“Remember this, Japanese boy… airplanes are not tools for war. They are not for making money. Airplanes are beautiful dreams. Engineers turn dreams into reality.” – Caproni, The Wind Rises.
The Wind Rises is a fictionalized biography of Jiro Horikoshi, an aircraft designer who built planes during World War II and is adapted from Miyazaki’s manga of the same name. The film was the highest grossing Japanese film in Japan of 2013, in turn causing a lot of controversy over the choice of making a warplane designer the film’s protagonist; it is also (supposedly) Hayao Miyazaki’s last film. This is his sixth attempt at retirement to date, and is to be believed to be the final and lasting retirement from, at least, film-making. If that is the case, The Wind Rises is an unusual choice yet somehow a perfect movie on which to end his film-directing career.
Over Miyazaki’s and Studio Ghibli’s reign, some of the elements in their work have included environmentalism, big fantasy adventure, and flying, the last one is portrayed in such films as Porco Rosso, Nausicaa, and Laputa. His love of flying is, of course, put on a pedestal here due to the nature of the movie. However, unlike previous movies where it’s been from the pilot’s point of view, or maybe from the awe of an onlooking crowd, this time it’s from the plane designer, someone who never takes flight himself but relies on his imagination to create something that can. The wondrous sights of flying are given a new perspective, where we delve into Jiro’s mind and he communicates with an Italian plane designer and his idol, Caproni. They walk along the top of the planes with no fear of consequences, they tear through the wondrous blue skies and the misfortune of what they are creating never once surfaces in his mind, because to him he is simply creating beautiful planes and the potential to see the magnificence of the world from such heights. Of course, not everyone will take a fancy to his whimsical thoughts, as evidenced by the controversy over the film which we’ll talk about in a minute, but you can see Hayao Miyazaki’s similar passions for flight expressed through Jiro’s character; it’s easy to be swept inside his innocent dreams, and you can’t deny that the animation in the flight scenes is spectacular.
Still, when you think of Hayao Miyazaki and/or Studio Ghibli, the films that first come to mind are the fantasy-driven titles such as Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke. So his choice to make his last film something far removed from that is quite interesting. Studio Ghibli isn’t a stranger to more serious toned stories, with Grave of the Fireflies being a notable and well-loved movie, but Miyazaki’s directing, producing and/or writing credits have always been linked to the studio’s more fantastical and childlike creations. Perhaps this film was a way of getting something off his chest, his last attempt to challenge himself before he closed his film-making doors, and it does come across as such in places. The film’s subject matter maybe outside his comfort zone but he doesn’t need magical creatures to create a magical film. He really puts everything into this, injecting a lot of wonder, emotion, and thought into depicting the life of a man who isn’t normally considered to fit a main protagonist’s shoes.
Now let’s address the controversy. Jiro Horikoshi built planes used during World War II, including one particular plane, Mitsubishi A6M Zero, known for its infamous involvement in the attack on Pearl Harbour. The real life Jiro Horikoshi was very conflicted about his actions in creating what came to be used as a killing machine, and has been noted for calling it a ‘futile war’. This conflicted side of the man is not shown in The Wind Rises – well, there are subtle hints in the imagery of his dreams and a bit of dialogue towards the end, but he mostly comes across as distanced from what’s going on in the world for the majority of the film, and it’s this lack of realizing his place in the war that has justifiably rubbed others up the wrong way. Hayao Miyazaki was inspired to make the film from a real life quote from Jiro stating, “All I wanted was to create something beautiful.” This complements a quote from a Paul Valéry poem that is cited throughout the film: “The wind is rising. We must try to live.” The paired lines convey the film’s intentions perfectly; Jiro’s conflict over the war is maybe overlooked but his passions for his designs to come to life are not. His love for creating them, and the way he lives his life amidst disaster are brought to life in a way only Studio Ghibli and Hayao Miyazaki can. The portrayal has the right amount of eccentricity and hope that prevents the film from being unsympathetic to the bigger picture, instead it goes down a non-judgmental route, which is probably the best way to address such matters.
The film is long, over two hours, and it’s marred by a choppy first half. At the start Jiro is but a child, then in the next scene he’s suddenly in his teens. Not long after, he tells his sister that he plans to start working for a company in a year’s time, then the next scene is his first day in the office. The time jumps are off-putting and hard to get your head around at first; thankfully when he’s in his adult years, the film steadies itself and flows much better. It still feels very long but barely any of its run-time is wasted, even the latter half, which mostly focuses on Jiro and Naoko’s relationship, uses its time to develop a real connection between them and the audience.
Speaking of Jiro and Naoko’s companionship, this is Miyazaki’s first film to truly convey a stereotypically normal and adult relationship, and it’s handled very elegantly. When the pair fall in love about halfway through the film, it’s admittedly handled in a childlike way; the two spend minimal time together before they realize they’re in love and want to marry, not far removed from a classic Disney film narrative. However once Naoko’s illness is made known, the audience realizes that this will not end well. But Jiro’s efforts at travelling back and forth between his job and her home, Naoko’s ache to get better for their wedding, and their constant struggles are portrayed in such a human way, a tragedy in the midst of everything else going on, making it relatable. You want them to be together and find a way for Jiro’s dreams to fly alongside hers, and experiencing their journey together is a big part of the film that helps in making him a more rounded character. The life of Jiro in this film is fictional and does not represent the real man’s personal life but it allows for him to be more rounded and have something other than being a plane designer for a terrible piece of history.
The sound design for this film is rather unique; there are scenes where in most films it would be common to hear background crowd voices to pad out the scene, however there are many times in this film where that is lacking, often to great effect. I’m mostly referring to the earthquake scene right near the beginning where, instead of the screaming of people panicking and running for their lives, the sound is dominated by effects. The only voice heard is Jiro’s when he attempts to speak (which admittedly is not as often as most leading characters) so his voice punching through the chaos, accompanied only by the growing and gritty sounds of an earthquake is very powerful and harrowing. Another thing I picked up on was the various use of sound effects for the planes; it seems that each type of plane has a different sound, as if they represent their unique designs/personalities. Some of them don’t quite work so well (one sound effect sounds like a fart, provoking unintentional laughter) but it is different, I give it that.
The Wind Rises treads some very fragile ground; it’s perfectly understandable to judge this film based upon the protagonist’s part in the war, and to feel that Hayao Miyazaki’s attempt to paint him as a dreamer is misguided. But if you can get past that, it still has everything that Studio Ghibli is known and loved for: fantastic animation, memorable characters, and a story to get swept up in. If this really is Hayao Miyazaki’s last film, it’s certainly an exceptional film to send him off on.