Hayao Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises, reportedly the master animator’s final film before his retirement, tells the story of Jiro Horikoshi, a bright-eyed and stirringly intelligent aeronautic engineer, whose passion and talent for designing groundbreaking airplanes led him to be hired by the Japanese government to design warships. Jiro would go on to design the long-range planes that would ultimately be used to bomb Pearl Harbor. This was the plight of many engineers, designers, and scientists during WWII. Unable to find work anywhere else, they opted to channel their energies into the War Machine, often funded by a government that would – for the first time in their careers, in many cases – encourage creativity and feed them a seemingly limitless supply of state-of-the-art tech. What’s more, these wartime think tanks were often populated by the best and the brightest, the irony being that an idyllic time of creation and innovation would all be to the ultimate service of killing and destruction.
The Wind Rises has war bubbling up underneath every single frame. The eventual looming threat of violence and, yes, the guilt involved in having a hand in causing said violence, colors the entire film with a melancholy air. While Jiro himself is a peaceful – actually downright blissful – man, the off-screen war is all the audience can think of.
Ironically, my experience of watching The Wind Rises was a peaceful one. Miyazaki typically works with fantastical settings and bizarre monsters, but his films tend to feature a down-to-Earth quality, using small quiet moments of incidental action to great calming effect. He is one of the only animators to pointedly feature scenes of people folding laundry, drinking tea, opening windows, and doing the small, menial, everyday actions that we can all relate to, ultimately serving a realistic, poetic, almost meditative tone. Working with biographical, real-life material for the first time, and dispensing with the magic and monsters he is previously known for, Miyazaki lets his poetic meditations take center stage. As a result, The Wind Rises becomes a near-Edenic look at the world, full of casual heroism, and a long, long string of romantic and emotional triumphs.
Indeed, the film is so very blissed out on its own beauty appreciation that it occasionally tips into non-incident. At 126 minutes, The Wind Rises is a casual, meandering film that eschews dramatic climaxes for random emotional crests. About halfway through the film, Jiro goes on vacation, talks to a German vacationer (voiced in the dubbed version by a sinister Werner Herzog), talks to the woman that will become his wife (!), but essentially just enjoys the quietude of the place. Jiro himself seems unfazed by the anger around him, and is nearly incapable of frustration. He is a strong soul. If, however, you want to see a dramatic turnaround, a noisy confrontation, a fight, a traditional cathartic release in the American sense, you may find yourself disappointed.
The Wind Rises is also a film that centers very heavily on dreams. Miyazaki has always been interested in depicting flight in his films, and complex flying machines have been a regular staple in his canon (Porco Rosso, Castle in the Sky, Kiki’s Delivery Service, Spirited Away, Nausicaä, and My Neighbor Totoro have all featured exhilarating flying sequences), so it should only make sense that his final film be about a man who dreamed of flying machines. No doubt Miyazaki will spend his retirement years constructing model airplanes and reading up on the Italian aeronaut Gianni Caproni, who features heavily as a kind-of dreamworld spirit guide for Jiro in The Wind Rises.
The Wind Rises is too quiet to be considered Miyazaki’s magnum opus (that honor belongs to Spirited Away), but it will be hard not to be moved by the bliss of it.