This Anime Is an Aviation History Masterpiece
Hayao Miyazaki’s final work is an airplane geek’s dream
Last year, one of Japan’s most acclaimed directors released a film that stood in stark contrast to nearly all of his previous works. Hayao Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises is a loose biography of Jiro Horikoshi, the man behind the famous A6M Zero fighter plane.
Miyazaki’s is better known for anime classics like Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, and Howl’s Moving Castle. But this new feature is an aviation history masterpiece from one of world’s best animation directors.
This film may also be Miyazaki’s last production. The 73 year old director announced his retirement last September.
The Wind Rises represents a significant departure from this director’s usual ahistorical, abstract, and pacifist themes. The Wind Rises is a detailed—if highly fictionalized—account Horikoshi’s life and early career.
Flight is another one of Miyazaki’s usual themes—although often in context of dragons and flying castles—and the material suits his approach. The film is a dream come true for fans of planes from the 1920s and 30s and aviation buffs in general.
Miyazaki frames the film with a series of imagined conversations between Jiro and Count Gianni Caproni. Caproni was a famous Italian aircraft designer who’s work spurred many of the theories of General Giulio Douhet, an important figure in the development of modern air power.
Of course, you can enjoy this film without a deep familiarity with or appreciation for aircraft designed between World War I and World War II. But the film is simply magical if you know who Caproni was, what a Junkers Ju-87 looks like and a bit about Japanese aviation.
The audience also gets to see the great Caproni Ca.60 Noviplano, a massive seaplane that collapsed on its first flight. Some of the other flying machines resemble early strategic bombers from World War I and famous Junkers craft of World War II.
The designs depicted in the film are faithful, if somewhat stylized versions of actual planes. Even the imaginary Capronis and Junkers have an aesthetic similarity to real aircraft.
The film itself concentrates mainly on the development of Japanese carrier aircraft and the Mitsubishi A5M fighter specifically. At one point, Jiro and his boss even visit an aircraft carrier in order to get a better sense of how naval aviation works.
War lurks in the background, along with a toxic mix of Japanese nationalism and military authoritarianism. The famed Zero only appears at the end of the film as a sad post-script to Japan’s war effort.
During Jiro’s visit to Europe, the Germans are also suitably disparaging of Japanese capabilities. This sense of the inferiority of Japanese designs, materials and industry as a whole pervades the film.
These struggles also provide a context for Jiro’s work. His prototypes literally fly to pieces as the limits of Japanese materials and engineering become clear.
In addition, Jiro’s relationship with his wife Naoko, who suffers from tuberculosis, is an important subplot. She sacrifices her health to support Jiro’s work on the A5M, while he sacrifices his relationship with her in order to complete the fighter on time.
Miyazaki melds their relationship into the broader plot by describing it in aeronautical images like a windswept hill or a paper airplane. He also links Naoko’s physical deterioration with Japan’s slow decline into militaristic authoritarianism.
Unsurprisingly for a Japanese film about the World War II era, The Wind Rises has sparked considerable controversy. Some South Korean critics attacked Miyazaki’s sympathetic portrayal of the man who invented some of the most recognizable symbols of Japanese militarism. Mitsubishi’s use of Korean forced labor on the production lines doesn’t make it into the film either.
On the other side, Miyazaki came under attack from Japanese rightists after penning an op-ed decrying proposed changes to Article 9 of the Japanese constitution. The country cannot legally go to war or create anything other than a “Self Defense Force” under Article 9.
Some critics also suggested that the film soft-pedals Japan’s road to war. But these detractors seem to miss Miyazaki’s far more complex visuals.
The military aircraft are elegant. The very best of them represent undeniable achievements of national culture and technology. But the film shows that their beauty is flawed.
An early scene depicts the Great Kanto earthquake in 1923. The disaster instantly evokes images of the firebombing of Tokyo and the nuclear destruction of Hiroshima.
The Wind Rises contrasts the glory and joy of flight with the very brutal consequences of military aviation. The destruction of urban Japan, first by earthquake and then by American heavy bombers, bookends Japan’s rise to world power.
The film ends with Japan in flames. Jiro watches fleets of his Zeros headed to their collective doom.
The Wind Rises is a rare creature in an era—and an area—where the memory of World War II remains bitterly contested. The film is a careful meditation on nationalism, historical memory and war.