Start with some facts. "The Wind Rises" is an animated film by Hayao Miyazaki, who is responsible for "Spirited Away," "Howl's Moving Castle," "My Neighbor Totoro," and other films created primarily for children. It is a highly fictionalized biography of Jiro Horikoshi (1903–1982), the designer of the Mitsubishi A5M and its successor, the Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighter plane. It was the highest grossing film in Japan in 2013.
Now some opinions. David Ehrlich: "Perhaps the greatest animated film ever made." Matthew Penney: "What Miyazaki offers is a layered look at how
Horikoshi's passion for flight was captured by capital and militarism." And J. Hoberman: "True, the final scenes show a green field
strewn with twisted fuselage wreckage. Cruel destruction… in Japan, that
is. I don’t doubt the sincerity of Miyazaki’s pacifism but I’m appalled
by his abstract vision. Like, how many tens or hundreds of thousands of
real people in Asia and the Pacific were de-animated thanks to
My thoughts: "The Wind Rises" is not for children. It is a complex story of an adult in a time and a place—1920s and 1930s Japan. Jiro Horikoshi dreams of flight, studies engineering, is sent to Germany, and becomes an airplane designer. He loves engineering, he loves creating aircraft, and he loves solving the problems of aircraft design. Unfortunately for Jiro, the only organization interested in aircraft design at that time was (I suspect) the military. Either design for the military, or don't design at all.
It seems to me then that the central question the film raises is something like: What is the individual's responsibility for the behavior of the state? Should Jiro not have designed aircraft because they were weapons? He had no say over how they would be used. As a patriotic citizen, doesn't he have an obligation to contribute what he is able—his education and talent—to the country? Can't we ask the same questions of the scientists who worked on the A-bomb and the H-bomb? Who are working today on better missiles?
I thoroughly enjoyed "The Wind Rises," because Jiro's Japan looked very much like the Japan I first saw and in which I was stationed for a year in a half. The streets, the shops, the houses, the factories had not changed a great deal between 1939 and 1957. (Much of it rebuilt, of course, after the war, but looking much the same.) Which raises my one concern.
There is a scene of Tokyo burning after the 1923 earthquake—fires across the horizon. There is almost an identical scene of Tokyo burning after the firebombing of 1945. Almost a visual equivalent, as if the firebombing was as much an act of nature as the earthquake. As horrific and criminal as I believe the firebombing was (which killed more people than the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings combined), it was not an act of nature, and had Japan's leaders made different decisions in the 1930s, it would not have happened.