The Wind Rises is, I suspect, a very good movie; I won’t end up loving it in the same way as Spirited Away, but I probably will end up loving it more than Miyazaki’s films since that one, and the fact that it takes a less fantastical approach to its subject matter of course comes with strengths. I don’t have much to say about it as a whole yet, though I quite liked Ghibli Blog’s take on the movie.
What I do want to talk about, though, is one aspect of the surrounding discussion. The review that showed up in my local paper ends by saying that “But not addressing the way it was used and the war the country started so that it could use it just reminds us that Japan still dreams of denial, as far as World War II is concerned.” Or, on the blogger side, we have Tim Bray saying “But yeah, there’s a problem. What we have here is art that’s all about glorifying and romanticizing people who built killing machines that were put to use by a fascist government.” So: should I consider the movie’s treatment of that issue a problem or not?
Having just finished rereading the Nausicaä manga, I’m inclined to give Miyazaki the benefit of the doubt. In fact, I’ll tentatively propose that the movie’s refusal to directly address that question is an active strength: it made it a lot harder for me to pat myself on my back and say that I’m one of the good guys, unlike that horrible person in the movie.
Any discussion of the morality of that situation has to step away from the details. Yes, of course Japan did horrible things in the years leading up to World War II; yes, the Zero fighter was built in service of those horrible things. So it’s easy for me to say that a Japanese filmmaker should abase himself in shame for what his country did, that a Japanese airplane designer should have had the courage to say no when asked to build tools of war. But it’s easy for me to say that because I’m sitting in comfort seventy-five years after the fact in my home country, the country that was on the winning side of the war. Would I make the same claim if the roles were reversed, if it were me or my country we were talking about?
Because, to be clear: it is not at all difficult to find parallels in actions that my country has taken. Over those intervening seventy-five years, we’ve invaded one country after another, overthrown governments we don’t like and installed puppet regimes to do our bidding in flagrant disregard of basic notions of democracy, of the rights, desires, and even lives of the people who actually live in those countries. I’m not a student of history, but it is not at all obvious to me that Japan’s treatment of China was any worse than the United States’ treatment of Vietnam or our treatment of Latin American countries. And we’re the country that developed and used the atomic bomb, and we continue to have enough bombs in our arsenal to destroy humanity.
And of course there are plenty of American movies about the Vietnam War that don’t present our actions there as heroic. But what’s interesting to me about The Wind Rises is the oblique angle that it takes to the war. Jiro isn’t a soldier: he’s an engineer and designer, he’s doing work that he loves and is brilliant at, he’s doing work that is unquestionably deserving of love. And he’s doing that work in the service of his country, in a context where many around him are unable to find work and living in poverty. (The movie’s title reinforces that latter aspect of the situation: the wind is rising, we must try to live.) I would like to be able to say that, were our situations reversed, I would make different choices from Jiro, but I don’t believe that: the choices that I’ve made in my life so far give ample evidence that I don’t stay away from work in contexts that are morally questionable, especially if that work is work that I love, am good at, and can make money from.
As is obvious from the above, I think a lot of what the US military does is evil. So you would think that I would stay away from the military. These days I do, but I haven’t always. The summer after my freshman year at college, I worked at a defense contractor on a military-funded research project. (We were building a verified Scheme compiler, it was really interesting!) And most of my grad school was funded by a Defense Department grant. In both cases, I got to do something that was fascinating, profitable, and that I was good at; that combined with the lack of direct focus on military applications was enough for me to ignore my misgivings about military ties.
And maybe that was even a perfectly reasonable choice from an ethical point of view: better for the military to spend money on me than on something more closely tied to killing people? Certainly military-funded research has led to a lot of good: the internet started off as a DoD-funded project, after all. But I think that’s largely after-the-fact rationalization of me doing what was most pleasant for me. It’s nothing compared to the gravity of the choices Jiro had to make: if he wanted to do what he loved at all, he had to accept military work, and he was surrounded by people whose lives were threatened by not being able to work. Whereas if I hadn’t taken DoD funding for grad school, then I would have gotten NSF funding instead, I would have had the exact same education, and my stipend would have been maybe 15% lower; this hardly compares in terms of hardship.
