The Wind Rises

Hayao Miyazki has made nine animated features, including ‘Princess Mononoke’ and ‘Spirited Away’ since he founded Studio Ghibli in 1985. Now, at the age of 72, the filmmaker has announced his retirement and so ‘The Wind Rises’ is his last picture. My guess is he will pass the reigns over to his son, Goro Miyazaki, whose animated feature ‘From Up On Poppy Hill’ played in limited release last year. 

Just this past week, we saw ‘Frozen’ win the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature. However, the picture that deserved the win in this category is ‘The Wind Rises’ if only for the beautiful way it captures the dream of flight. This isn’t the first Studio Ghibli production to feature flying machines (‘Castle in the Sky’, and ‘Howl’s Moving Castle’ come to mind). Even the name of the studio, Ghibli, means “wind”. To call Miyazaki an aviation enthusiast may be an understatement

It might seem crazy to say ‘The Wind Rises’ is grounded in reality but I’m going to say it. The best animated films make us forget that we’re watching artificially created characters and immerse us into the story. What’s especially distinctive about this work is the absence of fantastical elements, which is usually the trademark of Miyazaki’s features. Instead, this is something of a biopic; a story based on the life of Jiro Horikoshi. That is to say it is the story of a young man who pursues his dreams of being an aeronautical engineer in Japan during the 1930s.

What he ends up designing, though, is Japan’s zero fighter plane – which we know from History class was the aircraft used in the attack on Pearl Harbor. In his dreams, Jiro meets the Italian aircraft designer Count Gianni Caproni who shows off the nine-winged flying boat he would one day build and throws in several philosophical lemmas such as: i) airplanes are beautiful dreams, ii) engineers turn dreams into reality, iii) airplanes are not tools of war, iv) airplanes will be used to bomb cities.  Notice the conflicting nature of axioms iii and iv. Jiro seems aware of but seemingly unconcerned with how the fighter plane will be utilized by the military in the event of war.

Personally, I would have preferred a little more attention to Jiro’s inner conflict extending beyond his various dreamed interactions. Any ounce of self doubt or reservations about what he’s doing is shrugged off with serene resignation. He is fascinated with design, even mundane aspects, such as the curvature of a mackerel bone. Of course, such rudimentary fascinations eventually lead to more substantial scientific discoveries – for example, how flush rivets reduce drag.

There is a lot going on in this picture; on top of Jiro’s transition into adulthood and how that is shaped by Japan’s rigid nationalism, we get a glimpse into Japan’s tempestuous history between the two world wars (including the Kanto earthquake, the Great Depression, the tuberculosis epidemic, the thought police, and the nation’s dependence on Germany for technology).

But, what ‘The Wind Rises’ lacks in thematic elements it compensates for with a hypnotically mesmerizing visual palette. No one does dreams better than Miyazaki, particularly the dream of flight. The flying sequences, among others, are lyrical, luminous and painted with a surrealism-dabbed vibe, which makes it completely different from the photo-realistic image-sharp quality of today’s 3-D computer-animated features.

Some will dismiss the film as a celebration of a weapon’s designer. This is hard to argue, and consequently for such viewers, it will be difficult to see Jiro from a nonjudgmental lens. Somehow, I was able to, maybe because I saw the picture as a celebration of an artist actively pursuing his dreams. Especially true is the burden of trying to balance work life from family life (even when his new bride is dying from tuberculosis, Jiro remains hard at work).  

If this is indeed Miyazaki’s last film, he is certainly flying out on a high note. So, thank you, Hayou Miyazaki, for the cinematic memories you’ve given us for the last 30 years. ‘The Wind Rises’ is currently playing in an English-language dubbed version and in Japanese. A colleague of mine gave the picture a 3/4 star review claiming what hurt the picture was “brutal dubbing”. Lucky for me, I saw it in Japanese with excellent English subtitles and award the film 3.5/4 stars. You should too. QED. 

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