The Wind Rises is a haunted film. It is a beautiful film, easily possessing the greatest animation of Miyazaki’s considerable body of work. But all of that beauty comes at a price: the haunted horrors of war, illness, and the torment of an artist’s soul.
Telling the mostly-true-but-fictionalized story of Jiro Horikoshi, a Japanese aviation engineer who developed a number of planes for the Japanese war machine during World War II, The Wind Rises is a significant departure from the typically-fantastic style Miyazaki is known for. To be sure, the film does not always present a realistic reality: in many cases, even outside the film’s spectacular dream sequences, the reality presented is idealized and fantastic in nature. The billowing smoke clouds over the devastated city of Tokyo. The decidedly human voice of an earthquake. The otherworldly, paradisiacal scenes set at Satomi’s inn. These things mask a profoundly unsettling and uncomfortable reality that lies in the dark fringes of this haunted film. The spectre of war looms intimidatingly over all, and colors everything that happens in the film’s epic plot.
This is Miyazaki’s best film. Let’s talk about it.
PART ONE – Inverse Drama
I’ve talked to a few people about this film – not as many as I would like to talk about it with, given that it’s an unfortunately niche interest film and one that is playing in relatively few places – and so far the reaction has been decidedly mixed. A majority of those I have talked to have expressed non-specific disappointment, praising a lot of aspects of the film but finding the whole somehow incomplete.
As always, I do not presume to know for a fact why these people experienced that feeling of incompleteness and disappointment. But, I very firmly believe that such a strange malaise towards the film is caused by its unique (arguably; certainly unique among Miyazaki’s output) dramatic structure. Rather than relying on the standard dramatic mold, this film employs a form of drama rarely seen in mainstream cinema and typically relegated to arthouse features – inverse drama. Inverse drama is a fun, sticky sort of structural technique that is hard to pull off, but I believe wholeheartedly that Miyazaki does so with aplomb.
Standard drama is pretty well understood. There’s a conflict, and the events of the plot amplify that conflict and ultimately bring it to a resolution at great cost. Events pile on and pile on and the stakes get higher and higher and characters lose things and find things before it all culminates in a resolving action of some sort. Inverse drama, however, is not so straightforward. Instead, inverse drama amplifies conflicts by way of other conflicts. Events, releases, and resolution in one conflict will actively amplify a second conflict.
For example, Edgar Wright’s film The World’s End uses inverse drama to great effect. The central conflict in the film might ostensibly be the alien invasion that takes place during their homecoming, but the true central conflict is Gary King’s struggle with his inner demon: alcoholism. The conflict involving the Blanks is a secondary conflict that amplifies that struggle. Once the Blanks start appearing in the open and our lead characters notice it, there is an debate over whether they should flee Newton Haven or continue to complete the Golden Mile. The Blanks eventually start openly attacking our heroes. Both of these things – opposition from his friends and hostility from the Blanks in the city – are obstacles to Gary King’s primary desire for that last pint in The World’s End. This conflict with the blanks is amplifying the central conflict by placing new obstacles in his way and raising the stakes, but still serving as its own conflict.
As a result of this structure, a lot of critics complained that Gary King’s continued drive to finish the Golden Mile felt bizarre, out of character somehow. But those critics were misguided by the film’s inverse dramatic structure: they saw the conflict with the alien invaders as the central conflict in the film, rather than Gary King’s struggle with alcoholism. When looking at the film through a lens of inverse drama, all those bizarrely out of place moments and beats make sense, because they’re the actual conflict at the center of this film. It’s not entirely accurate to call the alien invasion a “backdrop,” as it too is a fully fledged conflict with its own dramatic stakes and structure. But its purpose is not to drive the film, but to amplify the conflict that IS driving the film. Inverse drama is frequently obfuscated in this way, because we are so attuned to dramatic structure that we pick up on and follow new conflicts introduced with us as if they are independent. The interlocking nature of inverse dramatic conflicts tends to throw us for a loop and make a lot of scenes feel misplaced.
