The Ghost Behind the Machine

The Haunting Legacies of J Robert Oppenheimer and Jiro Horikoshi

An animated hand holding a paper aeroplane, poised to throw it into the air.
Image credit: Studio Ghibli

This article contains spoilers for Oppenheimer and The Wind Rises (風立ちぬ).

The animated films of Studio Ghibli take a measured approach to human concerns in their storytelling. To auteur Hayao Miyazaki, people are not equipped to be arbiters of morality or ethics with respect to the natural world and its inhabitants. This belief is accompanied by an anxiety surrounding technological advancement and its potential harm ,  ecologically and humanly-speaking. Despite this pessimism, Ghibli’s environmental catalogue — Princess Mononoke and Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind— aligns with this sentiment under more hopeful terms. These movies refuse to disregard the human capacity for good. Instead they imply that responsibility for powerful technology should be removed from incompetent or wrathful hands.

Even so, Miyazaki cultivates a distaste for warfare and its machinery in his manga and animations. Stand-out Ghibli pictures carry this thread alongside a recurring contradiction: a fascination with aviation and aircrafts. The name Ghibli itself was lifted by the animation house from the Italian Caproni Ca.309. It follows that a seminal Miyazaki picture would feature aeroplanes at its heart — even in the context of global conflict. Along these lines, and from a distinctly human angle, The Wind Rises (2013) empathises with the dilemma of a visionary engineer; their pure intentions to exceed limits of creativity in a time when such breathroughs would be repurposed for acts of destruction.

The Wind Rises —a semi-fictionalised biopic of aeronautical engineer Jiro Horikoshi—stirred controversy over what was considered to be a romanticisation of Japanese military history. Chief among Horikoshi’s planes was the Mitsubishi A6M Zero, a design weaponised by Axis powers for kamikaze operations and the infamous attack on Pearl Harbour during World War II. Despite this legacy, the film depicts a man whose boyish love for planes led him on a path to creating beautiful flying machines. It is unfortunate timing — in Miyazaki’s view — that Horikoshi’s ingenuity would lend to making tools that aided in the slaughter of countless people in one of the darkest chapters in modern history.

Miyazaki received criticism from right-wing supporters for his sympathetic Horikoshi biopic. He published an essay which stoked tensions via its resolve to destigmatise a figure he deemed to be misrepresented. He writes that ‘[Horikoshi] was someone who resisted demands from the military […] I wonder if he should be liable for anything just because he lived in that period.’ Horikoshi understood the implications of defying a militarised government during a period of global unrest. He used his limited powers within predetermined boundaries. One cannot choose the era in which they are born; they may only pursue a full life within those particular social and political parameters. So echoes the tagline for the film, borrowed from Paul Valéry’s ‘Le cimetière marin’: ‘Le vent se lève! … Il faut tenter de vivre!’:

‘The wind is rising! … We must try to live!’

Cillian Murphy as Robert J Oppenheimer. He is standing at the Los Alamos test site holding a smoking pipe in his hand
Image credit: Universal Pictures

In 2023 — ten years later — Christopher Nolan makes Oppenheimer. This film and Miyazaki’s mirror each other on opposite sides of the Pacific, although Oppenheimer has been received more favourably by US audiences than The Wind Rises — despite their shared themes, era and thesis. Using American Prometheus by Kai Bird and Martin J Sherwin as his source material, Nolan patches together major set pieces from the life of J Robert Oppenheimer; colloquially known as ‘father’ of the atomic bomb. Aligning the personal and historical, he attempts to demonstrate how actions of an individual led to the construction of technology that would impact generations.

Oppenheimer takes a similar stance to The Wind Rises that, in critical moments, genius is often used for ill. This argument runs out of steam more quickly with respect to a nuclear weapon that devastated two Japanese cities — not to mention the impact of test sites on indigenous communities. Even so, Nolan’s Oppenheimer is a genuine man of science caught in an unfathomable moral predicament: does one chase after innovation and a perceived solution to conflict, with the knowledge that what is wrought may alter lives in terrible and unforeseen ways?

Nolan and Miyazaki’s films are linked beyond their superficialities, including the backgrounding of Emily Blunt as a spirited  but dutiful  wife. Horikoshi and Oppenheimer are not depicted as two-dimensional, cold-blooded men of action who disregarded repercussions. Both are framed as having been sensitive beings. The heart-rending, romantic subplot in The Wind Rises that underlines this is a fabrication; a detail, along with the title, borrowed from a novel by Tatsuo Hori. Here, creative licence allows Miyazaki to dilate his authorial lens on a misunderstood protagonist. An animated Horikoshi is pictured folding paper aeroplanes to charm his terminally ill fiancée, Nahoko. She paints a vista on a hill and he wanders over to admire her work. Verifiably, however, Oppenheimer was an aesthete. Nolan makes us aware in the film’s pre-bomb preamble that he appreciated art — and women. He enjoyed the metaphysical poetry of John Donne; an introduction made by his left-leaning lover Jean Tatlock. It is well-speculated that he named the Los Alamos atomic test ‘Trinity’ — after a Donne conceit — as a tribute to her.

