The Wind Rises is a haunting moral quandary wrapped up in an exceedingly kind, beautiful film.
It’s a film that is not only not afraid to make the viewer uncomfortable, it actively revels in it. This is a Japanese film that stares directly in the face of the grim moral consequences of Japan’s militarism in the lead up to World War II, and refuses to blink. But it doesn’t condemn. It’s an achingly earnest, empathetic film that finds the human tragedy at the heart of Japan’s march to war.
When this film was released and slowly made its way around festivals (an agonizing year-long rollout leading up to the wide-ish release of the English dub nearly a year after its festival premiere), the conversation about it was heavily focused on whether or not this film “glorifies” Japan’s march to war. I read good arguments in both directions, but when I managed to finally see the film I fell very decisively on the side of “no, it super doesn’t.” Instead, I see this film as one about how good people can be moved to bad ends. It’s a movie about the corruption of ideals.
It is, in short, a movie about Hayao Miyazaki.
In creating a film about Jiro Horikoshi, the Japanese aviation expert, he has made a film about Hayao Miyazaki, the Japanese animation expert. Jiro’s conflict between his desire to build beautiful airplanes and the pre-war economy of Japan are merely the highest stakes possible for what is, essentially, Miyazaki’s core conflict – that between the desire to create beautiful art, and the toll that art takes on the man and those around him. Miyazaki is a known workaholic, often working long hours (and demanding the same of his crew at Studio Ghibli) to complete his films to a standard he deems acceptable (take a look at the backgrounds of any of his films and you’ll understand; they’re immaculately detailed on a level that puts every other animation to shame). His drive to create beautiful art has, then, appreciably affected his health and his life with his family, something he has in the past expressed regrets for.
Miyazaki, however, takes it a fair step farther with this film, going beyond the scope of personal regrets and instead giving us a picture of a man who had deep, profound moral regrets. The film is less about any struggles Jiro had in the actual building of the planes – he is depicted as preternaturally talented, succeeding at almost every end (with one notable exception about halfway through the film, when a plane of his fails during a flight test) – and far more about Jiro’s moral struggle. The question isn’t “how did he build those planes?” It’s “how could he live with himself if he built those planes?”
That the answer lies in a series of other conflicts, such as his wife’s battle with tuberculosis, is a brilliant bit of dramatic structure that is also keenly observed – often the answer to such moral quandaries lies outside the actual moral conflict. Jiro’s love for his wife was what enabled him to work on the airplanes, consequences be damned. Jiro’s childlike love and appreciation for the aesthetic beauty of planes and their design was what drove him to create war machines in a climate of increasing tensions. Miyazaki paints a picture of a lover, of a dreamer who simply had the grand misfortune of being born into pre-war Japan, and whose only recourse was morally fraught.
It’s a tragedy, not a failure. Jiro wasn’t a bad man, he was an unfortunate one.
However, despite the film’s deep empathy for Jiro and understanding of what led him to create the planes, it doesn’t quite let him off the hook. It’s never vague or unclear about exactly what those planes are being used for. It often has other characters justifying their actions – “if we don’t build them, somebody else will” – but Jiro is almost always shown to grapple with the ramifications. At the end of the film, Jiro is cursed with a terrible vision of the devastation that is to strike Japan as the American fleet reaches their shores. He knows what he has wrought, and the film doesn’t let him ignore that.
This is why the movie has stuck in my head so strongly. Not just because of its empathetic portrait of a man born at the wrong time, not just because of its breathtaking aesthetic beauty, but because it is a powerful moral orison, begging the artists of the world to be morally conscious of their work. While it understands how and why Jiro built the planes he did, it wishes he hadn’t, because the way those planes were used was a human disaster. The moral consequence of the act of creation was too great.
Caproni and Jiro, in their shared dreams, would love to just build beautiful airplanes. But we don’t live in a world of dreams, we live in cold reality, where the things we make will be used regardless of our intentions. The Wind Rises is a call to artists to be conscious of how their work is being used, and to be morally responsible in the act of creation.
I saw this movie during my first year of film school; I made three films after seeing it, and each time I began to create a film, this movie swam through my mind. I watched it at the beginning of pre-production for each of my films, and kept Miyazaki’s moral challenge in my mind throughout. And every time, it sent me through an existential crisis. Am I saying something gross with this horror movie about a woman being attacked in her own home? I thought about my F3. Am I exploiting the plight of people who suffer from clinical depression in an effort to make a movie that makes people sad? I thought about my thesis film. Am I portraying these men who were kind enough to talk to me about their livelihoods and passions in a fair way, or am I twisting their words for a story? I thought of my documentary.
This film has no comfortable answers for anything. It’s a moral quagmire, and it has shaken me every time I try to create something.