He simply wanted to fly.
As a child, Jirô Horikoshi would literally dream of it—soaring through the air on mechanical wings, dancing with the birds, drawing on the sky with loops and curls and cursive dives. It was a dream many had in the early 20th century: Aeronautics was in its infancy, and by World War I, there were an intrepid few who could board fantastic contraptions and climb to the heavens. For the first time in human history, flight had gone beyond a dream and become a possibility.
But not for Jirô. Not with those bad eyes of his, hidden behind thick glasses. He would never fly.
Then one night, Jirô had another dream—one in which he met the famous mustachioed Italian engineer Caproni. Each greets the other with surprise, given that they're trespassing on the other's dream, then Caproni brings him aboard some of his wondrous flying aircrafts. He points to a bomber he built—one headed to attack a faraway enemy city. But the war will soon be over, he says, and then he can turn his attention to a more gentle form of aviation. "Instead of bombs, she'll carry passengers," he proudly says.
"Airplanes are beautiful dreams," he tells Jirô. "Engineers turn dreams into reality."
When Jirô wakes up, he knows what he's going to do. He'll become an engineer. If he can't fly an airplane himself, he'll do something just as good—better, perhaps. Create beautiful dreams that will paint the sky with wonder.
He made good on his goal, did Jirô. He wound up designing, among other craft, the Zero, Japan's legendary World War II fighter that, for the first few years of the war, was unmatched in the Pacific sky. It soared over American ships at Pearl Harbor, pocked the air with ferocity and grace and, when Allied technology finally caught up, served as the tomb for many a Kamikaze.
What beauty, what horror can come of someone's dreams? What can come of someone wanting to fly?
It's a pretty fascinating exercise, watching a movie based (though greatly fictionalized) on someone whom my country, the United States, would see as an old enemy. Yes, things have changed, but World War II-era Allied pilots wouldn't throw bouquets at Jirô—even as they must've respected and marveled at his creation.
And in this fantasy-laced treatment by animator Hayao Miyazaki (who won an Oscar for 2002's Spirited Away), there is indeed much to admire about Jirô.
We meet him first as a young boy who stands up to bullies and protects his littler classmates. In college, he's caught up in 1923's Great Kanto Earthquake while traveling back to college, and there he rescues a young girl (Nahoko) and her injured caretaker. Jirô carries her on his back to safety. He offers food to hungry children. And as a promising young student and engineer, he honors Japan's traditions while pushing the country forward to a technologically bright future.
In The Wind Rises, Jirô is apolitical. He simply wants to create those "beautiful dreams." He's appalled by the German secret police when he visits Berlin. And he himself is investigated by Japan's own secret police.
And it's important to note that while Jirô's engineering work is the reason for the story, it's not the movie's centerpiece. That would be his love and relationship with a now-grown Nahoko, whom he re-meets at a beautiful hotel owned by Nahoko's father. Their love and affection is touching. And though Nahoko's stricken with tuberculosis, Jirô marries her so they can spend whatever time she has left together. Nahoko is weakened by the disease, but she's ever the conscientious and loving spouse.
Miyazaki's work is often imbued with Eastern spirituality and supernatural elements. And while The Wind Rises isn't nearly as mystical as some of his works, we still see hints of Japan's complex spirituality.
An example: When Jirô and Nahoko renew their acquaintance, Jirô finds the woman standing beside a spring. When he turns to leave, Nahoko begs him to stay, telling him that she asked the spring to bring him to her, and now she wants to give her thanks.
When the two marry, it's in a traditional ceremony that stems from Shinto, the indigenous religious identity of Japan. We see what appears to be a Shinto shrine destroyed in the earthquake. And since Shinto is, in some ways, a spiritual bridge between Japan's past and present, so these symbolic nods draw attention to the cultural crossroads that Japan found itself at in the 1920s and '30s.
