INTERVIEW/ Hayao Miyazaki: Newest Ghibli film humanizes designer of fabled Zero

August 04, 2013

By HIROYUKI OTA/ Staff Writer

"Kaze Tachinu" (The Wind Rises), the latest work by animation film director Hayao Miyazaki, is now showing in theaters across Japan. The protagonist of this film is Jiro Horikoshi (1903-1982), the designer of the Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighter aircraft, flown by the Imperial Japanese Navy during World War II.

Aside from writing and directing animated films, Miyazaki through his Studio Ghibli has also created numerous cartoons that realistically depict war and weapons. What attracts him to weapons, and what inspired him to portray the man who designed the iconic Zero?

Miyazaki revealed his complex thoughts and feelings in a recent interview with The Asahi Shimbun. Excerpts from the interview follow.


Question: You once tried to purchase an actual Zero from the United States, didn't you?

Miyazaki: Airplanes are the most beautiful when they are in the air. I wanted to see a Zero flown by a Japanese aviator, not an American. My fantasy was to see it flown under high-voltage power transmission cables next to Studio Ghibli in western Tokyo. But my wife told me to stop being such an idiot, and that was that.

Q: What is it about the Zero that fascinates you so much?

A: Including myself, a generation of Japanese men who grew up during a certain period have very complex feelings about World War II, and the Zero symbolizes our collective psyche. Japan went to war out of foolish arrogance, caused trouble throughout the entire East Asia, and ultimately brought destruction upon itself. From the history of actual warfare, we can only conclude that the Japanese military was simply incapable of getting its strategy right for the Battle of Midway and other crucial campaigns. But for all this humiliating history, the Zero represented one of the few things that we Japanese could be proud of. There were 322 Zero fighters at the start of the war. They were a truly formidable presence, and so were the pilots who flew them.

It was the extraordinary genius of Jiro Horikoshi, the Zero's designer, that made it the finest state-of-the-art fighter plane of the time. It was a contemporary of the Nakajima Ki-43 Hayabusa, operated by the Imperial Japanese Army. Both the Zero and the Hayabusa were about the same size, equipped with the same engine, and designed to be as lightweight as they could be. The only difference between the two aircraft was that the Zero was armed more heavily than the Hayabusa. And yet, when they flew together, the Zero was faster and could travel much farther than the Hayabusa. Why? Because Horikoshi intuitively understood the mystery of aerodynamics that nobody could explain in words.

The majority of fanatical Zero fans in Japan today have a serious inferiority complex, which drives them to overcompensate for their lack of self-esteem by latching on to something they can be proud of. The last thing I want is for such people to zero in on Horikoshi's extraordinary genius and achievement as an outlet for their patriotism and inferiority complex. In making this film, I hope to have snatched Horikoshi back from those people.

Q: You are anti-war, and yet, you are deeply in love with the Zero, which was essentially a weapon of war. You see an inconsistency there, don't you?

A: I am a bundle of contradictions. The love of weaponry is often a manifestation of infantile traits in an adult. A university professor of public finance once gave a most eloquent lecture on how the war economy destroys the national economy. I was shocked by how much money I'd wasted on my collection of books and models of weapons, and I ended up trashing them all.

Yet, when I saw such books a few years later, I couldn't resist buying them again. But, by then, I realized that my own perception had changed completely. What happens when you go to war with a country that has far superior industrial and natural resources than you do? You get your answer immediately when you compare the numbers of fighter aircraft made by Japan with those by Britain and the United States during the war.

The Zero aircraft became involved in the war of attrition the latter half of World War II had become, and Japan rapidly lost its finest pilots. From then on, everything began to go south. Structurally, the Zero was not designed for mass production. Noting the Zero's extremely complex structure, a European scholar of the history of aviation actually wrote that he was truly amazed by the fact that the Japanese had built more than 10,000 of them.

Q: In one scene in "Kaze Tachinu," Horikoshi stands motionless before a mound of plane wreckage.

A: He must have felt like a wreck of a man himself. He had completely devoted himself to his dream of building a beautiful plane, and reached the pinnacle of his career in the 1930s by designing the Type 96 carrier-based fighter, which appears in the film, and then the Zero. But the wartime shortage of engineers forced him to work himself ragged in order to develop new fighter aircraft while upgrading and improving the Zero. His predicament could be likened to Studio Ghibli being ordered to "produce five films a year without hiring any new staff." He did everything he could, but much of his efforts were in vain. Still, he never equated that with his personal defeat. He later wrote in no uncertain terms, "It appears that I am being held partially responsible for that war. But I do not believe I am responsible."

Q: Yoshitoshi Sone (1910-2003), the engineer who assisted Horikoshi in developing the Zero, reportedly said upon seeing the aircraft being used for suicide missions, "This is so distressing. If so many people were going to die, I should not have designed this aircraft. I should not have built it." Do you think Horikoshi felt differently?

A: He may have felt something similar. But at the same time, he must have believed that he had nothing to do with how the Zero came to be used. Obviously, he bears responsibility for that war as a Japanese citizen, but I don't see why one engineer has to be held responsible for the entire history of the war. In fact, I think it's pointless to raise the issue of Horikoshi's war responsibility at all.