The Wind Rises, I believe, has fallen victim to that problem. There are long stretches of the film that do not feel right, or feel awkwardly paced, or unnecessary. But those stretches are critical. They matter. They might not be sequences of Jiro working towards his goal of designing a beautiful airplane, but in their own way they are contributing to that conflict, that pursuit.
The Wind Rises ultimately has not one, not two, but three conflicts at play, and they naturally amplify each other in significant ways. The first conflict is a simple one: Jiro Horikoshi wants to be a pilot, but his nearsightedness makes that impossible. As such, he turns to aeronautical engineering, inspired by Italian engineer Caproni. His conscious desire is to make a beautiful plane, and the bulk of the film chronicles his life story in trying to achieve that desire. The second conflict lies on the fringes of the first conflict: it is inter-war Japan. They are years behind their allies and enemies alike on the technological front. Germany’s rising war machine portends a coming war (“The wind is rising,” as the film frequently points out, “so we must try to live”). Jiro’s desires to build a plane are in direct conflict with Japan’s need for military aircraft. His own moral compass makes this a touchy subject: is he satisfied building planes that will be used as instruments of death and destruction? The third conflict is a seemingly unrelated one: Jiro’s romance with young woman Nahoko, whom he saves during a tragic earthquake that devastates Tokyo, and later meets again at a mountain retreat that his engineering firm sent him to.
These three conflicts are distinct and yet interwoven. The primary conflict, however, is the second one, the moral conflict that Jiro faces when building airplanes to be used in the Japanese war machine. The other two conflicts are given far more screen time, but it is this moral question that lies at the center of the film. Can Jiro, in good conscience, go on building tools of destruction?
The film spends a lot of time – the bulk of its runtime, in fact – showing us how he can go on doing so. It does not cast judgment on Jiro, but rather shows in tragic, melancholic fashion what enables and drives him to continue doing this thing that is tormenting him inside. This is why the inverse drama of the film works.
The first conflict is most frequently addressed through the stunning dream sequences. The first one begins with Jiro as a child, imagining flying through the city on a plane he built himself. Thereafter, the dream sequences feature Count Caproni, the Italian aircraft designer, who encourages Jiro and condones his desire to build beautiful airplanes. Jiro’s awe at Caproni’s designs is always palpable, and English voice actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt brings a calm admiration to the character.
Outside of those dream sequences, we are frequently treated to small scenes of inspiration for Jiro. He eats mackerel (as he always does, to the chagrin of his friend and colleague, Honjo) and is mesmerized by the curve of one of its bones, and incorporates that into his designs, rapt in awe at the simplicity and power of the shape. He and Honjo are invited to examine the assembly floor at Mitsubishi, their employer, and are immediately struck by their beauty, and begin to discuss ways to improve the design. So many small instances like this are littered throughout the film, hammering home just how strong Jiro’s desire is.
We don’t really need to see so many scenes depicting Honjo and Jiro geeking out over highly technical specs; and yet, at the same time, we very much do. Those scenes do not directly contribute to any of the conflicts. But the sheer joy and fervor with which the two friends engage in such conversation is revealing the exact depths of Jiro’s desire to build planes. It is raising the stakes of the moral conflict by conveying to us exactly how much Jiro loves doing this, making the cost of abandoning his career building planes on a moral basis much higher.
The love story between Jiro and Nahoko amplifies the conflict in an entirely separate way. It simultaneously reflects the moral conflict while also contributing to its stakes. After Jiro’s first design crashes in a test at the airfield, Mitsubishi sends him to a mountain retreat for his mental health. Jiro spends much of his time there alone, not looking particularly happy. But his reencounter with Nahoko, whom he had saved some years previous during the devastating Tokyo earthquake, brings him a bit of happiness. The two spark a romance, and eventually become engaged with the begrudging blessing of Nahoko’s father, Satomi.
