Jiro Hirokoshi has always wanted to fly. It has been a dream of his since before he could remember. Soaring above the highest peaks are where his ambitions lay but near-sightedness stymies that dream. He does the next best thing: He designs the planes that will enable others to fly.
Hayao Miyazaki has said numerous times prior to The Wind Rises that he was retiring. He offered the notion up after Princess Mononoke (Mononoke Hime) came out along with the Oscar winning Spirited Away (Sen to Chihiro no kamikakushi). It is one of those things that you don't really take all that seriously as Miyazaki has shown time and again that he is an auteur that will come back to film if and when a good idea springs to mind. I wish I could say The Wind Rises is yet another in what will assuredly be more films to come from him. It will not. This is the capstone to a career that has been quite long and illustrious.
This is a very personal film from him. It is, in the same vein as Shakespeare's final work The Tempest, a tale of creation and destruction but also a meditation on the very nature of art, the pursuit of creativity and the lengths to which we will go to achieve what we dream of. Jiro's story is not just high spirits and artistic flourish, though, as the film possesses a very dense core of thematic elements that harken back to all of Miyazaki-san's prior works. This is, truly, the swan song of one of my all-time favorite directors.
This will make my review sound like I am prone to hyperbole when discussing Miyazaki and, for the most part, your assumptions would be right. I've always viewed Studio Ghibli (Miyazaki's production company) works with the knowledge that, for the most part, you're going to get two things: a gorgeous looking film and also a great story. The things that unify all of Hayao's prior films are here, for sure, but there are facets to it still that have not been seen within the Miyazaki catalogue.
The person in question, Jiro Hirokoshi, would go from his boyhood dreams of soaring through the clouds to designing the Zero fighter plane. The very same plane that would go on to become the scourge of the skies during the second World War and help cement Japan's place within the pages of history. This tale, however, is highly fictionalized oneand focuses more on the pursuit of a man's dream and also the romance he finds along the way. That isn't to say that Miyazaki completely ignores the turmoil his nation went through during that time. We see Japan post-WWI dealing with not only the great Kanto earthquake in 1923 but also with the outbreak of Tuberculosis and the slow march to war and alliance with Germany. The Kanto earthquake sequence in particular is stunning and will stand as one of Miyazaki's most powerful sequences in any of his films. The terror of the moment is palpable and the aftermath is possessed of a quiet dread that felt like a punch to my gut.
Jiro is one the most nuanced and fascinating characters Miyazaki has brought to life. He is a rising star within the Mitsubishi Corporation's aeronautics division and seems hellbent on making his vision a reality. This is where much of the criticism and contention over the movie comes into play. His designs will ultimately be used to end human life. The Zero fighter was infamous within the war for it's usage and the kamikaze tactics of its pilots need no further explanation. His dogged pursuit of perfection, of artistic creation and fulfillment of his very dreams comes at the cost of human life. He meets, often, in his dreams with his idol, Italian aircraft designer Giovanni Caproni. He speaks of the beauty of aviation, the sleek curves of airplanes and the joy they bring. He also speaks of the uses of them and how, ultimately, such beauty can be perverted. It is this question that lies at the beating heart of this beautiful film. What role does artistry have in a world that will, ultimately, turn and use that art in perhaps the most horrifying of ways? Perhaps the world is still better with these artistic works within them than without.
It is a question even Miyazaki himself has asked early on his career. It has sprung up from time to time in much more subtle ways in his earlier works but here it is asked quite boldly. It is a heavy question that has no true answer or, at least, not a perfect one. It is, however, the other great component of this film that seeks to bring about resolution to that dilemma. Jiro, during the tuberculosis outbreak before the second War, ends up meeting a woman named Nahoko. She suffers from the illness but her spirit is indomitable and soon the two are deep within the throes of love. It is a tremendously tender, poignant and well-realized romance that was quite invigorating to see within the framework of a Miyazaki film. It ties back to that bigger question of whether or not the artistic output we create is really a worthy addition. Nahoko brings to mind the film's mantra, which is also a direct quote from Paul Valéry: "The wind is rising. We must try to live." This is a sentiment echoed again and again throughout the works of Miyazaki and never is it more poignant or impacting than within The Wind Rises.
This idea is the foundation for which a lot of his other films are built upon. The cynicism and cruel nature of the world, the destructive capability of humankind counterbalanced by our ability to endure and to create. Prior films have always viewed this comparison through the lens of fantasy or, let's fact it, far more kid-friendly, narrative vehicles. Miyazaki does this again but takes it back to reality and to a place he has not tread before. This is a far more adult film than anything he's ever done.
This film will not strike others the same way it has me, though. There is a lot here about aeronautical engineering and many discussions are had between Jiro and his colleagues about the minutiae of crafting these flying machines. Some will find these scenes a bit of a drag while I was riveted. This attention to detail and the character-building that happens within those seemingly quieter moments made this film even better. Just as Jiro and his co-workers speak of the minute details of each plane their working on so-too does Miyazaki embellish and further the point that Studio Ghibli produces some of the most visually satisfying and astounding works of animation ever put to film. Miyazaki's films tend to be stuffed to the brim with whimsy, almost lyrical visual acuity and fanciful wonder. This is a more subdued affair though. The color palette, while still showcasing some of the signature pastel brightness at times and the breathtaking country vistas that are so common to Ghibii flicks, tends to be far more muted. It is still a visual feast, though, as is to be expected. The flying sequences and dream-scenarios within Jiro's mind are fantastic. The rural scenery is lush and grandiose and the cities displayed within teem with life.
If you can see the film in it's original form and I do mean with subtitles. The voice work is quite wonderful especially when it comes to Jiro. Hideaki Anno, better known as the creator of Neon Genesis Evangelion -- my all-time favorite animated series -- voices Jiro and delivers a performance that is understated yet full of emotional depth that made the character all the more vital. It is, once again, scored by long-time collaborator and composer Joe Hisaishi who gives it a subtle and light touch to the orchestration that fits the film like a glove.
No film last year came close to being this wonderful, wrenching and important to me personally. (Yes I know I posted that review of Man of Steel and got a little carried away). The last film of Miyazaki will stand as one of his best, I think, and it is one that you owe it to yourself to go see it. There is no doubt that Hayao Miyazaki will go down in the annals of film history as one of its finest directors. Thank you for all of the wonderful memories and amazing films, Miyazaki-san.
As this is the last film (I really hope not but if it is..) of Hayao Miyazaki's career then, perhaps, it would be a good time to look back upon the collected works. Coming soon: A retrospective on the amazing career of Studio Ghibili's master.