Geoff Wisner

The Wind Rises is the latest animated film by the Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki, the 73-year-old creator of such classic works as Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle. It is also, he says, his last — though this is a statement he has made before.

It goes without saying that The Wind Rises is spectacularly beautiful. Created entirely through hand-drawn animation and watercolor (though Miyazaki has used computer assistance in the past), it moves with casual mastery between scenes of quiet intimacy and landscapes of violent destruction. Watching the glow of moonlight behind a bank of clouds, or the shadows of boys fleeing down an alleyway at dusk, it takes an effort to remember that none of this is “real.” 

The Wind Rises is the fictionalized story of Jirô Horikoshi, the designer of the Mitsubishi Zero, perhaps the most notorious warplane of World War II — an exceptionally light and maneuverable fighter that excelled in dogfights but left its pilots vulnerable to antiaircraft fire. It was the plane sent out on kamikaze missions late in the war, when honor (if not victory) demanded sacrifice. 

Miyazaki himself was born in 1941, the year of Pearl Harbor, and his father was director of Miyazaki Airplane, which made parts for the Zero. He recalled witnessing the firebombing of Utsunomiya as a child, and how his wealthy family drove away without helping others to flee.

That scene is echoed early in The Wind Rises. Jirô, a bespectacled young man obsessed with planes, is traveling by train to his university in Tokyo when the landscape ripples like a shaken blanket. Houses collapse, ceramic tiles slide like wet snow to the ground, and fires break out. Jirô stays with a little girl and her maid, whom he had spoken to earlier. The maid’s ankle is broken, so he splints it with his slide rule and carries the woman on his back until she and the girl can reach safety. 

How this kind and intelligent young man comes to devote his genius to war machines is the mystery of the story. Voiced in the dubbed version of the film by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Jirô is sometimes naïve but not unaware. From the moment we see him rescue a small boy from bullies, we see that he has a moral code and the strength to follow it. 

Jirô relishes the beauty of flight and the technical challenge of building lighter, stronger, and more beautiful aircrafts. The curve of a mackerel bone inspires the curve of a wing. Unlike his restless and cynical friend Honjô, he is not ashamed of the “backwardness” of a country where bullocks haul test planes to the airstrip. Sent on a research trip to Germany, he is dazzled by the enormous all-metal planes the Germans are building – but not too dazzled to notice their paranoia and their prejudice against the Japanese, who “copy everything.”

It is in dreams that Jirô finds solutions, or resolutions, to the contradictions of his life and career. In his dreams of flight, beginning as a boy, Jirô meets the heroic figure of Giovanni Battista Caproni, who inspires him with words from Paul Valéry: “The wind is rising. You must try to live!” Voiced by Stanley Tucci, Caproni speaks with the kind of stage-Italian accent that a Japanese boy might imagine, but he has marvels to show, like a fanciful flying boat with three sets of triple wings, intended to carry a hundred passengers across the Atlantic. 

The Caproni of Jirô’s dreams admits that he makes warplanes — and in fact, the real-life Caproni was a prolific designer of bombers and fighters. But the day would come when planes would be for the pleasure and convenience of peaceful people. 

Why does Jirô design planes? Is his work in the service of life or of death? He knows – and if he forgets, his friend Honjô will remind him – that the Mitsubishi planes he helps create in Nagoya may go out to bomb Manchuria, the Netherlands, who knows where. He creates them out of loyalty to Honjô, to his irascible but goodhearted boss Kurokawa, and to the wise and rumbly-voiced executive Hattori. 

Miyazaki’s animation is the perfect medium for a story in which the dream life of the hero, and his moral struggle, must not be overwhelmed by the all-too-solid machinery and special effects of a traditional biopic or war movie. In their texture and emotional weight, Jirô’s conversations with Caproni are as significant as his first sight of the German planes.

In the same way, hearing the voices of the actors but not seeing their real faces helps shield the viewer from distracting memories of other films and other roles — whether those voices are easy to recognize (Mandy Patinkin as Hattori) or not (Martin Short as Kurokawa).

On his way back from Germany, Jirô stops at a country hotel and falls for a pretty young woman named Naoko (Emily Blunt) — once the little girl he met on the train. Naoko has a lung condition, and a friendly older German man at the hotel (voiced by the director Werner Herzog) explains that the hotel is like the sanatorium in Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain, where tubercular patients go to be cured. As if to underline the theme, the man’s name is Castorp. 

Jirô and Naoko’s feelings for each other deepen, but before they can be married, Naoko’s lungs worsen, forcing her to travel to a more stringent sanatorium in the mountains. There, like Mann’s hero, she and the other patients lie outside in a row of cots, wrapped up like cocoons so they can breathe the cold dry air without dying of exposure. 

Jirô’s work becomes more and more demanding, and after a visit from Naoko, the two decide that they will be married at once and spend every remaining moment together. Again, it is unclear whether Jirô is acting on the side of life or of death. Would Naoko live longer if she returned to the mountain, or would it mean only a cruel and unnecessary separation?

Hemingway once said about his story “The Killers,” “That story probably had more left out of it than anything I ever wrote. I left out all Chicago, which is hard to do in 2951 words.” In the same way, the power of Miyazaki’s story is heightened by the magnitude of what he leaves out: all of World War II, from the forty-one Zero fighters that joined the attack on Pearl Harbor to the four thousand kamikaze pilots who died piloting Zeros and other warplanes.

In a final dream, Jirô and Caproni gaze over an endless plain strewn with the wreckage of airplanes. “None of them came back,” says Jirô. Sobered but not remorseful, they take in the destruction of their life’s work with what seems like stoic acceptance. 

Geoff Wisner is the author of A Basket of Leaves: 99 Books That Capture the Spirit of Africa and the editor of the forthcoming African Lives: An Anthology of Memoirs and Autobiographies. He writes for the Christian Science Monitor, The Quarterly Conversation, Warscapes, and Words Without Borders, and blogs at his website, where you can also find further information on his book-length projects.