This sequence, perhaps more than any in the film, is the one I have seen called out as misplaced and unnecessary. It has absolutely nothing to do with the aircraft conflicts of the film, and honestly feels like a significant tonal shift. I grant very much that this is a valid criticism, and I don’t entirely disagree that it felt strange and out of touch with the film. But with greater thought, I have come to the conclusion that this sequence is absolutely necessary and one of the most profoundly important parts of the film. The purpose of Jiro’s sojourn to the mountain retreat was to relax and destress after his airplane design failed in its test. We see him first here very morose and resigned. His return to happiness as his romance with Nahoko blossoms brings him back into the fold and sees him return to work renewed.
This is the critical point: his love of Nahoko is a significant part of what enables him to persist in the creation of aircraft, despite their intended purpose. This sequence directly demonstrates that, and its off-kilter, almost paradisiacal feel is necessary to fully convey the mental state that it places Jiro in. The film has zero regard for consequence at this stage, playing a scene in which Jiro and Nahoko both nearly fall off their balconies (likely to their death if we want to be gravely serious) for sweet laughs rather than anything approaching intense drama.
Perhaps the most telling scene in this sequence is a conversation Jiro has with a German man (voiced by Werner Herzog. Yes. You read that right) who speaks of coming war and dark portents. The tone suddenly shifts to the more serious, solemn tone the rest of the film has… only to immediately shift back as Satomi enters the conversation with news of Nahoko. The fledgling romance directly interrupts the grave moral concerns that trouble Jiro, and the tone immediately shifts back to the fantastic one that characterizes the mountain retreat sequence in the film. That’s deliberate, and it reveals Miyazaki’s intent with this entire subplot: to amplify and perpetuate the conflict of Jiro’s moral quandary.
Once the mountain retreat ends, and Jiro settles back into daily life, his relationship with Nahoko takes on a whole new character. With the revelation that Nahoko has tuberculosis, of which her mother died, their relationship becomes an immediately tragic one, with Jiro already accepting his wife’s inevitable death. He marries her all the same, and upon her “escape” from a sanitarium to be with Jiro, lives with her during the design of his aircraft. Her presence clearly inspires Jiro, and despite her weak state and poor health, the two are genuinely happy. He claims to work better with her around, and since he no longer has to leave work to go and visit her (as he did before she went to the sanitarium, when her lung hemorrhaged at the retreat), he is able to do better work overall.
This is a remarkable case of the resolution to their conflict – their tragic, doomed love affair being resolved by Nahoko’s arrival at Jiro’s home – actually raising the stakes tremendously for Jiro’s existing moral conflict. Nahoko’s presence causes Jiro to do better work on airplanes, which makes the moral consequences arguably that much worse. Her frequent praise of him and his work makes quitting on a moral basis all the more difficult. The resolution of their love affair simply makes Jiro’s moral conflict dead end. He cannot back out of building planes now, for all the benefit it has brought him elsewhere.
Of course, upon the completion of his project, Nahoko returns to the sanitarium in secret. Jiro, on a three-day trip to the airfield where his new plane will be tested, is only informed by a sudden rising of the wind. He turns toward the mountain and stares longingly, knowing what has happened. Immediately after he is praised for the remarkable success of his aircraft, but he displays no joy, knowing the cost of what he has just done. The end – not resolution, but the definite end – of the conflict involving his love for Nahoko has led to a full realization of the morality of his profession.
He built a beautiful airplane (conflict 1), but at great cost – the cost of his wife (conflict 3) – which caused him to feel the full impact of the morality of his actions (conflict 2).
Inverse drama. It’s powerful. It allows Miyazaki to take this man, and show us his life story in immaculate detail, but to bring it all back to the central point that Jiro was a man torn between his desires and the moral consequences of pursuing those desires.
PART TWO – Morality and the Soul of an Artist
The other consistent criticism of the film I have seen is one of its morality; namely, that the film glorifies Japanese militarism and glosses over the terrible things done by Japan in World War II. Some have claimed that it ignores this entirely, while others claim that it doesn’t fully grasp the magnitude of the atrocities.
I do not see either of those complaints, and honestly think they are so wrongheaded and demonstrably false that I am baffled that people can make them.
