It's a very, very odd film. After becoming world-famous for Ghibli fantasies, Hayao Miyazaki decided to end his career with an animated semi-biopic about a man who designed Japanese fighter planes in WW2. Cue international outrage. (He's since come out of retirement, again.) The film also has a thin, linear plot and what little drama it does have is invented.
LEVEL ONE: in a simple, literal sense, there's not much here. Man loves planes. Man designs planes. (His name's Jiro Horikoshi and he's a real figure, who designed among others the Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighter.) That's it, more or less. He can't even fly them himself, because he's short-sighted. He'll find a wife with tuberculosis, but that's only in Miyazaki's film because this is also a loose adaptation of a semi-autobiographical 1937 novel, The Wind Has Risen, by Tatsuo Hori. There are other details here (e.g. chain smoking) that are only true of Tatsuo Hori, not the real Jiro.
(It's also worth pointing out that Miyazaki's father owned a factory that made fighter plane parts in the war, while Miyazaki's mother had tuberculosis. We'll be returning later to the possibility that this film is a personal statement from Miyazaki himself.)
The film looks beautiful, by the way. That goes without saying. Miyazaki's films have always been in love with flight, so on that level this film makes perfect sense. All the planes here are real and faithfully depicted, even the absurd-looking ones in Jiro's dreams. The engineering is all accurate too.
On this literal level, is the film entertaining? Sort of, yes. It does surprisingly well at carrying its two-hour length. Since you're not really expecting anything to happen, it's actually quite relaxing to watch these nice people. (Well, unless you're angry about the film's apparent avoidance of the fact that Jiro's designing war death machines.) However it does have non-actors in the voice cast, most notoriously Anno Hideaki (yes, him) as Jiro. Tomoko found the film unwatchable because of its acting, while even laughed at Jiro's marriage proposal. Even if you normally avoid dubbed anime, you might consider the English track on this one.
LEVEL TWO: wartime commentary. It should be pointed out, incidentally, that Miyazaki is an anti-war pacifist who's made statements that got him called a "traitor" by Japanese right-wing nationalists. That said, though, this film is portraying a Jiro who's pretty much neutral about the war. (This is despite the real Jiro thinking war was futile and being strongly opposed to it.) He does his job. He builds planes. He doesn't really worry too much about what they'll be used for, instead just seeing aviation as beautiful in itself.
This makes the film pretty much a blank slate for whatever you want to believe it is. Apology for Japan's wartime record, downplaying the country's crimes? Historically accurate portrayal of what it would have been like for the people actually living through those years? Morally complex, or Disney-fied and sugar-coated?
Viewed on this level, it's worth observing that two foreigners make some fairly sharp comments about the wartime situation and about the morality of making flying weapons. After Jiro's talked to one of these people, what's more, he'll have the secret police after him. "Such things shouldn't happen in a modern country!" "You think Japan's a modern country?"
Jiro himself is neutral, of course. He's not losing any sleep about the planes' ultimate use, although equally he never shows an iota of patriotism. He really does just love planes.
(To lower the level of the discussion, incidentally, there was also controversy about the cigarettes. Various people, both in Japan and abroad, thought Miyazaki was being irresponsible in portraying this era as a time when people smoked like chimneys. It was, obviously.)
LEVEL THREE: a metaphor for Miyazaki himself as an artist. The man's a grouchy workaholic who's hell to work with and neglected his family. (He and his family agree on that.) However, he's also a world leader in his field and his art is full of liberal and environmental themes.
Looked at in this way, suddenly the film comes together. It actually makes sense now, whereas other levels of interpretation just make you wonder what the point was. This Jiro isn't just an engineer, but an artist. Miyazaki was inspired to make this film after reading a quote from the man himself: "All I wanted to do was to make something beautiful". The fictional Jiro he creates here is creating beauty, while also shutting his eyes to the human cost of his actions. The most personal of these questionable choices are when HIS WIFE IS DYING. He removes her from the sanitorium ("otherwise I'd have to give up my work"), then isn't even with her when she dies. He had to go and observe his new plane's test flight, you see.
When watching this, it's surprisingly easy to fail to put two and two together. The characters all think it's normal (Japan, 1940s, etc.) and they're nice. You like them and you want to share their viewpoint. One might also be dutifully attempting non-judgemental cultural relavitism and so on. However if you look at what's in front of you, the film's pulling no punches.
Eventually, this is discussed in a dream debate between Jiro and Giovanni Caproni. "We're not arms merchants. We just want to make good aircraft." "Not a single plane returned." Note that it wasn't just the enemy that got killed by those planes. Kamikaze pilots also flew Zeroes. Are artists responsible for their art's real-world consequences? (I'm accepting the film's broad definition of "art" here.) Should Jiro even feel guilty about all those deaths?
The film answers this question. You may or may not agree with its views, though.
Whew. That's a lot, especially for a film that at first glance might just come across as nice, but linear and plotless. I'm not sure how much point there is in watching it if you're not interested in digging down to the kind of stuff I've been discussing. Different reviewers have called it both "morally repugnant" and "perhaps the greatest animated film ever made". (I'd call both of those opinions a bit silly.) It's definitely Miyazaki's most personal and complex film, though, and arguably his most challenging. It's so thin on a simple storytelling level that it becomes even harder to ignore all the themes and metaphors, which are both loud and conflicting. I wonder if there's not something underneath the weather's ferocity in this film, for instance.
I want to rewatch it now.