In the poetic sense these are people who, against their will, became ciphers of destruction. Their stories — retold for a hyper-individualistic millennial audience — are about thinking minds taken advantage of by formidable governing bodies. Oppenheimer was working under the impression that US leaders would use only the presence of an atomic bomb as a negotiation strategy; to end a war on the edge of being ‘won’. Or, once deployed, it was naïvely assumed that the resulting trauma would draw a line under future use of nuclear tactics. As the film reminds us, theory is divorced from reality. Cillian Murphy portrays ‘Oppie’ as a brilliant, if self-assured, theoretical physicist herded into practising radioactivity — with torn ideologies that immobilise his moral compass. In the wake of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, during a private meeting with then-President Truman, Oppenheimer confesses that he has ‘blood on [his] hands’. Truman pulls out a white handkerchief from his pocket, waves this aside and asserts that history will not pay attention to the ones who conceived of the bomb — only those who chose to drop it.

Oppenheimer and The Wind Rises testify to the destructive capabilities of humankind, although Nolan’s vision is more nihilistic in practice than Miyazaki’s. As storytellers, both directors zero-in on grand visions of hopeful individuals reconfigured by brutal hands. No morally conscious being dreams of war. In the company of significant technological advancement is the potential for harm; the curse of human creativity is its proclivity to be manipulated for amoral purposes. Past lessons dictate that imaginative thinkers are often exploited in schemes of violence. Indeed, technology is commissioned by powers that conceal their true usage from well-meaning contractors. Scientific discovery used in this manner comes with the sacrifice of personal reputation and, perhaps, moral standing on the part of visionaries.

These biopics unpack the lives of people whose works have legacies far greater and more insidious than themselves. Such figures are the ghosts behind their machines; people whose inventions haunt a future they did not intend to make or live to see. Once implemented, the creation’s influence dwarfs that of the creator. It is the machine that casts the longer and darker shadow, not the person standing behind it. This concept does not , and should not,  negate human culpability. Rather, it acknowledges the complex dynamics of technological innovation in politically-charged times, particularly that which cinema has inspected in light of another century.

In 2011, Hayao Miyazaki agreed to a rare interview with Cut Magazine. On seeking inspiration for The Wind Rises, he told them:

My wife and my staff would ask me, ‘Why make a story about a man who made weapons of war?’ And I thought they were right. But one day, I heard that Horikoshi had once murmured, ‘All I wanted to do was to make something beautiful.’ And then I knew I’d found my subject.

As figures of controversy, Horikoshi and Oppenheimer  may be viewed more favourably through the lenses of filmmakers. The implication is that, with an awareness of decisions enacted by policy-makers, history will treat visionaries more kindly in retrospect. Through a director’s eyes these may not be men who displace gods in service of their egos. To them they might be victims of circumstance and timing.

A shifting of responsibility is convenient when engaging with a character study that centralises, and inevitably sympathises with, a single figure. In cinema, however, there is value to be found through a prismatic approach to the deconstruction of inconceivable moral dilemmas. Miyazaki’s protagonist is more convincingly portrayed under these terms. The work of Jiro Horikoshi was ultimately not restricted to one, harmful purpose. Brutalities — Pearl Harbour among them — should not be diminished. But here the acts of an individual may be perceived within layers of political context. The Wind Rises carefully tackles its subject with this in mind; meshing fact with fiction to allow empathy for victims but not villainise its protagonist.

Nolan’s Oppenheimer is an inescapably American take on devastation enacted by US forces. Following a nation’s readiness to engage in conflict, lack of intention will forever be a weary excuse made in hindsight. Oppenheimer later expressed regrets about igniting a global nuclear arms race — against his government’s wishes — for which he was punished. Critics of Oppenheimer have indeed noted that the film’s focus is on the inventor’s torment and not on the suffering which the bombs caused. Nolan’s exploration of charged subject matter cautiously remains within American borders. In the cases of Hiroshima and Nagasaki: steps forward were not made to shake the earth with such force, but aftershocks were catastrophically and irrevocably deferred to innocent lives overseas. Without thorough examination, particularly through art, history becomes a spectral influence that looms freely over the modern world.

In each haunting black and white photograph captured post-disaster are background hues of grey. Narrative — written, visual and filmic — may contextualise passing details and retrieve them from being lost in the abstractions of everyday life. Whether such complexities, ambiguities and ghostly presences can be sensitively conveyed through the medium of film,  or the narrow and acutely subjective lens of a biopic , continues to be an issue handled post-credits.