Hayao Miyazaki’s final film before retirement, The Wind Rises, both continues his usual thematic interests while simultaneously diverging from his customary worldbuilding and narrative structures. The film is a biopic about Japanese aeronautical engineer Jiro Horikoshi, the man who designed Japan’s iconic Zero fighter plane, which very nearly changed the outcome of World War II in the Pacific. This is unusual for Miyazaki, who normally set his films in a reality-adjacent realm full of steampunk stylings, mythic locales and magical curses. But, like many other efforts in his filmography, The Wind Rises does have lots of flying machines, a central love story and a reality-stretching narrative.

The protagonist, Jiro, begins the film as a teenage boy in turn-of-the-century Japan. At this time, Japan was just beginning to assert itself internationally (winning wars against China and Russia in 1895 and 1905, respectively) and was rapidly industrializing and Westernizing. Human flight had just been invented and the airplane-mania that was sweeping the globe drew Jiro in, as well; the boy became obsessed with flight.

Like many young boys, Jiro lived out entire fanciful adventures in his dreams. This is the reality-stretching element in The Wind Rises. The film features several fantastical dream sequences where Jiro imagines flight, communicates with a famed Italian engineer and tests out his own plane designs. As a boy, it was his dreams that revealed to him that he should be an engineer, rather than a pilot, because his eyesight was too poor to be in the cockpit.

Jiro seems to be a singularly focused and ambitious man as he is growing up. His one goal is to design beautiful airplanes and his concentration is fully given over to that task. The only thing that diverts any of his attention is a woman he had met years earlier during the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923; he offered her lifesaving assistance during the tremor, but was unable to find her in the chaotic aftermath. The memory of her gnaws at him, but otherwise he is concerned only with flight and design.

From this opening act, Miyazaki weaves a compelling story full of complex questions about the nature of work and its relationship to broader conceptions of morality. Jiro knows what the planes he is designing are intended to do: they are meant to destroy human lives. He is uncomfortable with this, but how else would he ever get to build aircraft? Or be associated with them at all? Jiro decides he must continue his work, even knowing he is constructing instruments of death.

Of course, for Miyazaki, making the film 70 years later, there is an additional level of foreknowledge, regarding the historical outcome. Miyazaki knows that the same society that designed Zeroes was accelerating rapidly towards the nuclear apocalypse of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Jiro’s Japan of the ‘30s is full of promise and hope, full of pride and ambition. But they are headed for catastrophe, humiliation and ignominy. Miyazaki writes some of this into Jiro’s character, particularly with his quite aptly allegorical marriage to a woman destined to die too soon from tuberculosis. What does it mean to have national pride in a political and military project that ended in atomic annihilation? Perhaps the same thing that it means to love with all your heart someone who will be dead in a few months.

As with the rest of Miyazaki’s wondrous filmography, The Wind Rises works on about a dozen different levels at once, with a straightforward plot that still manages to discuss deeply profound queries about the nature of existence. And, of course, there are the gorgeous visuals and vivid colors that are also Miyazaki staples.

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