“The Wind Rises” is a pseudo-biography of Japanese warplane designer Jiro Horikoshi and to a degree Hayao Miyazaki’s parents as well, who underwent some similar events to the fictitious elements Miyazaki adds to Horikoshi’s life, as well as having some similarities to the realities. The film revels in the joy of flight and the wonder of the machines that bring people to the skies, but it takes place during dark days, World War II, much as the film and its protagonist sideline that. Horikoshi is relentlessly apolitical.
The closest the film gets to really engaging with the morality of developing machines used for war and death is when he Horikoshi is asked in a dream sequence whether he’d prefer to live in a world with or without pyramids. Horikoshi dodges the question by asserting he just wants to design beautiful planes. He stubbornly refuses to engage with moral implications of his work and buries himself into the “purity” of ignorance.
The film, and Horikoshi, focus much more on romance than war. Horikoshi’s partner is underwritten but shares many memorable sweet scenes with him, most relating to their bonding and intimacy while she’s bedridden with tuberculosis. He dodges the reality of her illness as much as he can. She puts on make-up every morning to appear less sick for him. He continues to smoke next to her while explicitly ignoring the health risk. He buries himself in nostalgia for a Japan no longer present.
His one arguable moment of mindfulness comes at the end of the film when his great plane works wonderfully and is embraced by everyone and he turns his eyes to the countryside; his great mission complete and his ability to bury himself into ignorance now compromised. So he retreats into a dream fantasy sequence once more, where his partner encourages him.
That last dream sequence bears resemblance to the airplane heaven imagery from “Porco Rosso”, and much of the film can be read quite easily analogously to Miyazaki himself. Horikoshi wondrous plane, the Zero, is overshadowed by an image of the American B-29. Horikoshi grapples with that for all his efforts, time goes on, his work is swept aside, suffering happens one way or another. Originally intended as Miyazaki’s last work, I wonder if the fate of Studio Ghibli after his retirement weighed on his mind while exploring some of these ideas.
During development in the film, as covered in the documentary feature “The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness”, Miyazaki states “why worry about understanding the films?”, and what tidbits he shares about Jiro (”I don’t believe Jiro was militant at all”, agreeing that the film was strongly anti-war in nature) are divorced from any greater thematic consideration of what he created. Miyazaki states “people who design airplanes and machines, no matter how much they believe that what they do is good, the winds of time eventually turn them into tools of industrial civilisation. It’s never unscathed. They’re cursed dreams. Animation, too”. I think it’s notable that the onus is placed there on “the winds of time”, a passive movement of society rather than an active reality creators directly help bring about. That tension is so key to what makes the film work, intentionally or otherwise.
Taken as a scathing exploration of complicity and naivety, the film works wonderfully and holistically. Taken as a more direct biopic or cinematic adulation of flight and dreamers, it feels a lot less worthwhile and a lot more unsettling to me. One way or another, one of Miyazaki’s most morally complicated films. Four Zeros, and a B29.