I can relate to Sone's regret for having created the Zero. Still, had he not created it, I think he would have lived a much more disappointing life. As Sone says in my film, to build an airplane is a "beautiful dream that is also cursed." He built something he wanted to build, and was cursed and scarred as a result. But I fully believe that Sone must have thought later that there was nothing he could have done about it. In any age, it's best to live your life to the fullest. Nobody has the right to sit in judgment and decide what's good or bad for you.

Q: I understand that your father owned a munitions factory that made Zero components, and that experiencing the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 and air raids during the war turned him to nihilism. Is that true?

A: I associate the word nihilism with someone who acts cool and blase in a shallow or cheap way. But my father wasn't like that. All he believed was that his family was the most important thing in his life. After experiencing disasters that practically turned his world upside down, he abandoned all big talk about things like "important values" and "the right way to live." He was determined to protect his family and acquaintances to the best of his ability, but he believed he could not possibly be responsible for the nation or society at large. His stock phrase was, "Don't lose like a fool."

Q: Do you think like your father now?

A: I have learned to accept the fact that I can be useful only in an area in my immediate proximity--say within a 30-meter radius, or 100 meters at most, in a manner of speaking. I've got to accept my own limitations. In the past, I used to feel obliged to do something for the world or humanity. But I have changed a lot over the years. There was a time when I dabbled in the socialist movement, but I must say I was quite naive. When I saw Mao Tse-tung's picture for the first time, I found his face revolting. But everyone told me that he was a "great, warmhearted man," so I tried to think it was just a bad picture. I should have trusted my own gut feeling. That certainly wasn't the only time when I made a bad decision. I still am a man of many mistakes.

Q: During the period from the late Taisho Era (1912-1926) to the early Showa Era (1926-1989), which forms the backdrop of your film, there occurred the Great Kanto Earthquake and the Great Depression, and tensions were rising in the international community.

A: So very like now. One difference, though, was that back then, the Japanese people didn't take a long and healthy life for granted. At one time, Tokyo led the world in the number of tuberculosis patients. Young people were simply dropping dead. Because there was no guarantee about their future, everybody focused on living their lives to the fullest while they could.

Last year and this year, several friends and colleagues of mine died in their 40s and 50s. Death comes to the young and old alike in no set order. It compels you to imagine that the Grim Reaper is ever lurking behind you. I myself become terrified of death when I am in a negative state of mind. But the thought of death ceases to bother me once I become productive.

Q: You say you can't be responsible for anything that happens beyond your figurative boundary, but in reality you are influencing countless people through your films. What do you say about that?

A: I make films as a business, not as a cultural endeavor. My films just happened to be successful. If people weren't interested in what I make, my company would go belly up in no time. Some of my staff who joined Studio Ghibli recently seem to think they've landed a job in a stable company, but that's pure illusion and outright ludicrous.

Q: With animated film studios increasingly farming out work overseas where wages are cheaper, the "hollowing" of the industry is now in progress. But Studio Ghibli continues to hire full-time workers here in Japan. Why are you doing that?

A: That is in order to ensure quality. We switched to a full-time employment system after making "Majo no Takkyubin" (Kiki's Delivery Service) more than 20 years ago. Until then, every film was made under contract with animators, whom we paid on a piecework basis. But to produce densely drawn pictures, the animators had to slow their pace of work, which translated into drops in their income. It became clear that the piecework payment system would only wear out the animators, so we decided to put them on salary as full-time employees. We knew, of course, that doing so would require us to be more prolific in producing new works in order to make ends meet, and that this would lower our operating efficiency. Still, it was the only way for us to survive and keep making pictures.

With "Kaze Tachinu," the people we hired three years ago truly proved their mettle. They worked meticulously even on the most crowded mob scenes, the details of which would make any animator want to cry. What they did was so amazing that the result took even their breath away.

Aside from Studio Ghibli, I believe the only other Japanese animation production company that keeps a certain number of full-time people on its payroll is Khara Inc., run by Hideaki Anno, the director of the anime TV series "Neon Genesis Evangelion." I have known and worked with Anno for 30 years. He is undergoing unspeakable hardships, giving his all to film-making and grooming the next generation of film makers. I asked him to do Horikoshi's voice in "Kaze Tachinu." Anno is being totally his own person in living this present era to the fullest. He is the closest match to Horikoshi I could ever come across today.


Hayao Miyazaki was born in 1941. A graduate of Gakushuin University, he joined Toei Animation Co. in 1963 and became active in the company's labor movement. Miyazaki co-founded Studio Ghibli in 1985. His numerous works include "Kurenai no Buta" (Porco Rosso).

By HIROYUKI OTA/ Staff Writer
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Hayao Miyazaki during a recent interview with The Asahi Shimbun at Studio Ghibli in Koganei, western Tokyo (Makoto Kaku)

Hayao Miyazaki during a recent interview with The Asahi Shimbun at Studio Ghibli in Koganei, western Tokyo (Makoto Kaku)

  • Hayao Miyazaki during a recent interview with The Asahi Shimbun at Studio Ghibli in Koganei, western Tokyo (Makoto Kaku)
  • Hayao Miyazaki at Studio Ghibli in Koganei, western Tokyo (Makoto Kaku)

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