Moviegoers tend to like their stories neat and their messages clear. That preference probably accounts for the controversy attending Japanese animation genius Hayao Miyazaki’s latest — and reportedly final — movie.
“The Wind Rises” is a lyrical animated historical fantasy from the maker of the children’s classics “Spirited Away” and “Princess Mononoke.” While the film’s artistry is incontestable, many viewers are distressed by its subject.
It recounts the life and dreams of aeronautical engineer Jiro Horikoshi, designer of the Zero fighter plane used in the Pearl Harbor attack. The filmmaker has a personal connection with Horikoshi: His father managed a munitions factory that made parts for the Zero. Koreans, Chinese and others who experienced war atrocities at the hands of the Japanese have accused the film of political irresponsibility. But its real agenda, if you look carefully, is quite another matter.
We meet Jiro as a boy dreaming of flight and follow him through his student days, courtship and marriage. He is a romantic soul (voiced by Joseph Gordon-Levitt), as much an artist as an engineer. He’s a cultured fellow. Traveling to Tokyo to find employment, he discusses French poetry with Nahoko, a pretty train passenger (the film repeatedly quotes a Paul Valéry line, “The wind is rising. We must try to live.”).
He’s gallant, too, bravely saving Nahoko and her maid when the 1923 Tokyo earthquake interrupts their journey. He guides them through scenes of devastation that foreshadow the ravages of World War II, leaving the girl with a crush she carries for years.
Above all, Jiro is an idealist. In daydreams, he discusses aviation with his hero, Italian aircraft designer Giovanni Caproni (Stanley Tucci), who tells him, “Airplanes are not for war or making money. Airplanes are beautiful dreams waiting to be swallowed by the sky.”
Still, when Caproni’s World War I planes fly overhead in Jiro’s reveries, he plainly sees the bombs clustered under their wings. The image is disconcerting, but elliptical. The film shuns the antiwar diatribe some viewers might prefer.
Set before the war begins, “The Wind Rises” doesn’t confront the real-world consequence of Jiro’s work head-on. It concentrates on his daily business of streamlining wings, negotiating office politics, and staying in touch with far-off family members. Street attacks by the secret police against subversives are seen at a distance. Jiro never wrestles with his conscience, but dedicates himself to making the fastest, lightest, most advanced planes possible. Their eventual use is a matter for politicians to decide.
Miyazaki’s main addition to Jiro’s biography is the fictional character of Nahoko (Emily Blunt). After years of separation, they meet again and become sweethearts. The bucolic beauty of the scenery is exquisitely animated. Transported, Jiro pays more attention to his budding romance than to the soft-spoken German guest (Werner Herzog) who informs him that his fatherland, Japan’s ally, is going mad. Though war imagery has begun to infect Jiro’s aviation dreams, he remains deaf to the warning.
The filmmaker is not. Born in 1941, Miyazaki was profoundly influenced by the war, and his public statements reflect sincere regret for his country’s aggression. He has been publicly critical of his government’s current rightward, military bent. He presents his vision of Jiro’s life as a warning that ignoring politics is a profoundly political act.
Naïve, innocent Jiro, who loves Valéry’s phrase “the wind is rising,” blindly creates the warplanes that will become the “Divine Wind” kamikazes. Miyazaki has put aside childish themes and delivered a gorgeous, morally difficult adult fable.