That’s a bold claim and I apologize for its severity, but this is a film that managed to make me – a student filmmaker whose output has no measurable impact on the world – endure an existential crisis of the morality of my pursuit of filmmaking. How can a film that supposedly glosses over morally touchy subjects have such a profound impact on my own moral thinking?
The answer, I believe, lies in the way that the film somewhat obfuscates its moral center. We’ve talked about the complex structure of inverse drama that hides a lot of the moral conflict, but we haven’t yet discussed that moral conflict and responsibility in full. The reason for this is because that moral conflict is only told through Jiro and his situation; it is not specific to him or to people like him (Oppenheimer is probably the best American counterpart), but rather a universal conflict among anybody who creates.
Jiro is always presented as having the soul of an artist. From the moment he resigns to become an aeronautical engineer, he is consumed by the desire to create beautiful airplanes. His admiration for them appears equally borne out of a love for flight and the idealism of humanity breaking the binds that gravity has placed on us, and out of their sheer aesthetic beauty. Yes, planes are technology, brilliant feats of engineering and the capabilities of human knowledge; but Jiro’s interest in them is artistic, and Miyazaki does an excellent job of making our interest in them the same. He renders them so appealingly and with such care that we the audience cannot help but watch in awe at the beautiful designs in Jiro’s dreams.
To induce Jiro’s conflict into a more general conflict that all artists face, we need only know that his canvas is a plane. He creates art with his designs. The conflict that this film is most concerned with as a matter of thematic importance is the conflict between an artist’s desire to create beauty and the potential misuse or abuse of that beauty. For Jiro, that misuse and abuse happens to be the death of millions. The stakes for most artists are significantly lower, but that moral quandary is there all the same.
As I was watching the film, this moral question did not eat at me as it has in the time I’ve spent thinking about it after. Jiro’s position as an artist was always clear to me given the way Miyazaki wrote his desires, but the moral component didn’t seem as directly pertinent. Nothing that I make is going to have much of an impact at all, much less an impact so great as the death of millions of innocents. How could Jiro’s trouble even come close to being pertinent to me? I only realized later exactly how pertinent it is. As a creator, everything that I create says something. It might not say what I intended it to say. Maybe I didn’t intend for it to say anything. But everything has something that it is saying. There is no creative work that does not say something, no matter how seemingly insignificant it is. It is with that in mind that I realized Jiro’s moral conflict is precisely this; it is the competition between the desire to create something beautiful and the moral responsibility of what that something beautiful says.
To use an example, let’s talk – again – about Disney Princesses. Do I think that people like Tony Bancroft and Barry Cook, the directors of Mulan, are sexist people who intended to push patriarchal gender roles in the guise of female empowerment? Not at all. I don’t know them. I have no idea what they’re like as people. But I would wager that they had a vision for the film Mulan and wanted to simply create a beautiful film of the kind that speaks to them, personally (a desire that I believe they fulfilled, as the film is a great one). I think ultimately that Mulan was a piece of personal expression, as all art is in the end, if corporately motivated. But they have this moral responsibility to be aware of what their creation says. And unfortunately, Mulan can be interpreted as saying some really unfortunate things. Is it “immoral?” That might be a bit strong. But, as I do not think it was their intention, I do think it was ultimately irresponsible on the part of somebody involved with the film – be it the corporate producers or the directors themselves.
This is considerably lower stakes, but is exactly the same quandary that Jiro faces. The unchecked use of his creation, which he created out of a personal desire to make something beautiful that inspired him, for evil. Can he live with that?
That’s the moral center of the film, and it’s a powerful one. It’s a call to be fully aware of what your creations say and do, and how they’re used. Given that, I find it impossible to believe that Miyazaki would ever unknowingly or willingly create a film that glorified heinous acts, that ignored the ramifications of atrocity. Miyazaki is clearly arguing for the responsibility of artists for their art, which is a powerful statement to make.
