Dir: Hayao Miyazaki • Wri: Hayao Miyazaki • Pro: Toshio Suzuki • Ed: Takeshi Seyama • DOP: Atsushi Okui • CAST: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, John Krasinski, Emily Blunt
‘The wind is rising. We must try to live!’
This quote from Paul Valéry, which opens Hayao Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises, serves as a recurring refrain for its protagonist (and indeed, the film’s audience) to contemplate at different, pivotal moments throughout his life. It is a mantra of survival, of perseverance, the belief that when one is swept up in tumultuous times, the spirit must endure and fight to realize its purpose. Considering the protagonist of The Wind Rises, this is quite a radical message. In stark contrast to Miyazaki’s fantasy-based family-friendly movies such as My Neighbour Totoro, Spirited Away and Ponyo, The Wind Rises is loosely grounded in reality, taking the life of Jiro Horikoshi, the designer of the Zero fighter plane used by the Japanese in WWII, as its rich-but-fraught subject matter.
The film launches from the birth of Horikoshi’s childhood ambition to design airplanes, to its realisation as a young man, and his ultimate triumph in designing the A5M and the Zero for Mitsubishi. It also offers a more personal, human side to the young genius, showing his relationships with his family, his friends, his co-workers, and the love of his life, Naoko. The film’s structure is not always evenly balanced between the two, and Horikoshi’s career is undoubtedly the more compelling arc. The greater focus on Naoko in the third act, just as Horikoshi’s professional endeavour begins to build momentum, is oddly-placed and seems to drag, not helped by the slightly overlong run-time.
The Wind Rises could just as well be titled ‘Jiro Dreams of Airplanes,’ as beautifully animated airborne reveries bookend the drama, visions shared between Jiro and the innovative Italian engineer Gianni Caprioni who declares that ‘airplanes are beautiful dreams.’ In the first, a highlight of the film, the young Jiro reconciles his visual impairment with his love of aircraft and, realising he can never be a pilot, decides to become an aeronautical engineer upon waking. Myopic even in his dreams, this foregrounding of his short-sightedness is in one way pivotal in understanding Jiro’s character, a man who goes on to design airplanes which will ultimately kill thousands of people. It is this lack of farsightedness which informs the apocalyptic final vision, fields strewn with bits of broken battleships, depicting how the ‘beautiful dreams’ he has created have borne terrible nightmares.
It is also the most questionable thing about focusing on Horikoshi as a protagonist, that his own creative vision supersedes any regard for how his inventions will impact a world at war. This is heavily emphasised, as Horikoshi’s singular focus on his work at the expense of all else is particularly at odds with the compassionate young man we see defending smaller children from bullies, or carrying injured women away from a perilously derailed train after an earthquake. Hinting at this kind of ambiguous complexity in an animated protagonist is at least admirable, but perhaps not fully realised.
The film is wonderfully rich in visual motifs and themes. The image of ‘the wind rising’ is often literally realised in the film – bursts of wind punctuate key moments that drive the action forward and give the film, fittingly, a sense of animation. Similarly, the steady respiration of smoke from the funnels of trains and boats racing against the horizon neatly captures the rapidly shifting, political-economic landscape of Japan in the pre-and post-war era.
While the film’s period detail in a nostalgically-rendered historical setting is, typically of Miyazaki, beautifully observed, there are plenty of contemporary parallels to observe – from a catastrophic earthquake decimating the country, to the difficult and complex solutions to its economic recovery that follow, there is a certain timeliness to its message that Japan ‘must try to live.’ Perhaps in foregrounding the political past, Miyazaki has also managed to make his most profoundly personal statement to date about his home country at present.
The Wind Rises grounds a human, personal story in a complex period of Japanese history and balances the tone well between nostalgic whimsy and harsh historical reality. While its protagonist is an ambiguous, questionable figure who lacks a through interrogation, Miyazaki’s depiction and indeed, critique of Japanese culture, feels pertinent and valuable. If indeed it turns out to be Hayao Miyazaki’s last film, it reads as both an eloquent farewell, and a word to the wise. ‘The wind is rising. We must try to live!’
PG (See IFCO for details)
The Wind Rises is released on 9th May 2014