DIRECTED BY: Hayao Miyazaki
WRITTEN BY: Hayao Miyazaki
STARRING: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Emily Blunt, John Krasinski, Martin Short, Werner Herzog, William H. Macy, Darren Criss, Mae Whitman, Mandy Patinkin, Jennifer Grey, Stanley Tucci, Elijah Wood, Ronan Farrow, Zach Callison
Jiro Horikoshi loves airplanes. All his young life all he wanted to be when he grew up was an airplane pilot, but due to his poor eyesight that ends up being impossible. When a vivid dream inspires him to shift his focus to designing airplanes instead, he sets out with a newfound passion to absorb everything he can about the making of his so called “beautiful dreams.” As we follow him all throughout his journey in life, he experiences tragedy, fear, triumph, and even love, all tempered by the looming threat of nationalistic fervor and global war. A lot of what sets this movie apart from director Hayao Miyazaki’s other works is the breadth of time covered in its narrative. This movie would be right at home along the works of David Lean, and the influence of Kurosawa here is more evident than ever. Similarity in form is one thing, though, as pretty much every other aspect of this is a work of stunning originality and thematic daring.
Of course on the visual front there’s absolutely no question that this film is absolutely gorgeous. That’s to be expected from a studio that’s built its reputation on stunning hand drawn animation. One of the standout sequences is when Tokyo is suddenly hit with a massive earthquake. We see the ground literally ripple and roll like a wave, all of it hand drawn frame by frame. Backgrounds look like paintings that could hang in a museum, running the gamut of all four seasons over the course of the movies runtime. The characters, too, are animated with an extraordinary degree of nuance. Little movements, things that might seem extraneous or unnecessary to some animators, give each character an energy and life of their own. Even little things in the sound design get this meticulous attention to detail. I didn’t catch it until partway in, but if you listen closely to the sounds the planes make, it isn’t actually an engine or propeller sound effect, it’s actually people imitating the sounds of a plane edited together to sound like one continuous sound effect. It’s noticeable, but not in a way that’s distracting or obtrusive to the story. The romantically lackadaisical score by Joe Hisaishi gives the movie a short breath and elegance not unlike a hazy dream, one that we’re just caught along with for the ride.
For all the flights of fancy, though, the movie does have a very real, very dark undertone running through it. There’s been some criticism surrounding this movie for its depiction of the atrocities that Japan committed in the Second World War, or rather the lack of depiction. While it does hint at the looming nationalistic fervor and future horrors of WWII and condemns it, it’s almost never shown on screen. The fact that the film also lionizes Jiro’s genius and praises the beauty of the killing machines he designs also puts the film in a particular moral quandary, especially since the director is an avowed pacifist. The challenges of maintaining a pacifistic outlook is a defining theme in almost all of his films. Therein lies the great irony that this film seems to be trying to illustrate. How often do people really consider the far reaching consequence of what they do chasing dreams when the ugly things are out of plain sight? Jiro’s not malicious or seeking to gain material wealth, but in his striving for beauty he simultaneously brings an abundance of ugliness into the world. In that sense Jiro is Miyazaki’s most tragically human character. Any other film might have given us a moment where Jiro suddenly breaks down realizes the pain and suffering his work has caused in a moment of brutal catharsis for the audience, but Miyazaki is too smart and too honest for that.
In a way The Wind Rises is at once both biographical and autobiographical. It paints a picture of an artist driven by their search for beauty, but at the same time being complicit in the use of their work for darker purposes all for the sake of “just making something beautiful”. All the while he’s drifting further and further apart from the people he loves for the sake of his obsession. For a director whose works have been exploited for the sake of commercialism and whose rocky family life is widely known, it’s hard not to draw the parallels. It’s depiction of the great Kanto earthquake and great depression also calls to mind Japan’s current economic woes as well as the recent 2011 quake and Tsunami. Miyazaki himself has come out and criticized Japan’s current Prime Minister’s movements to alter the Japanese constitution to allow the country to have a standing army again. It may seem like a stretch to call these deliberate parallels, but in having the background events be vague enough for applicability keeps Jiro’s story from being locked in a time or place. It forces the audience to accept that not only did this kind of thing happen, but that history also has a tendency to repeat itself.
In one scene, Jiro and his colleague have a brief encounter with the German secret police. It cuts away before the audience sees anything truly awful happen, and outside of a vague feeling of dread they don’t dwell much on what might happen to the men apprehended or why. The film denies the audience the satisfaction of watching Japan commit atrocities and their subsequent fall in order to highlight the audiences own bias and prejudice in condemning some individuals for atrocities but absolving others. It calls into question individual accountability in wider conflicts, and the films refusal to give clear answers one way or the other is both a source of frustration and powerful insight. It’s almost more about people’s response to the perversion of beauty rather than the perversion itself. It’s contrasting the capacity for individuals to change the world with the futility with one’s inability to affect changes in other ways, whether it’s a global conflict or the looming death of a loved one. There’s a sense that Jiro, by the end, accepts the irony of working through the system to accomplish his “beautiful dreams”, even when that system does so much harm. His attitude is best summed up by an oft repeated line from the title poem: “The wind is rising, and we must try to live”. He doesn’t absolve himself of what he’s done, but he does accept that that’s often what happens when you pursue any ambition, beautiful or otherwise. He feels he needs to catch the wind while it’s still rising, and make the best of it while caught in its unpredictable gusts. Does that make him sociopathic? Maybe, that’s for the audience to judge. I think it just makes him human, and more relatable besides.
If I had any issues with this movie, it would be the occasionally sluggish pacing. It doesn’t have an especially long run time, but the movie is paced very deliberately and doesn’t have a lot of, say, “dramatic high points”. The movies pacing reflects the meticulous, focused nature of its protagonist. It almost made the movie feel a bit cold and distant at times, especially with some of the romantic sequences. It’s not helped by the mediocre acting from the English voice cast, who sound almost bored most of the time barring a few exceptions. To be fair I haven’t heard much from the Japanese voice cast either, so that might just be how it was in the original dub. Then again it seems to be Disney’s intention to cast famous actors over actual voice actors hoping the name will sell the movie (whether or not they actually fit the role or not). Consequently the best performances seem to be the ones from actual voice actors or actors who have experience doing voice work. Whatever the case may be, I feel like there just wasn’t a lot of effort put into creating a quality dub, putting this on the low end of Ghibli dubs for me. Fortunately, the heart of the story gets through. I’m not sure how close the dialogue gets to resembling its original counterpart, but considering a lot of what makes this film great is communicated visually the words aren’t as much a deal breaker as they could have been.
While I don’t know if I would rank this among my favorite Miyazaki films, The Wind Rises is certainly his most challenging and thematically mature one. If it’s true that this actually is his final work as a feature director, it’s hard for me to think of a better sendoff. It works on so many levels as both a beautiful story, as well as a summation of the themes and messages that he’s used time and again over the course of his career. It feels like the kind of movie that’s only possible to make when one is looking back over a life’s work, and at 73 years old and with 11 feature films, Mr. Miyazaki’s certainly has a lot to look back on. He’s said time and time again that he’s always seeking to subvert his audience’s expectations, draw them out of their comfort zone and constantly introduce them to something new. For me, this did just that, and I’m very much grateful for that.