This is the saddest ending to a series of essays I think I’ve ever done. I don’t want my journey through Hayao Miyazaki’s feature film catalog to be finished, but according to the man himself, he’s done with that part of his career. At 73 and 11 features later, not to mention all the shorts and manga and books, etc, that he’s created, he’s got a body of work most could only dream of creating. And it’s this dream of creation, and the bittersweetness of finishing said work, that’s very much at the heart of Miyazaki’s final film, 2013’s The Wind Rises, a tonally different piece of work to almost anything he’s ever done.
Following Ponyo, which Miyazaki loved, he had intended to make a sequel as his next feature. However, his producer at Studio Ghibli, Toshio Suzuki, persuaded him to instead adapt his own 2009-2010 manga, loosely based on a short story from 1937 called The Wind Has Risen, which has little to do with aeronautics and everything to do with what makes up the love story aspect of the film. I’m not sure at what point Miyazaki believed The Wind Rises would be his final film, but it must have been early on; the whole movie feels like a memory and a dream of things passed, about trying to do your best and be passionate in what you do even if it’s ultimately only fleeting.
The Wind Rises is the fictionalized biography of Jiro Horikoshi, a genius airplane engineer whose biggest achievements were fighter planes during WWII. The film begins with Jiro as a child, dreaming of flying over everyone in a special plane. The sad truth is that because of his eyesight, he will never be able to fly a plane. He is given an English-language magazine about planes and he learns about a famous Italian airplane designer named Caproni. Jiro then dreams of meeting Caproni in a dream they both share, of making things fly. Caproni becomes his internal mentor, telling him the greatest achievement isn’t flying planes, but designing them. Jiro has his life’s goal.
We then cut to Jiro later in life, as a young man with glasses, who is traveling to school for aeronautics engineering. On the train, he meets a young girl named Nahoko who catches his hat when it gets pulled off his head by a gust of wind. While on the train, the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 strikes and Nahoko’s maid breaks her leg. Jiro carries her to Nahoko’s family home and leaves before giving his name. This would not be the last they see of each other.
Four years later, Jiro is graduating top of his class and is immediately hired by Mitsubishi to work on their fighter jet program. Jiro envisions the planes he’s going to create, but at the same time sees their weaknesses and their ability for doing harm. He is sent to Germany for research purposes and sees Gestapo raids and the cruelty of the almost-Nazi-controlled country. He dreams again of Caproni who tells him that the world is better with the beauty of planes, even if humanity does ugly things with them.
Five years later still, Jiro has been promoted to head of a department, but their first attempt is unsuccessful and crashes. Distraught, he goes to a camp to clear his head and happens to meet Nahoko again, this time catching her umbrella as it’s pulled by a gust of wind. They remember each other and begin a romance, however Nahoko’s father tells Jiro that she has tuberculosis and is deteriorating. He still wishes to marry the girl despite this, and Nahoko also wants this. They eventually marry and are happy for a time, but her condition does worsen since TB was incurable at the time.
However, Jiro has finally created his masterpiece, the Mitsubishi A5M, and has to leave for the test flight. Nahoko knows her condition is reaching the end of the line so she leaves and heads back to the sanatorium to live out her final days, leaving letters for Jiro and her friends and family. Jiro feels a sudden gust of wind during the test flight and knows that Nahoko had died. But the plane was a success and led to the creation of the A6M Zero, which was used extensively during the war.
As an epilogue, Jiro again dreams of his planes, but also of their destruction and carnage. Caproni comes to him and Jiro confesses his regrets at having made instruments of war. The Italian tells him he should be proud and that the Zero is the finest fighter ever built. But Jiro further laments that each and every one manufactured for the war was lost and destroyed, to which Caproni replies, “Airplanes are beautiful dreams, cursed dreams, waiting for the sky to swallow them up.” The important thing, he continues, is to live on.
This movie is an elegy, a somber farewell to both feature film animation and the dreams Miyazaki had in his youth. To me, as someone who’s gone through each of his movies for this column, I can’t help but think that Miyazaki sees himself as a Jiro and how Jiro envisions is designs and creations must be how the filmmaker does. Miyazaki has always been fascinated by flight and put it in all but two of his films, though there are surrogates for flying through the air in both of those. Jiro’s passion for creating the best flying machines he can is tempered by the sorrow he feels at how people use them, which Miyazaki clearly felt about his own films, the critical and popular communities treating them as commodities or pieces to study rather than stories of beauty to enjoy.
Further evidence, to me, of Miyazaki’s kinship with the Jiro Horikoshi is by casting (in the original Japanese language track of course) Hideaki Anno to voice the character. That name should be familiar to anime fans since Anno was the creator and writer of one of the seminal works in the medium, Neon Genesis Evangelion. Anno has remade the story three different times at this point because of fan’s demanding different endings or more of what they love about it. Miyazaki and Anno both are in a way slaves to their success and have had their visions taken away by others. This would, as a friend of mine said, be like Akira Kurosawa casting Martin Scorsese to play Vincent Van Gogh.
Most of The Wind Rises feels like a beautiful sad memory. The animation is just as lyrical and sumptuous as Miyazaki always delivered, but the story is much, much more grown up than anything he’s ever attempted, with the dream sequences acting less as magical flights of fancy and more as the inner desires of a conflicted but ultimately goodhearted central character. It also focuses a great deal on Jiro and Nahoko’s relationship and the finite nature of it given her illness. Miyazaki equates both of Jiro’s passions in this way, making him accept the eventual heartache of losing Nahoko and his planes in the war because of the necessity for them to be in his life, and the world, at all.
It’s because of this melancholy and “realism” (the whole of the Nahoko storyline is not part of Jiro Horikoski’s real life), a lot of people took against The Wind Rises for it not being the same level of whimsy and fancy as his earlier films. Others criticized Miyazki for making a man who created implements of war a sympathetic character, and for leaving out that much of the workforce that built the planes were forced laborers from Korea and China. Miyazaki himself was quoted as being conflicted about the movie and WWII itself. He says Japan acted out of “foolish arrogance” getting involved and siding with the Axis, but also that the Zero is “one of the few things we Japanese could be proud of – they were a truly formidable presence, and so were the pilots who flew them.”
I think this movie is a masterpiece, a crowning achievement to the man’s career. I think he told the exact story he wanted to tell in the way he wanted to tell it. The movie never glorifies the Axis powers, and in fact Jiro befriends an anti-Nazi German at one point and is forced to go into hiding because of it. Ultimately, this is the story of a man with a dream and the only way to see his dream realized at that time was, unfortunately, by building fighter planes for the war effort. We often rewrite history based on who we fought against in wars, and it was because of Japan that we got involved in WWII in the first place, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t compelling stories to be told by people who were doing their job well despite their political misgivings.
Hayao Miyazaki’s 11 films are some of the most complex and beautiful ever committed to celluloid, in any medium. He’s a storyteller first and foremost and has the ability to use animation to tell those stories. In the annals of great animation talents, Miyazaki belongs in the upper echelon alongside luminaries like Walt Disney, Chuck Jones, and John Lasseter. His style is easily identifiable and impossible to copy and his themes of overcoming adversity, of maintaining innocence, and of dreaming are just as universal. Before I began this journey, I enjoyed his work, but I hadn’t seen everything. Now I have and he’s easily one of my favorite filmmakers. These are films people can go back to time and again, and I can’t wait for my next opportunity to do so.