Jirô brings Nahoko to the home of Kurokawa, where Jirô's been living. Kurokawa says that he won't allow an unmarried couple to sleep under his roof, so Jirô and Nahoko decide to marry that very evening. After the ceremony, with Nahoko weak from sickness, Jirô suggests that she might just want to get some sleep. But Nahoko pulls the covers off (she's wearing a robe) and tells him to come to her. (He turns off the lights and the scene ends.) We see them kiss and flirt in their courtship.
In a dream, we see pulsing, almost living bombs dropped from a World War I-era German Zeppelin, falling toward the green pastureland below and ripping Jirô from his aircraft. In another dream, Jirô stands in a field covered with crashed planes.
In the time leading up to WWII, German secret police chase people. We see fighting from a distance in an alley. Planes crash, sometimes in fiery explosions. (But the pilots all seem to make it out safely.)
As a child, Jirô throws a would-be bully over his shoulder. When he comes home looking scuffed and bruised, he tries to tell his mother that he tripped. His mother sees through the ruse. "Fighting is never justified," she tells him (perhaps foreshadowing Jirô's eventual work).
The earthquake brings down houses and shrines, sending people into a panic. Jirô splints a woman's leg, who winces in pain. Fires caused by the earthquake are seen in the distance, sweeping over the city. When Jirô tries to visit Nahoko a year later, he sees the burnt remains of her neighborhood.
Both Jirô and Nahoko are nearly injured in falls a couple of times. Nahoko suffers hemorrhaging in her lungs due to her tuberculosis. She coughs up blood, which spurts through her hands and onto the painting she'd been working on. A man rips film out of a movie camera and throws it (the film and camera) into the water.
Crude or Profane Language
Five uses of "d‑‑n"; one "h‑‑‑."
Drug and Alcohol Content
Jirô and others smoke a lot, sometimes loaning one another cigarettes. When Jirô starts to leave the room to go for a smoke, Nahoko stops him, telling him to smoke right there—even though it's obviously not good for her lungs. People are shown drinking wine and beer.
Other Negative Elements
[Spoiler Warning] Nahoko misleads Jirô. We're told she puts rouge on her cheeks so her husband won't know how sick she is. And when Jirô leaves for work one day, she waves goodbye and then returns to the sanitarium so (it's suggested) he won't have to deal with her failing health and eventual death.
The Wind Rises takes its name from a poem by the French writer Paul Valéry: "The wind is rising … we must try to live."
The poem undergirds the story. The winds are often forces of destruction, but the planes Caproni and Jirô build fly through them—using them, in a way, to stay aloft. Those planes in turn are a metaphor for Jirô's own choppy life. The winds of war rock him and his world, but through his work he finds a way to use those winds to create a "beautiful dream." Nahoko's sickness is a horrific personal gale, but they cling to each other and try to live, gleaning what happiness they can along the way.
It's a deft and moving bit of storytelling, even if it leaves audiences conflicted about its protagonist. After all, it's not as if Japan just found itself on the losing end of a defensive war: It allied itself with Nazi Germany, a modern-day symbol of evil. And Japan, in that era, was just as imperialistic (if arguably not as horrific). And it's not just in the West that these kinds of thoughts are flying around. The movie's been controversial in Japan as well. Nationalists note Jirô's "leftwing leanings" (according to The Guardian), while others are aghast that Miyazaki would laud the creator of the Zero—one of the war's most efficient killing machines.
Miyazaki admits to having "very complex feelings" about Japan's role in World War II, but he doesn't believe it's fair to blame Jirô for his country's missteps. "Jirô Horikoshi was the most gifted man of his time in Japan," he said in a 2011 interview with Cut magazine. "He wasn't thinking about weapons—really all he desired was to make exquisite planes."
Maybe the same sort of thing could be said of Miyazaki, that he desires to make exquisite movies. And this—reportedly his last—is a nuanced artistic bow. But it carries with it its own share of wind. Yes, it's a "cartoon," but it is certainly not for children, what with its themes of war and love. Eastern spirituality is interwoven throughout. Characters smoke, drink and sometimes swear. And so it, much like its main character, leaves us with both inspiration and turbulence.