Acclaimed director Hayao Miyazaki has said many times in the past that he was going to retire. When it came to the 2013 release of The Wind Rises the announcement stuck and retire he did. The knowledge that The Wind Rises was going to be the last film in a long and very successful career for Miyazaki meant that the pressure was on to make a statement, and what a swan song it is indeed.
The Wind Rises is based on the life of Jiro Horikoshi, designer of the Zero fighter planes used by the Japanese Air Force in World War II. Jiro dreams of airplanes but his very poor eyesight has barred him from ever being a pilot. Instead, the young Jiro dedicates himself to learning how to design and build aircraft. While he slowly rises up the ranks in an air industry that still predominantly used wood as the building material for its fighter plans, Jiro takes inspiration from a fishbone in order to design something that will be more agile than anything else in the air.
Along the way Jiro also falls in love with Naoko, a young woman he rescues during the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923. Their chance encounters spark a relationship that help Jiro have the strength he needs to continue, even as tragedies befall him. However, one thing that Miyazaki has never really done well is proper full on ‘love’. The love here is of a sedate Japanese kind and whilst it has a strong narrative reason to be there, swooning romance is not going to be the reason you come to this film.
By taking a fictionalised look at Jiro’s life, Miyazaki is able to cover a range of themes, from anti-war sentiment, the inferiority complex of the Japanese armed forces, and pride in technical achievement despite what it may be used for. Indeed, this is a theme that Miyazaki has wrestled with in many of his movies and none more so than this one. What does it mean to design instruments of death? He is careful not to allow The Wind Rises to be seen as a propaganda piece that praises a man who unquestionably helped the Japanese Air Force shoot down and destroy many, many Allied planes. Similarly its irresponsible to ignore this all together. So, what to do?
One recurring but key line of dialogue is that airplanes are “beautiful dreams”. In the movie, Jiro’s only concern is to make the best airplanes he can make and he alternates between distaste and indifference as to what they will be used for. Indeed, he laments at one point that the plane would fly all the better if only the guns were left off.
For proper meta theme seekers, there is a strong analogy from the meticulous construction of aircraft and the sheer work required to create animation. Miyazaki through the medium of his last movie questions whether the effort and craft required to make airplanes/movies is justified by the use they are put to. No definitive answers are arrived at with this moral tooing and froing. But, airplanes are beautiful dreams.
The effort is certainly there on screen. Even with a subject as potentially dry as a specific time period piece autobiographical, Miyazaki fills the screen with flights of fancy where he can. Jiro’s dreams are filled with flight which is beautifully rendered. The 1923 earthquake that I mentioned earlier is also a marvel of animation. When the quake hits its arrival is not marked with a roar or an explosion, but instead a sigh. Everything freezes for a moment. The sound shushes softly. And then the ground rolls up like a duvet being pumped before buildings start to crack, crumble and collapse. It’s a stand out scene and testament to Miyazaki’s ability to create mood action rather than simply throwing things at the screen.
As beautiful and honed as The Wind Rises is, watching it is like appreciating the handiwork of a master artist rather than enjoying the ride a movie takes you on. Dream sequences aside, there is little of the sumptuous storytelling approach that marked most of Miyazaki’s career. Of course, it’s a matter of taste but separated out from Miyazaki’s usual staples of fantastical romp or charming children’s classic the pace here is slow.
The Wind Rises is a movie that knows just making planes won’t be enough, but can’t mesh together the love plot enough to make it cohesive. The last act suffers from a loss of momentum and whilst the heartstrings are tugged at, the emotional swerve means that you lose track of where the movie is trying to go.
As a swan song, The Wind Rises is a remarkable piece of work and something that will likely yield more and more subtle enjoyment on later re-watches. But from a casual audience enjoyment point of view it won’t be your go-to Studio Ghibli or Miyazaki movie.
Oh, and that retirement? Well…he knocked that off and at the age of 79 is currently midway through production on another movie, obviously!
Words by Mike Record