The Wind Rises
Multiple times over his long career, Hayao Miyazaki has threatened to retire. “Spirited Away” was supposed to be his final film before the assigned director dropped out of “Howl’s Moving Castle,” bringing Miyazaki onto the project. I’m fairly certain he talked about retirement a few other times too. When the director announced that his eleventh feature, “The Wind Rises,” was going to be his final film, it was hard to know if he was being serious. As the release of the film approached, it became clear that the director was serious. Miyazaki was truly retiring, for realsy this time. For his last film, he chose an unusual project. As a drastic change of pace from his usual children’s film or fantasy action/adventures, “The Wind Rises” is a low-key drama about Jiro Horikoshi, the man who designed the Mitsubishi A6M Zero, the Japanese fighter jets that dropped the bombs on Pearl Habor.
Beginning in 1918, the film starts with Jiro as a thirteen year old, his love and fascination with airplanes already in place. He wears glasses which prevents him from being a pilot himself. After an encounter in a dream with Italian designer Giovanni Caproni, Jiro devotes his life to designing airplanes. Jumping ahead to 1927, Jiro scores a job with Mitsubishi designing planes for the Japanese airforce. As the threat of war looms, Jiro regrets that his beautiful creations will be used to destroy cities and end lives.
Despite being based in fact, “The Wind Rises” deviates wildly from the truth. The facts concerning Horikoshi’s career as a plane designer are more-or-less intact. The building and failure of the Mitsubishi 1MF10 is documented, along with the creative process that eventually led to the creation of the Zero. However, most everything else in the film is fictional. A major subplot is Jiro’s relationship and brief marriage to a woman dying of tuberculosis, which is invented whole-cloth. A long series of scenes revolving around Jiro befriending a German designer don’t have any basis in reality either. More-or-less, all of the insight the film gives into Jiro’s life is fictional and created for the film. “The Wind Rises” is a biopic in only the loosest sense. Instead, it’s mostly a fictional drama that takes loose inspiration from true events.
It is also the only dream sequence that truly feels like a dream. This is, perhaps, intentional. Early on, Jiro has a dream that has him meeting Caproni, his hero and the man who would inspire his profession. These dreams are reoccurring and are more like visions or psychic communications then genuine dreams. In the first, Caproni shares his vision of an air-bus before it is ever actually built. Another has the Italian inviting Jiro onto a giant bomber plane. For its test ride, he has invited the families of his workers to enjoy a flight. The film’s emotional conclusion has the two meeting again, above a destroyed field. In an image recalling “Porco Rosso,” the two watch a fleet of Jiro’s Zeroes fly by before they soar up into the sky, disappearing into a stream of stars overhead. The meetings with Caproni are potentially overwrought. However, they provide a structure to the film, giving a clearer look into Horikoshi’s ambitions and plans.
Miyazaki has never kept his love of aviation and air travel a secret. Considering how fascinated he is with airplanes, it’s surprising that “The Wind Rises” is only the second film Miyazaki has made to explicitly revolve around planes. The detail is, naturally, obsessive. The planes look as realistic as possible and are outfitted with an insane amount of detail. The film has a clever way of conveying Jiro’s innate understanding of plane physics. During one of the test flights, the designer can tell that the plane is about to shake apart under the high velocity. He focuses on the wing, seeing through the canvas to the frame swaying inside. Another moment has Jiro explaining his latest work of art to his co-workers, who see the design spring to life around them. “The Wind Rises” uses the animated form to convey a deeper, more intuitive understanding of what makes airplanes special.
Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 hits. The land ripples around them, the train derailed and the city bursting into flames. Jiro rescues a young girl named Nahoko from the crash without ever revealing his name. A decade later, the two meet again, the girl having never forgotten about him. The second half of “The Wind Rises” is heavily devoted to the growing bond between Jiro and Nahoko. Some of the scenes drip with melodrama, primarily because of Nahoko’s inevitable death from tuberculosis. However, others are more low-key and touching. The two lovers walk through a rainstorm, both crouching under a hole-filled umbrella. After being married, Jiro works on his planes designs at home. Nahoko scoots his table closer to her sleeping bag so that the two can hold hands. The best moments concerning the romantic subplot are the ones that make the most use of the film’s dream-like tone. While Nahoko recovers in her room, her hat blows off her head. Below, Jiro dances back and forth in order to catch it, a moment of releaving Buster-Keaton-style slapstick. Another effective moment comes during the successful test flight of the A5M. Instead of being proud of his success, Jiro is distracted by a sudden wind. He has sensed that his wife has died. It’s a quiet, effective moment. The love story never quite connects with the film’s thematic concerns but is not without touching elements.
“Porco Rosso” also did a great job of capturing a world in transition. “The Wind Rises” does much the same, being set during a similar time period. In the time period after World War I, Japan is destitute. Banks are closing, thousands are out of work, and no one has any money. Meanwhile, the government is pouring money into the military. Jiro’s best friend Kiro Honjo points out that the two of them are making decent money while the rest of the country is fighting to survive. While overseas in Germany, Jiro sees the growing influence of fascism first hand. During the night, a fleeing man is cornered by the secret police in an alley way and beaten, expressionistic shadows cast on the wall behind them. While in the countryside, Horikoshi befriends a German named Hans Castrop, who is a vocal critic of both Hitler’s growing power and the militaristic tendencies of the Japanese Empire. For this friendship, Jiro is pursued by government agents for the rest of the film. The inevitability of World War II affects the entire film. The film paints a picture of a world still crippled from one world war while on the verge of another.
Which brings me the primary thematic thrust of “The Wind Rises.” Nearly all of the director’s films have an anti-war subtext. This film brings that reoccurring theme to the surface. As in “Howl’s Moving Castle,” the war is painted a futile, frivolous enterprise. The film does not go into the reasons behind the war, instead focusing on the lives that will be lost in the violence. Jiro creates his planes as expression of art. Throughout the film, he and other characters bemoan the fact that his artistic creations will be used as weapons. The war is never actually seen on-screen, instead merely refereed to. By focusing on Jiro’s desires to create something beautiful, the film makes the losses incurred during the war more personal.
Despite obviously being a passion project for the filmmaker, “The Wind Rises” might be Miyazaki’s weakest film. The movie’s pace can best be described as “meandering.” Long portions are devoted to Jiro and his friends sketching out planes, which is not the most cinematic action. The trip to Germany and back are broken up with long sequences of the two geeking out over German ingenuity or sitting in their hotel room. When Jiro is in the countryside, forming his bond with Nahoko, the pacing really takes a dive. Dialogue-heavy scenes devoted to two characters standing around and talking drag the film down. For a movie that’s already long at 126 minutes, “The Wind Rises” frequently feels even longer.
As his career went on, Miyazaki’s themes became more and more obvious. “The Wind Rises” has this trend coming to a head. The film is frequently didactic. Instead of expressing its thematic concepts through the story, the characters lay them out, speaking their feelings in lengthy monologues. This is most obvious during the final scene. Jiro and Caproni ruminate over their beautiful creations being destroyed in the pursuit of war. Jiro’s dead wife then appears to him, imploring him to move on with his life. Surely there were more elegant ways to express these idea. “The Wind Rises” too frequently feels like a lecture which only adds to its sluggish pacing.
As of now, it's hard to know if Miyazaki's retirement will stick, with rumors of a possible new project already circulating. Either way, the studio the director founded is in a state of transition. Studio Ghibli is not closing down, not yet anyway, but the company's future is uncertain. If Ghibli closes down forever, it would certainly mean a huge loss for the animation world, especially since there are still talented filmmakers at the studio, beyond Miyazaki and Takahada. Maybe in a year from now, we'll have more concrete answers. At this moment, we fans can only hope and wonder.
As long time Film Thoughts readers are surely aware, the blog will be going quiet for a few days before returning at the end of the week in a big way. You know what I'm talking about. See you soon.