especially important that Jiro takes counsel in his dreams. His adviser is an Italian aircraft designer–his was the first passenger plane to kill more than a dozen people in a crash. His advice is perfectly irresponsible, which fits with his image, which is not that of an industrialist who worked for the Fascists in Italy. Instead, he is a dashing gentleman-inventor. It is remarkable, but not surprising, that Miyazaki, a pacifist who mourns the catastrophes created by technological science should take the perspective of the young idealist. Beauty & story-telling, after all, favor the long view.
Jiro also takes the advice of one other man, Hans Castorp, named for the protagonist whose soul is in question in Thomas Mann’s Magic mountain. An apolitical view of the beautiful emerges; the man’s a victim or at least target of the Japanese security police.
This goes together with Jiro’s love for the doomed Naoko, who will die of TB. Does the spectacle of noble daring against terrible events make sense, except in the crisis before WWII & when death is imminent? Is there any insight in this act of braving tragedy or suffering beyond tragedy, an insight that might matter even in peaceful, tranquil times? Few things last–but we do tend to remember tragic beauty. & the origins of the comforts & powers we enjoy in peaceful prosperity are seldom similarly originated. & maybe Japan has little else to rescue from its catastrophic century except such beauty…
Also Oscar nominated, this last movie by Miyazaki is an attempt to give Japan a way to confront its past without succumbing to self-loathing–& therefore to attempt to find a decent future.