Filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki captures dying machines from war in new film

In telling the story of the man behind Japan's finest fighter planes, anime master Miyazaki's swansong captures the paradoxical artistry that creates the tools of war

At Harvard University in the early 1920s, a bright but insecure science student from a German-Jewish family in New York used to wind up his chums by quoting modern French poetry. Pretentious, moi? Some of his friends certainly thought so. Among the poets this prodigy admired was Paul Valéry, who in 1920 had written his masterpiece Le Cimetiere Marin – The Seaside Graveyard. "Le vent se lève," that poem's final verse begins, "Il faut tenter de vivre."

At Harvard University in the early 1920s, a bright but insecure science student from a German-Jewish family in New York used to wind up his chums by quoting modern French poetry. Pretentious, moi? Some of his friends certainly thought so. Among the poets this prodigy admired was Paul Valéry, who in 1920 had written his masterpiece Le Cimetiere Marin – The Seaside Graveyard. "Le vent se lève," that poem's final verse begins, "Il faut tenter de vivre."

"The wind rises. We must try to live." Does Hayao Miyazaki, the peerless master of Japanese anime cinema, know of the strange connection between the title and spirit of his 11th feature film and the early years of J Robert Oppenheimer, the "father of the atom bomb"? For the poetry-loving Oppenheimer's own wind of inspiration would blow measureless death and suffering into Hiroshima and Nagasaki on 6 and 9 August 1945.

Valéry's lines, with their call to live fully and joyfully in the teeth of death and fate, echo through The Wind Rises. Miyazaki's swansong (the 73-year-old anime magician has announced his retirement from film) is a semi-fictionalised, animated biopic of the aircraft engineer and designer Jiro Horikoshi. With his Studio Ghibli team of animators let loose as never before on 20th-century history, The Wind Rises folds jaw-dropping flights of animated fancy into hallucinatory super-realism. Miyazaki's gravity-defying art here attains a kind of visionary intensity that surpasses even Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke or My Neighbour Totoro.

High-flyer: the director Hayao Miyazaki (Getty) High-flyer: the director Hayao Miyazaki (Getty)
Yet this is a film about the costs as well as the fruits of a unique creative gift. Horikoshi, whose early struggles as a trail-blazing aero engineer we follow, designed for Mitsubishi in Nagoya first the A5M and then the A6M Zero fighter, chief strike weapon of the Japanese air force during the Pacific war and supreme in the skies. "Never dogfight a Zero," US pilots advised one another. Harbingers of doom punctuate the film, from the 1923 Tokyo earthquake to warnings that Japan will "blow itself up" and prophetic glimpses of Horikoshi's gorgeous machines in burnt-out fragments on the ground. During a romantic interlude in a mountain resort, Horikoshi meets not only his future wife but a prophetic German named Castorp – an older version of Thomas Mann's tubercular hero in The Magic Mountain, another work about the Faustian kinship of creativity and mortality. Still, the film respects its hero's single-minded vocation. "Every artist has 10 years of creativity," Giovanni Caproni, his imaginary mentor but also a real Italian pioneer of aircraft design, tells the novice who imagines planes as "beautiful dreams" rather than "tools of war". "Live your 10 years to the full."

The Wind Rises ends before the catastrophe. So we never see the Pearl Harbour raid, the slave-labour camps that built the Zero, the kamikaze operations they enabled or, except by visual hints, the annihilating reply to this quest for armed perfection that Oppenheimer's bombs delivered. A pacifist himself, Miyazaki would probably assume that his audience in Japan has no need of such reminders. Some Western critics, however, have found the film evasive and prettified, too enamoured of its own (and its hero's) artistry to ask hard questions.

But the moral quandaries of the scientist or engineer who fashions machines of destruction know no national boundaries. Recently, the most poignant meditations on the conscience of the armourer have come from Mikhail Kalashnikov, who died last December aged 94. Since 1946, when the Russian military engineer's design won a Red Army competition, more than 100 million easily manufactured AK‑47s have loyally but indiscriminately served freedom and tyranny, justice and oppression, all over the planet. "I'm proud of my invention but I'm sad that it is used by terrorists," he said in 2002. Kalashnikov also voiced the wish that he had designed not the most robust, effective and widely used assault rifle in military history but, rather, a lawnmower.

Kalashnikov's fondness in hindsight for labour-saving garden equipment echoes a statement made by Albert Einstein. "If only I had known" about the military deployment of sub-atomic science, the great theorist once said. "I should have become a watchmaker." In August 1939, when experiments had just proved the potential for massive energy release from a nuclear chain reaction in uranium, Einstein, with fellow physicists Edward Teller and Leo Szilard, wrote to President Franklin Roosevelt to warn that the "construction of bombs" might well follow. The artificer who made those bombs – or rather, who presided over the Los Alamos laboratory-workshop in New Mexico where they evolved – was the poetry-spouting, philosophy-reading Oppenheimer.

Oppenheimer would spend around a quarter-century in anguished reflection on his handiwork. He famously greeted the world's first atomic mushroom cloud – rising from the successful "Trinity" test of 16 July 1945 – with a quotation from the Hindu sacred poem, the Bhagavad Gita: "I have become Death, the destroyer of worlds." Yet a colleague (as reported in Ray Monk's superlative biography Inside the Centre) remembers Oppenheimer walking back to the Los Alamos HQ that day with a high noon-style triumphalist swagger.

In October 1945, he met President Harry Truman to discuss the post-war control of nuclear armaments. To the commander-in-chief's evident disgust, the intellectual architect of victory whined: "Mr President, I feel that I have blood on my hands." Nonetheless, he zigzagged between shame and pride. In 1964, by then much bruised by the long-running FBI investigation of his Communist links and left-wing background, he read In the Matter of J Robert Oppenheimer by the German dramatist Heinar Kipphardt. That play makes Oppenheimer regret unambiguously that "we have been doing the work of the devil".

No, the subject told the author: "I would do again what I did during the war". At a 1963 conference in Geneva, he recalled, a listener had "angrily asked, 'Even after Hiroshima?' I repeated my 'yes'". Oppenheimer saw his weaponisation of a fissile chain reaction in uranium-235 in the wider context of aerial bombing, of the crimes of Fascism, and the Allies' escalating punishment of them. "It seems to me," he told Kipphardt, "you may well have forgotten Guernica, Dachau, Coventry, Belsen, Warsaw, Dresden, Tokyo. I have not." The Tokyo firestorm of 9-10 March 1945, unleashed by more than 300 US B-29 bombers armed with "conventional" weapons, killed around 90,000: more than died at Hiroshima.

Oppenheimer spent half a lifetime in two minds about atomic weaponry. After the war, he took little part in the development of the hydrogen bomb. Indeed, the paranoid FBI feared the old leftie was trying to sabotage the project. He called its eventual design a "sweet and lovely and beautiful job" and "a dreadful weapon". Look at his life and you see the dread and the beauty held in a precarious balance. The Wind Rises, by contrast, errs on the side of enchantment – but then the Zero fighter, for all its menace, could never do the same harm as Oppenheimer's grand designs. As for Valéry, the poet had written that modern civilisations "now know that we are mortal" in the aftermath of the First World War. Designed and executed by aesthetes of science such as Horikoshi and Oppenheimer, the second would prove him tragically correct.

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