Hayao Miyazaki releasing an animated film about the whimsical inner life of Jiro Horikoshi in America is roughly the equivalent of Brad Bird releasing a film about the whimsical inner life of Robert Oppenheimer in Japan. Issues of artistic merit aside, one may question the propriety of such an arrangement.
Horikoshi (voiced by Joseph Gordon-Levitt*) was the engineer who developed the A6M "Zero" for Japan, a long-range fighter that served as one of the primary airplanes during the cowardly sneak attack of Pearl Harbor and is credited with destroying over 1,500 American aircraft.
The Wind Rises chronicles Horikoshi’s creation of the fighter plane. As the film opens, he is a precocious young boy who hopes to construct flying fortresses when he isn’t protecting weaker classmates from bullies. In his dreams he is a master designer who takes life lessons from Caproni-san (Stanley Tucci), a designer of planes for future Axis ally Italy.
As Horikoshi grows, we get glimpses of Tokyo in the inter-war period: its people are poor and hungry, and Horikoshi is distraught that they are spending so much money on foreign armaments—such as the imported German fighters they are reduced to using—instead of building their own models. He will restore honor to the empire and surpass Japan’s German and Italian allies in building the greatest fighter the world has ever seen.
Meanwhile, there’s a tossed-in love story involving a young girl who we barely see in the opening hour and who spends the second hour waylaid with tuberculosis. That poor Horikoshi is forced to spend so little time with the love of his life even as she is dying of consumption further demonstrates his desire to bring his dream to life.
As a critic, I realize that I’m supposed to have fallen for the charms of Miyazaki: Since bursting onto the English-language scene with Princess Mononoke in 1999, his films have averaged a 91 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. But I remain immune to his output. In The Wind Rises as elsewhere the artistry is undeniable, but the storytelling is flabby. Miyazaki and his team know how to illustrate an earthquake and a city-destroying fire and a dive-bombing fighter, but they don’t understand how to get me to care about his characters.
There is, apparently, some question as to whether or not in this film Miyazaki has sufficiently condemned Japan’s early-20th-century proclivity for bloodthirsty conquest. Suffice to say, I did not see a particularly strong denunciation of Japan’s behavior during the timeframe in question. But that’s because Miyazaki doesn’t actually seem all that interested in Japan’s crimes. He’s interested in the way our dreams impact our reality.
And if our dreams result in the deaths of thousands? Well, he seems to be saying, so be it.
*Note: I am reviewing a DVD of the Japanese-language version of the film; as such I have no opinion on the voice acting of the English-language talent involved in the version hitting theaters today.