To allege that Hayao Miyazaki's The Wind Rises does not do enough to emphasize the war crimes of the Japanese Imperial Army during World War II, as Boston critic Inkoo Kang put it during a critic society vote, is as reductive as saying that there are purely good and purely evil people in the world, and that everyone of Japanese descent should answer for their country's crimes in WWII.
Ordinarily, I would see people float arguments like this online and leave them in the "Why Bother, Who Cares?" pile. This argument has gained too much attention and traction; moreover, it's too damned stupid and ColdWar-ish to leave alone. Jiro Horikoshi, the chief developer of the Mitsubishi A6M "Zero" fighter, is the protagonist of The Wind Rises. The allegation is that the film should, on a moral imperative, disclaim and decry the lives taken and destroyed by Japan during WWII because it dares make a hero of the man who designed a plane.
Apparently, his inventing of planes used for war was directly instrumental in making every bad thing related to WWII, and in fact he gave the orders that resulted in Japanese troops raping and mistreating prisoners. Jiro Horikoshi apparently also ordered the attack on Pearl Harbor, according to these people. I'm stretching it thin on being facetious with that last one, but the detractors' point is that he was in no way an innocent, and since losers are losers in war and there is no other art on the planet about WWII, context must be given in thus-and-so way here and now. This is all being leveled against a peace-demonstarting, anti-nuclear, anti-violence filmmaker who was born in January of 1941.
When confronted with that information, I have seen said detractors counter with "well, how is the audience supposed to know any of that?", and my blunt answer is "how about the goddamned subtext and nuance of film language?"
Regardless of the distance from a major international conflict, revisionist attitudes and ethnocentric viewpoints are common. The further out we get, the more judgmental and sneering they become. The oft-repeated lesson is that we must learn from the mistakes of our past, not obsess over how stupid they are and consider our present-day selves so much better. That is precisely how we blind ourselves through complacency to the current evils in the world around us.
Miyazaki's final feature as a director is, if nothing else, deeply entrenched in the story of the struggle between genius craftsmanship and the human cost of making something in one's chosen field. In Jiro Horikoshi's case, he designs planes. What Inkoo Kang criticizes directly is that not enough is done to extrapolate the concatenated human cost incurred by Horikoshi developing planes used in war. My friend Devin Faraci has said on Twitter that he perceives Horikoshi as entirely indifferent to the fact his planes will be used in war. I disagree completely with his assessment, and would instead put forward that Horikoshi acknowledges that his planes will be used to kill, and that there is nothing he could do short of abandoning his chosen art form and profession and move somewhere else. We should all be held to such standards of moral perfection.
In the ramp up to war, it's made quite plain in the movie's narrative that Japanese plane technology was lagging far behind that of other countries in the face of a major international conflict. I wonder if Horikoshi were American, Korean, or Chinese…would that make a difference to these detractors? Were these countries somehow more worthy of having superior military technology? The 1931 incursion into Manchuria by Japan is summarized in an early paragraph in this post from my Discovering Ozu series. The incursion occurs during the timeline of The Wind Rises, if I'm not mistaken.
Again, the detractors cry "why did they not focus on this?", and the answer is again simply "that was not the focus of this movie", in the same way that not everyone across Japan was even aware of it happening, or Japan's culpability. Internet-style insta-reporting simply did not occur. A case in point is the Japanese Pearl Harbor bomber who crash-landed on the Ni'ihauu island of Hawaii, who was initially shown hospitality and pulled a con only because the people who lived there had no idea the bombing at Pearl had happened. They threw him a party the night of his arrival. The whole thing led to the internment of Japanese-Americans in the US, something that I suppose should be disclaimed and portrayed in every single movie that features Americans as WWII-era protagonists.
The Wind Rises is a fantasy-infused, romantic fictionalization of the life of Jiro Horikoshi if someone wants a different movie, they should seek different subject matter or make their own movie.
All of this is to say that not every movie need be a comprehensive guide to historical events, even if active literacy rates are abominable. There are many very good reasons that World War II is still not entirely covered by multiple TV series, miniseries, and three-hour movies. The best reason being that it was a massive conflict full of many, many stories to be told from many perspectives.
War is a bad thing that does bad things to innocent people. If we spend enough time tracing the blame for all deaths related to war, we would end up with a timeline of blame causality that would envelop everyone on the planet, because one of the fundamental functions of being a living organism is that we consume and thereby destroy to survive. Whether you're omnivorous, pure vegan. or anything in-between, no matter how it is cased, something suffers somehow because we all exist on the planet. If all you do is think about that and try to become purely, perfectly good, you'll go insane. This is not a defense of war and conflict as necessary evils that should be accepted with passivity, but rather, an acknowledgement that they are facts of existence and that they happen. Would I prefer it if we as a species didn't kill, rape, starve, and torture each other? Of course I would.
The only way for someone to prove that they effectively protest the advance of technology as the great evil in the world (with complete moral authority) would be their decamping from the modern world to live in the wilderness, off the grid. I would (and do) admire people for doing things like this. The people who do so are exceptionally rare. The argument forwarded comes from so high a horse I don't think it's been genetically engineered yet.
At once, I acknowledge that it's possible to lessen one's impact and have a conscience about how we live our lives on the planet. I try to do so, and wish more people would. To compare Horikoshi to Josef Mengele, or a rapist, or a government official from any time in history is disgusting. To compare Miyazaki to Leni Riefenstahl for not doing so is flatly idiotic. It's also hilarious to accuse the Horikoshi in the movie of not caring that people will die because he developed a piece of technology.
The fantasy sequences in the film are all about the weight of regret that Horikoshi carries throughout most of his life. I guess the development chief behind aluminum alloy should throw himself off a bridge since, without aluminum alloy, the planes could not have been built. Enabling Japan to enter the modern age of aircraft ended and saved countless lives on all points of the conflict. Without the strength of Air Force they did have, Japan
The desperate cry for this guy who designed aircraft to singlehandedly answer for all war crimes committed by his country is insanely nationalistic and ethnocentric. It makes just as much sense to say that all Americans alive during WWII must be held accountable for the internment of Japanese Americans during the war. I would also love for every person calling out The Historical Record to acknowledge in the same breath whether they'd even heard Jiro Horikoshi's name before seeing the movie or finding out about its existence.
Cars weren't created to kill, but then they were transformed into tanks. Planes weren't created to kill, they were created to fly. This guy, as portrayed in the movie, wanted to push the still-new world of manned flight to new heights and achievements after they were already being used for war. If an animated movie about flight were made about the Wright Brothers, it would probably not have a disclaimer about how they chronologically weren't first in flight and stole a bunch of ideas and so on, because in the USA we like to hide dirty laundry and tout our exceptionalism.
We make and watch movies to ask, answer, and sometimes just meditate on the notion of "what if?". In the years following WWII, the real Horikoshi had decades to reflect on the ravages of that war for himself, his people, and the world. To be furious that Miyazaki did not make a movie about how badly Horikoshi felt his role in the war is to wish one were making films of their own. It's an arbitrary pronouncement of how the critic would have preferred the movie been focused were they in charge. Miyazaki acknowledges that his treatment of Horikoshi is fictionalized, with a very specific focus, and and the movie succeeds for me on all points, armchair directors be damned.
This Essay was posted before the US release of The Wind Rises, which, as of this writing, is expected to be an English-dubbed presentation of the original movie.