Reviewing Hayao Miyazaki’s “The Wind Rises,” or: Why You Should Start Watching Cartoons (Seriously)

The Wind Rises

“The Wind Rises” is Hayao Miyazaki’s latest, and last, movie. And while it’s an animation, it’s a very far cry from the Saturday morning cartoons of our childhood. After all, Miyazaki is arguably Japan’s most famous, and most loved, animator. And while he’s known for whimsical explorations of fantastical worlds, “The Wind Rises” represents a significant departure from his usual fare. Indeed, the film explores the development of Japanese aviation capabilities during World War II – and does so in a surprisingly accessible and interesting manner.

The movie is a fictionalized biography of Jiro Horikoshi (1903-1982), an aircraft designer who comes of age professionally during World War II as an engineer for the Mitsubishi Corporation. He is in love with airplanes and flight from an early age, and takes inspiration from Caproni, an Italian aircraft designer. Jiro eventually designs the Mitsubishi A5M and the Mitsubishi A6M Zero, key Japanese airframes during World War II. The film is a beautiful and rich exploration of the rise of the Japanese military complex in the first half of the twentieth century. Yet as the movie progresses, Miyazaki touches upon a number of themes that are relevant to the strategic studies community. These include:

  • The ethical dilemma designers face when their work can be used for both peaceful and wartime purposes;
  • Tensions among allies, especially when it comes to technology sharing; and
  • The central role an individual can play in a nation’s technological advancement, and the need to carefully cultivate talent.

Building Death Machines: The Designer’s Dilemma

Interestingly, despite Jiro’s role in the Japanese military-industrial complex, Miyazaki chooses to explore the man as an artist and a dreamer. Jiro wants to make beautiful planes, but doing so comes at a cost: the aircraft he engineers are used to wage war. In reality – and beyond the scope of the movie – Jiro’s planes conducted the attacks on Pearl Harbor, as well as kamikaze attacks against United States aircraft carriers. Ultimately, Jiro’s love of his art – airplane design – wins over any ethical or moral objection he may have.

Miyazaki decides to directly delve into this psychology by creating a moment in the middle of a shared dream between Caproni, the Italian aircraft designer, and Jiro. Caproni asks Jiro whether he would rather have a world without the pyramids, implying that all of man’s great works, including the construction of airplanes, have a dark underbelly. Despite his regrets that his planes are being used for warfare, Jiro would rather live in a world with beautiful aircraft. He would rather design planes, and hopes they will be used for peaceful purposes after the war.

It’s a scene, and a theme, that calls to mind some of the other major technological advancements built by defense establishments that, despite their military roots, have important peaceful applications. The atomic bomb, though terrible, has also given us nuclear power. The Internet, initially built by the Department of Defense, has transformed how humans interact with each other around the globe. Recent advances in prosthetic limbs are in large part due to the military’s efforts to take care of its wounded soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan. And so on. Would we rather live in a world with, or without, these technologies? Are we comfortable with their military-oriented histories?

Technology Transfers

At one point in the film, Jiro makes a trip to Germany in order to understand more about the Luftwaffe fleet’s design. He witnesses a Nazi night raid, and seems only dimly aware of (if not apathetic towards) Germany’s increasingly thuggish domestic politics. So it is somewhat curious that the issue that actually almost throws the German-Japanese partnership into disarray: technology transfers.   This is because the Japanese delegation is prevented from fully accessing the technical details of Germany’s aircraft. This, in turn, almost sparks a major incident between the two nations, because despite the fact that the two nations are allies, Germany is seriously squeamish about sharing technologies with Japan. This is an enduring source of tension among allies – even today – as anyone who’s had to work on U.S. defense export control policy can attest.

The Role of the Individual in Technology Advancement

Japan, at the outset, is depicted as a “backwards” country. Japan’s Air Force flies constructions made of wood and canvas, while Germany’s airframes are fully metal – a technological feat the Japanese are simply in awe of. After all, Japan is so far behind the times that it uses oxen, rather than vehicles, to pull test planes to the airstrip. The question is whether Jiro – widely recognized as a genius – can leapfrog Germany’s technology and develop a long-range plane. He does so, of course, by utilizing a combination of disruptive technologies and great design. But it takes time; the Mitusbishi A6M Zero is Jiro’s life’s work. Miyazaki seems to be suggesting that one person can make a major difference to the technological advancement of a nation.

But Miyazaki also seems careful to caveat that this kind of skill in an individual takes deliberate cultivation over many years. It’s an important point that human resource managers in the national security community would do well to observe, especially in light of a recent report arguing that the U.S. Government workforce is in crisis. We cannot grow the talent needed to manage the U.S. role in an increasingly complex world overnight.

Miyazaki makes another interesting caveat: genius also requires love. Given that Miyazaki has dedicated his career to the art of animation, it is perhaps unsurprising that a persistent theme in the movie is love for one’s craft, and how love is required to inspire great works. Indeed, Jiro is unable to complete his life’s work, the A6M Zero, without the love and support of his wife, Naoko. Miyazaki seems to be saying that genius in any discipline – be it engineering, art, or (for our purposes) strategy – is therefore as much a product of love as it is skill. It is the marriage of the intuitive and the rational; art and science.


Kathleen J. McInnis is a PhD candidate at the Department of War Studies, King’s College London and a Research Consultant at Chatham House. She served as a Pentagon strategist from 2006-2009. She is the editor of the WOTR series, Art of War. The views expressed are her own.


Photo credit: shinji_w (adapted by War on the Rocks)

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