There has been no more illustrious a career in film than that of Hayao Miyazaki. For decades, capsule his animations have each become treasured gems that appeal to children and adults in equal measure. The Wind Rises (reportedly his final film) is something of a stylistic departure for Miyazaki, as it focuses on a story that will appeal far more to older audiences, with less of the magic and fantasy that have previously mesmerised generations of young viewers. It also asks some difficult questions about moral responsibilities without delivering simplistic answers, with a subject matter that may have trouble eliciting sympathy from some Western perspectives.
This story is a highly fictionalised account of the attempts by Jiro Horikoshi to design aeroplanes that would eventually be used against Allied forces in the Second World War. Following Jiro from childhood as he dreams of flight and adventure, we witness his development as both engineer and person as he struggles to reconcile the joy and beauty of his creations with the deadly ways in which they were used. As the Japanese technology tries to keep up with European engineering, Jiro must balance his occupational responsibilities with a burgeoning romance with his true love, Nahoko.
The focus of The Wind Rises is the personal journey of a gentle soul, rather than the moral questionability of his designs. Throughout the film are a number of extraordinary dream-sequences in which Jiro speaks with the legendary Italian engineer Giovanni Caproni. Here they discuss whether the pursuit of flight is worth the sacrifice of human life, never moralising at the audience, but acknowledging the difficulty of this reality. The fact is that wars are always times of great industry, the results of which have many benefits beyond the application of violence. It may be hard for some to separate the imperialist motivations of the harsh Japanese regime from Jiro’s pacifistic ethics, but there is a clear internal struggle that appears in moments of discord throughout the narrative.
The art in this film is truly stunning. Vast landscapes that melt away under the wings of majestic machines show that, while a more pragmatic tale than typical Miyazaki fare, the appreciation of the natural world is always present. Similarly, the skies are so achingly beautiful that it is easy to empathise with a dream of reaching out and touching the clouds, birds and glowing sunsets. The industrial side of the story is often horribly bleak, filling the screen with globules of oil and the smoking wreckage of failed prototypes. An early dream sees vile-looking mythical flying machines reminiscent of Howl’s Moving Castle dropping pulsating bombs that practically drip with evil. These unsettling images only serve to emphasize the purity of Jiro’s vision and Miyazaki’s personal themes of natural preservation. Many of the sound effects were charmingly created using human voices, perhaps another indication of the director’s philosophies of humanity over industry.
The pacing is rather gentle, while the frequent engineering discussions may lose the interest of some. Rated a PG, there is not much likely to distress a child, but the 126-minute running time and dialogue-heavy scenes are unlikely to captivate those too young to appreciate the complexities. This film feels decidedly personal and, as such, perhaps the universal appeal of much of Miyazaki’s work is diminished. The director’s father worked supplying parts for Mitsubishi planes, while his mother suffered through tuberculosis, as does a major character. Such autobiographical elements add authenticity to the emotional journeys undertaken by Jiro, while also allowing insight into a difficult period of Japanese history. The poverty and sickness suffered by millions starkly contrasts with the expensive military drive for supremacy.
The Wind Rises may well divide audiences, even those loyal to Miyazaki’s previous films, as it bravely moves away from culturally transcendental fantasy to something much more individual. A beautiful tale of creative inspiration and love, this will not be for everyone, but will resonate deeply with many.