With The Wind Rises, animator Hayao Miyazaki paints an empathetic portrait of Jiro Horikoshi, the aeronautical engineer who designed many of the fighter planes used by the Japanese military during World War II. The film is one of the most rapturously beautiful that Miyazaki has made, and all the more unsettling because of it. Miyazaki, who previously told this story in a 2009 manga, claims he didn’t want to judge his subject, though Horikoshi was indirectly responsible for countless deaths. Instead the movie presents Horikoshi as he might have imagined himself—as a romantic who loved airplanes and mathematics for their abstract beauty and believed his work transcended its military application. To call The Wind Rises a success is a bit like calling Horikoshi a success; doing so makes you feel disgusted with yourself.

In Asia the movie prompted feelings of disgust before it was even released. Figures on the Japanese left condemned Miyazaki for glorifying the maker of “killing machines,” and writers in South Korea and mainland China, where millions died at the hands of the imperial Japanese army, attacked him for whitewashing history. Miyazaki was hardly helped by the fact that last September, two months after the film came out in Japan, conservative Prime Minister Shinzo Abe proposed to revise the constitution to expand the national military for the first time since World War II. A lifelong pacifist, Miyazaki decried Abe’s position in an op-ed piece, but this only provoked a backlash from Japanese nationalists who called The Wind Rises unpatriotic. Despite the controversy, the film went on to become Japan’s highest-grossing release of 2013, confirming Miyazaki’s unshakable place in the popular culture.

Miyazaki made The Wind Rises not to forgive Horikoshi but rather to understand how large-scale atrocities come to be. If the film often feels like an act of forgiveness, that’s because Miyazaki is incapable of calling anyone evil. One of the hallmarks of his films—even those imagining full-on warfare, like Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984) and Princess Mononoke (1997)—is that he accords his villains the same respect as his heroes. All his characters have significant reasons for their actions, and most of them are capable of compromise.

This empathy defines Miyazaki’s art as much as his painterly visuals and knack for suspense do. Certain scenes in My Neighbor Totoro (1988) evoke a four-year-old’s perspective with uncanny precision, and Miyazaki’s screenplays for Whisper of the Heart (1995) and From Up on Poppy Hill (2011) achieve something similar in their portraits of early adolescent girls, making their experiences feel universal. In each case Miyazaki shapes the narrative so that the world of the film seems no larger than the heroine’s emotional struggle, regardless of how basic it might seem. Since Miyazaki and his animators realize the settings in extraordinary detail, viewers have little trouble adjusting their sense of scale—the protagonist’s inner world seems as remarkable as the whole world.

The Wind Rises may be the first movie in which Miyazaki presents the two as being in conflict. Many of the significant passages take place in Horikoshi’s imagination, suggesting that he could design warplanes in good conscience only because he never had a solid grasp of reality. One of the first scenes is a dream Horikoshi has as a grade-school boy; in it he meets his hero, the Italian aeronautical engineer Giovanni Battista Caproni, who urges him to act on his love of airplanes and design them when he grows up. As imagined by Miyazaki, Horikoshi retains a childlike wonder as he rises through the ranks of Mitsubishi’s aeronautics division in the 1930s. The adult Horikoshi continues to dream of Caproni, meeting him in fantastic settings that recall those of Miyazaki’s Castle in the Sky (1986); the Italian becomes a sort of amoral guardian angel, materializing to assuage Horikoshi’s guilt about how his designs will be used. In a particularly chilling moment, Caproni likens airplane designers to the architects of the pyramids. When people see the pyramids today, he asks, how many think of the countless slave laborers who died in their construction?

Horikoshi’s relationship with this dream projection of Caproni may be the most fully realized in the film; the only other that comes close is an invented romance between Horikoshi and a young woman named Naoko. They first meet during the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, the most destructive in Japanese history, when an adolescent Horikoshi arrives in Tokyo to attend engineering school. This sequence contains the film’s most explicit images of terror (tellingly, they depict a natural rather than a man-made catastrophe), making the spontaneous connection between Horikoshi and the child Naoko seem especially touching. When they meet again a decade later, they instantly remember this encounter and fall in love. The setting for this reunion is a sanatorium where Naoko is being treated for tuberculosis and where Horikoshi is hiding out to avoid being interrogated by the secret police in Tokyo. Naoko doesn’t have much time to live, but Horikoshi, romantic that he is, decides to make her final days special. He marries her, and she joins him back in the city for as long as her health can hold out.

Some have accused Miyazaki of inserting this subplot to make Horikoshi more endearing, yet the romance is as creepy as anything else in The Wind Rises, since it too is darkened by the shadow of death. In fact Miyazaki hints throughout that Horikoshi might romanticize death in the same way he idealizes airplanes—his longing for abstract beauty verges on a desire for nonbeing. During the sanatorium episode, Miyazaki introduces another fictional character, a pacifist German emigre called Castorp. He’s named after the hero of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, another tale about an effete man in a sanatorium who’s seduced by a life of abstract meditation; Mann’s hero falls so in love with a life of contemplation that, despite never being sick, he doesn’t leave the sanatorium for seven years. With this reference Miyazaki implies that Horikoshi—and by extension, architects of killing machines everywhere—has fallen under a similar spell.

The Wind Rises is Miyazaki’s attempt to imagine this reverie. Even the purely expository images convey an eerily languid beauty; they communicate a longing for the past even as they acknowledge that the past is dead. The sickly sweet tone reminds me of Luchino Visconti’s pageant of fascist “beauty,” The Damned (1969), as well as his adaptation of Mann’s Death in Venice (1971). Yet neither of those films, unnerving as they might be, strives to empathize with a man who built instruments of death. Miyazaki clearly sees something of himself in Horikoshi; as cofounder of a successful animation studio (whose name, Ghibli, comes from a World War II-era Italian scouting aircraft), he too has transformed his fantasies into large-scale industrial operations. By acknowledging his similarities with a warplane designer, Miyazaki notes our proximity to the atrocities of the 20th century and asks how we live contentedly with this knowledge.