I don’t want to present this as too much of a slippery slope: I’m pretty sure I would have thought a lot harder about those choices if they’d involved working directly on military work. But that in turn points at one of the major strengths (?) of modern capitalism: it leads to systems that are very good at finding people’s moral limits and getting as much benefit from those people as possible given those limits. If you want to be on the front lines of fighting evil in the name of your country, the military will be happy to give you a gun and ask you to do that. If you support the cause but don’t want to be so directly exposed (whether for reasons of danger or of not wanting to be confronted with the consequences of your actions quite so directly), you can help at a distance: you can pilot a drone, you can work in a support role. If you want to be ready to support your government if necessary but would prefer to not have your home and work life disrupted excessively otherwise, you can join the National Guard. If you want to use your brain to fight people, or just want to use your brain to solve interesting problems and don’t really care where those problems come from, the NSA will be happy to employ you. If you want to work on generally applicable technological problems and don’t particularly care who pays the bills, then you’ll end up where I ended up, opportunistically getting DoD funding to do what you want.
And what this leads to is a system where the military can get a lot more power, can be a lot more effective than it would be if people had to make a choice up front as to whether or not they’d be willing to pull a trigger and kill a person standing in front of them: by putting their fingers on the scales, the military can weight the system to flow in their direction. It’s similar to the way funding by the rich and corporations biases the political system: I’m sure most politicians would recoil at the notion of simply letting their votes be bought, but if pro-corporate candidates get more funding than anti-corporate candidates, then the whole system flows in a pro-corporate direction even if no candidate’s behavior is changed by the presence of funding, because the pro-corporate candidates are more likely to survive. (And I bet that an awful lot of political candidates’ willingness to engage in quid-pro-quo behavior rises as they’ve been within the system longer, too.)
I haven’t, as far as I know, accepted military funding for a decade and a half now; that doesn’t mean that I’m not still implicated in ethical choices, though. Every week, there’s another story about how the tech industry is actively hostile to women, to minorities. Or if it’s not that story, then it’s a story about privacy, how we’re constantly monitoring our users in order to make them more attractive to advertisers. And I just got back from GDC, my yearly exposure to the arguments around monetizing. I’ve seen all of those arguments from the inside of companies; generally I’ve ended up working in a way that puts me on the wrong side of them, because I end up on the wrong side in a way that I only find mildly distasteful, and working on something interesting and profitable turns out to matter more to me than mild ethical discomfort in practice.
And then there are other arguments that don’t even rise to my conscious attention but that are perhaps even more important. Climate change seems like it’s probably a bigger threat to human existence than anything other than nuclear weapons; as somebody who works on server software, I’m part of a switch from physical goods to goods over the internet. So I’m pretty sure that the work that I do is directly relevant to climate change, but I have no idea whether it’s relevant in a good way or a bad way! Maybe reducing transportation costs means that it’s a net positive; maybe server energy usage means that it’s a net negative. But, either way, it’s very easy for me to not think about the issue at all.
Miyazaki cares a lot about these sorts of big questions around war, around the environment, around survival: see Nausicaä, see Castle in the Sky, see Princess Mononoke. In those three movies, there’s a clear bad guy to fight against, and it’s easy to put ourselves in the place of somebody fighting against that bad guy. With The Wind Rises, he raises those same questions (referring to them even in the movie’s title), but instead encourages us to empathize with somebody on the other side of that divide. That’s gotten me thinking a lot more than any of his previous movies have; and it has me realizing that it’s not a divide at all.
- March 23, 2014 @ 18:55:47 [Current Revision] by David Carlton
- March 23, 2014 @ 18:55:47 by David Carlton