- Designs and DreamsQuestions of Technology in Hayao Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises
In 2013, Japanese animator and film director Hayao Miyazaki of Studio Ghibli released Kaze Tachinu, or The Wind Rises. Known for his inventive and beautiful artwork and compelling anime characters in both manga and film, Miyazaki has frequently teased out themes of consequence, especially relating to environmental issues, in works of popular culture that are generally aimed at children. In this, his self-avowed final film, the director turns his attention to a subject that is more suitable for adults: the role of Japan in World War II, more specifically its development of aeronautical technology. He pursues this subject through a gorgeously rendered narrative of the early life and work of aeronautical engineer Jiro Horikoshi (1903–1982), whose imaginative designs of the long-range fighter plane the Mitsubishi A6M, better known as the Zero, supported Japanese aggression and expansion in the 1940s.
For historians of technology, The Wind Rises brings to life a number of compelling themes, central among them the perennial question of the neutrality of technology. Miyazaki has a clear answer to this question: “It was wrong from the beginning to go to war,” he commented in an interview in Japan after the film’s release. He went on, “But as the Japanese opted for war, it’s useless to blame Jiro for it. Basically, engineers are neutral. For instance, automobiles can help people, but they can also hit them.”1 As he explores this belief in the neutrality of technology through Jiro’s inspirations and engineering ingenuity, Miyazaki examines the complexity of technology’s relationship to culture, or more precisely, to politics. [End Page 457]
Jiro is portrayed in the film, as youth and adult, as a dreamer and a pacifist. As a child, he protects a small boy from the attentions of a gang of bullies; his mother, seeing his injuries, reminds him that “fighting is never justified.”2 Later, when he tries to give his food to hungry children, his colleague and friend Kiro (based on the engineer Kiro Honjo [1901–1990]) teases him: “Poor Jiro. Stuck in his happy dreams. …” At the same time, Jiro is a strikingly innovative engineer, borrowing from nature to extend design. Miyazaki thus establishes Jiro as someone simultaneously devoted to that most practical of professions, engineering, while also demonstrating the finer sensibilities of empathy and idealism.
Is technology neutral or are designers complicit in the uses of their inventions? Miyazaki uses the vehicle of dreams to further pursue this question. In Jiro’s dreams, he has conversations with Giovanni Battista Caproni, an Italian aeronautical engineer whose work inspired the real-life Jiro as well as Miyazaki, who named his animation studio after Caproni’s “Ghibli” aircraft design. In these dream sequences, Caproni tells Jiro, “Airplanes are not tools of war; they’re not for making money; they are beautiful dreams.” Through Caproni’s words, Miyazaki evokes the neutrality of the designer: “Engineers,” Caproni reminds Jiro, “turn beautiful dreams into reality.” To this injunction, Jiro replies, “I am going to make beautiful dreams.” Miyazaki is not heedless of the uses of these airplanes—for Caproni, whose planes were used for military purposes in both world wars, or for Jiro. Indeed, Caproni laments that his aircraft are “destined to become tools for slaughter and destruction”; nonetheless, he honors them as beautiful creations and encourages Jiro to see his designs in the same way. Alluding to Paul Valéry’s poem “Le Cimetière Marin” (The Graveyard by the Sea), from which the film gets its title, Caproni asks Jiro, “Is the wind still rising … then you must live.” Circumstances, suggests Miyazaki, are not of our making, yet we must still rise to the challenge of how to live.
Alongside the theme of engineering neutrality versus designers’ complicity in the uses of their technologies, Miyazaki also portrays the overlapping uses of technology. Numerous frames aptly illustrate the thesis of David Edgerton’s 2006 book The Shock of the Old: a horse-driven cart waits at a railroad crossing as a train rushes by; in the city, horses and trams are complementarily used for transport, while on...