(Dir. Hayao Miyazaki, Japan, 2013)
The Consequence of a Dream
Cinema has suffered an unfortunate loss if it is to be believed that The Wind Rises is indeed Hayao Miyazaki’s last film. But, as it appears likely that this notion is true, the film also stands as a fitting swansong for this most beloved of artists; a natural progression of Miyazaki’s work and fascination with the ability to fly given an entire feature dedicated to the art and science of flight. Leaving behind the soot sprites, bathhouse spirits, and forest gods that populated his most famous works, The Wind Rises is firmly rooted in reality, documenting a fictionalized biographical account of aeronautical engineer Jiro Horikoshi on the brink of WWII. Soft-spoken, kindhearted, and with his head in the clouds – probably not unlike Miyazaki himself – Jiro spends his youth and his young adult years chasing down a dream to expand the possibilities of air travel through innovative and boundary-pushing designs. “All I wanted to do was make something beautiful,” the real Horikoshi once said – subsequently inspiring Miyazaki to adapt his story – and the filmmaker captures that hope in this touching and visually stunning portrait of a daring dreamer.
Jiro’s vision of the future of flight comes at a most devastating time for this young engineer as pre-war Japan enlists its greatest minds to further the industrialization of the economically lagging nation in attempts to catch up with the West. And, as history has taught us, in its desperation the great Asian country chose the losing side during the impending war. Thus, Jiro is caught in a moral dilemma – implicit in the film’s narrative – that has paramount implications regarding innovators, their creation, and how it is employed. Miyazaki’s film, then, raises the important question: Is art worth creating if it’s going to be exploited? And while the film does not explicitly address this question – or the notion of whether or not this creator is complicit in the destruction of all his creation has wrought – Miyazaki is fully aware of the impact his chosen subject matter may have on a world where his country did not emerge a victor of that war. The beauty lies in the decision to leave the waters muddied. The Wind Rises does not merely make a generic anti-war statement, nor is it a questionable endorsement of Japan’s role in that great conflict.
This is because, at its core, Miyazaki’s film is not about WWII at all. Yes, the prospect of the inevitable war looms over the entirety of the film, but Miyazaki is less concerned with the details of said events and more interested in unearthing the motivations and inspirations behind this engineer as he seeks to create beautiful airplanes. At one point, Jiro asks his friend Honjo who he thinks the military will use these planes to bomb to which he replies with a list of several European and other Western nations almost absent-mindedly, eventually concluding with a “does it really matter?” shrug. This attitude belies the character of both Jiro and Honjo and leads us to wonder if these two subconsciously pretend their advances aren’t being used to destroy human life in order to suppress the guilt and continue on in their work.
One might sit through The Wind Rises and feel dissatisfied with the film’s somewhat ambiguous finale. On the surface – especially to Western viewers – we might wonder why Miyazaki lets Jiro off the hook so easily. It brings up the question mentioned earlier that Miyazaki’s film avoids: Should Jiro be held accountable for the terror that he helped create? Without the film’s final scene, it would seem as if Miyazaki does absolve his subject, but the inclusion of that last sequence is telling and perhaps most crucial in understanding where the filmmaker stands on the issue. After the success of his Mitsubishi A5M, the crowning achievement of his hard work, Jiro traipses through the debris of destroyed aircraft and the carnage of this worldwide war. He’s met once again by his childhood idol Giovanni Caproni in a vision and expresses regret that his machines had been used to such horrific ends. Caproni consoles him by reminding him that he still succeeded in creating beautiful airplanes – his entire work’s mission. One might read an ends-justify-the-means motif in the film’s final moments, but it would seem rather that Miyazaki is able to see a silver lining. The film ends with Jiro’s wife encouraging him from beyond death to live his life to the fullest.
Jiro, it seems, has not been fully exonerated. In the end, he must reckon with the consequences of his dream and how it was twisted into something deadly and utterly regrettable. He, like his entire country, does not walk away unscathed, but Miyazaki’s charge via Nahoko is one of redemption: Jiro’s talents and genius can be used for good. And, with the Second World War behind him, that is what we presume he will do. It’s an uplifting and apt ending for a film (and a career) from an artist who used his unparalleled skills of storytelling and gorgeous animation to create some of the past thirty years’ most beautiful films beloved by audiences worldwide.
Thus, it would be remiss to make no mention of the superb craftsmanship of The Wind Rises, certainly one of Miyazaki’s most technically accomplished films in his already impressive repertoire. The filmmaker’s imagination, though not stretched to its fantastical limits, has not been merely tamed as he places his story in a very real-world setting. In fact, this setting unlocks an as yet unseen attention to detail that makes this animated film feel very much lived in by its characters. The movements and gestures of his characters are perfectly fluid giving them an uncanny humanlike realism (with, of course, the exception of the intentionally caricatured Kurokawa, Jiro’s amusingly scowling and short-statured supervisor). Too, it’s clear the team of animators at Studio Ghibli have done its homework in creating an exquisitely detailed 1930s Japanese landscape. The vistas of the countryside are lush and gorgeous in a way only an animated feature helmed by Miyazaki could be.
Though this newfound and welcome adherence to realism dominates most of the film, Miyazaki manages to find a way to unleash his wondrous creativity in splendid fashion. As alluded to previously, the narrative is punctuated by imagined encounters between Jiro and the famed Italian engineer Caproni who consistently serves as a major motivating force in the young man’s work. These moments of brief plunges into Fellinian surrealism (and no, not just because Caproni is Italian) allow Miyazaki to indulge in the fantastical elements of flight present in most of his previous works. Similarly, in discussion of this film much has been made of the early earthquake sequence that brings Jiro and his future bride together – and for good reason. In an incredible and unexpected sequence of shots, Miyazaki first shows us the cracking of the tectonic plates far beneath the earth’s surface, then the rippling of the ground that moves under rows of houses like waves in the ocean, and finally to the near derailing of the train carrying our protagonist. It’s a visually arresting scene – one as effectively devastating as anything CGI could create in a live-action film – that serves as a powerful reminder that animation is as important a medium for artistic expression as footage shot with a camera.
Moreover, and somewhat surprisingly given the sheer number of memorable images and characters engraved in the minds of longstanding Miyazaki fans, The Wind Rises also boasts some of the most beautiful visuals he’s committed to film. Much of this is due to the pace in which the film moves along. Miyazaki generously takes the time and grace for compositional shots that give us room for contemplation and add to the film’s very lived-in setting – rain beginning to fall on weeds before pouring, stalks of wheat blowing in the wind, cigarette smoke swirling and filling the air, snow falling lightly against beautifully drawn backdrops. It all adds to this subtly moving, tenderly crafted story that is not overburdened by its complicated subject matter, but instead remains an honest meditation on the will to pursue one’s dreams. As Nahoko reminds Jiro, and by proxy Miyazaki to us, the wind still rises; therefore we must try to live.