There is a point in Hayao Miyazaki's lusciously animated biopic in which a character tells Jirô Horikoshi, the film's protagonist, that, all things being equal, he prefers "a world with pyramids." The implication is, of course, that even though the pyramids were built upon the blood and backs of slaves, our world is better for having them.
It is an argument Louis C.K. brilliantly deconstructs in his "But maybe ..." routine: That the human race can accomplish amazing things when it doesn't give a shit about the pain, death and suffering that others will endure.
Though I am hardly on the side of the pyramids, I certainly understand the value of the point being made. But as an excuse for producing a nonjudgmental film about the aeronautical engineer who happily designed fighter planes for the megalomaniacal Japanese military of WWII, it seems an ill fit for a filmmaker whose work has often criticized the belligerent impulses that foment war. It's like celebrating the career of J. Robert Oppenheimer without ever acknowledging the devastation visited upon Hiroshima or Nagasaki.
We first meet Jirô (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) before he dreams of zeros. Instead, he visits his favorite airplane designer, Giovanni Caproni (voiced by Stanley Tucci). "Airplanes are beautiful dreams," his ghostly mentor tells him. But soon nightmares take over, as strange war-like demons attack. It's the only time Jirô wrestles with the implications of his chosen field.
Because of poor eyesight, the young Jirô takes up engineering instead of flight. Miyazaki follows him through the great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, to his early years designing aircraft for Mitsubishi, to his courtship of tubercular Nahoko (Emily Blunt), to his fateful visit to Germany where he learns how the Junkers build their warplanes (nary a swastika or Iron Cross is seen). Along the way, it's clear that Miyazaki is trying to focus his story on the purity of creation Jirô seeks, not the impurity of their use. Wielding his slide rule like a sword and consumed with a boundless love of aviation, he is presented as an artist of sorts — albeit, a polite and incurious nerd of an artist whose passion for planes is nearly matched by his passion for smoking.
If director Miyazaki is claiming that an artist cannot be held responsible for how his art is abused, his film makes a poor case for it. The fact that Jirô's beautifully designed machines will be used to massacre others is never once questioned. He isn't just blasé about this; he seems morally apathetic. In one scene, Jirô shows off his designs for a fast, graceful plane that, unfortunately, won't work with guns mounted on it. Laughing, he discards the plans for ones of crafts that will accommodate bombs and machine-guns.
As Miyazaki's supposedly last film (his declarations of retirement seem uncertain), there is a palpable sense of sadness and loss in The Wind Rises. You get the feeling that he's lamenting the loss of a simpler, more innocent world rather than insidious influences of war. Jirô's dying wife becomes sicker as his fighter plane designs get better, and there's the echoing sentiment that no matter how pure his love, death and ruin are inevitable. In the end, though, as Jirô walks through a dreamscape of broken planes beneath a sky filled with gleaming bombers, he mourns the fact that his planes never came back, not the annihilation they delivered. It's curious that Miyazaki feels so much for a man who seemed to feel so little.