Note, however, that Miyazaki is never judgmental toward Jiro. He does not portray him as a war profiteer or as some awful human being who actively sought his instruments of war being used to take the lives of innocents. Jiro is portrayed as a kind, gentle man above all else. But the question of blame is one that we must consider. Yes, Miyazaki is very much saying that Jiro needs to be morally responsible for his actions, and must live with the outcome of what he creates. He is hardly letting him off the hook. But I do not believe Miyazaki is necessarily assigning blame to Jiro for the death of innocents.
Sure, if Jiro had not designed the two planes that he did, then the people those planes killed would not in any way be tied back to Jiro’s actions. But, had Jiro not done that, then perhaps Honjo – who himself developed heavy bomber planes for the military – would have. Or perhaps another engineer. Or maybe Japan would have contracted somebody other than Mitsubishi to develop the planes. There is an inevitability that runs throughout the film with regard to the oncoming war. Jiro’s actions did not bring about the war by making Japan ready for it; the war was coming regardless. And whether inevitability exonerates culpability is a question that Miyazaki seems very concerned with.
For more evidence of this concern, look no further than Jiro’s love for Nahoko. It is established early in their relationship that she is ill with tuberculosis, a disease that claimed her mother’s life. Perhaps in reality, this might not necessarily spell a death sentence (though, given the severity of Japan’s tuberculosis epidemic during the time the film takes place, it likely would). But in film we are fully aware that this means Nahoko’s days are numbered. And yet, immediately after this revelation, without skipping a beat, Jiro proposes and kisses her. He never shows any trepidation about his love for Nahoko despite her sickness.
During her sickness, Jiro’s sister (a doctor) recommends that Jiro send her back to the sanitarium rather than allowing her to continue living with him. And yet, neither Jiro nor Nahoko wants that, or allows that. They both know that Nahoko isn’t long for the world, and Jiro says as much several times. They intend to cherish every moment they have together, because they know it is inevitable.
That inevitability – the knowledge that even if Nahoko returns to the sanitarium, she will not survive her illness – seems to absolve Jiro and Nahoko of blame for her death. She dies because of tuberculosis, not because Jiro did not send her back to the sanitarium. Miyazaki does not assign blame for her death to anyone but the disease that takes her life. It was inevitable, so they made the best of that inevitability.
Because of this aspect of their love story, I firmly believe that Miyazaki does not find Jiro culpable for the lives lost to his planes. Jiro himself is still grappling with that morality during the final dream sequence, which sees him overlooking a terrifying graveyard of his planes and the people they have killed, but Miyazaki has absolved him. Jiro is not at fault. He made the planes that killed millions, yes. But if he hadn’t, somebody else would have. It was an inevitability. And so Jiro made the best of that inevitability, creating beautiful airplanes, fulfilling his desire. The cost of fulfilling that desire was great, both personally (the loss of his wife) and globally (the slaughter of innocents).
CLOSING – A Profoundly Challenging Film
I’ve never been the biggest fan of the phrase “challenging film,” because it reeks of pretension. There’s nothing inherently worse about an “easy” or a “comfortable” film. It’s preference, that is all.
But The Wind Rises is one of the first films that I think has earned the moniker “a challenging film,” because it is in every way challenging. It’s a moral challenge to artists everywhere, calling them to responsibility for their art. It’s a dramatic challenge for everybody, inviting them to see the way that ostensibly distinct events in one’s life can alter its course and affect everything else. It’s a very uncomfortable film that doesn’t coddle, doesn’t sugarcoat. It presents everything in a somberly real way.
Jiro is offered little comfort. He is presented first as a boy with a dream, then as a man following that dream. It just so happens that his dream contributed to the growing climate of war. Can he be blamed for being born in such a time? Can he be reviled for pursuing a dream of building beautiful airplanes just because to do so when he lived was to create instruments of war? Yes, they killed millions. Yes, he knew that’s what they would be used for.
But weren’t those airplanes beautiful? Wasn’t it all just sublime? Graceful? Aren’t they something to be proud of, even with their use in mind?
Jiro was born in a time where war was on the horizon. The wind was rising. He was just trying to live.