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

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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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