When I wrote my review for Dallas Buyers Club, it began with a preamble of sorts concerning my problem with biopics in film, and how often they have a tendency to disappoint. That film was the perfect example of the pitfalls of the genre (made barely palpable by masterful performances from its two now Academy Award winning male stars), serving to reinforce my own predilections (prejudices) regarding films about real life individuals. As such, I approached The Wind Rises with some amount of trepidation, as it is at its core a biopic about 1930's and 40's aviation engineer Jiro Horikoshi. Though, at the same time, it's not too often that we see an animated biopic, and Hayao Miyazaki is certainly the singular sort of talent who can spice up a normally stale and self-involved genre (though being more of a children's film director does make adapting the life of a man involved in World War 2 a somewhat interesting proposition).
It's arguably reductive to refer to Miyazaki as simply a director of children's cartoons. Nearly all of his work is more than suitable for and often at least aimed at the youth in the crowd. His penchant for younger protagonists and wildly imaginative fantasy sequences certainly engages the mind of the child (and he has a special gift for animating the movements of children), but he has never made his films at the expense of the adults in the crowd. One of the more striking aspects of The Wind Rises is how it bucks this trend, but not necessarily in ways you would expect. This is a film not only aimed squarely at adults, but there is little in here that would appeal to all but the most precocious tykes. It looks like the same Studio Ghibli we're used to, but is hiding quite a bit of complexity under the hood.
The film follows Jiro Horikoshi (Hideaki Anno, or Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the English dub) from late childhood through the onset of World War II. Jiro dreams of designing planes for a living, more for the art of it than anything else, and uses his passion to rise in the ranks of Mitsubishi first through improving individual parts before moving on to design new planes out of whole cloth. This journey to his ultimate goal of creating the perfect plane dominates the majority of the film's headspace, Miyazaki does find room the insert a love story involving a young woman named Nahoko (Miori Takimoto/Emily Blunt) he meets under dire circumstances before reconnecting with her later in life.
It's difficult to discuss the plot of The Wind Rises without discussing the consequences of the actions of the real man it documents. It is also difficult to discuss such controversies within the scope of a film review while keeping it of a length that is suitable for, well, anyone. As such, I'll be posting a separate article in the coming days that delves deeper into that aspect of the film. For our purposes, this is not a film about moralizing or global imperialism. It is about a young man who spends his life dreaming of flight. For Jiro, that desire for flight is inextricably coupled with a deep love of aircrafts. The movie is peppered with fascinating and exhilarating dream sequences, which give Miyazaki the opportunity to flex those muscles that gave us Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke, turning machines of war into giant demons coughing black smoke as they blot out the sky, or morphing his planes into majestic white birds framed against an azure sky.
As the film pushes on, lurching ever forward to Pearl Harbor and Hiroshima and Nagasaki, this mounting dread infects Jiro's head space and forces its way into his dreams, corrupting or destroying his beloved airplane designs. It is in these moments that the hidden strength of The Wind Rises marches to the fore: its impeccable sound design. There are moments, usually in the dream sequences but sometimes in Jiro's waking life as well, that Miyazaki and his sound crew appear to use human voices to imitate the sounds of the machines and the world they inhabit. A chorus of low droning chants brings a rumbling earthquake to life. The Japanese biplanes with their limited technology and inferior propellers burble and sputter to life like a child imitating the sound of a helicopter. It's a singularly bizarre choice to make, and immediately catches the ear in ways I was entirely unprepared to experience. It sticks out so vividly and evocatively as a way to make the images on the screen jump to life. I've honestly never heard sound used in this manner before, and it profoundly affects the cinematic experience in nothing but positive ways.
The other aspect of the film thoroughly in Miyazaki's favor is his tender and loving treatment of the relationship between Jiro and Nahoko. Their meet-cute in the film's first act is wonderful, growing organically out of the film's central overarching theme of the power of wind, and when they happen upon each other again as fully grown individuals, the devotion of their love to each other is infectious. These scenes show why Miyazaki is such a master. No one animates people the way he (and his staff at Studio Ghibli) does. No one. Disney may have their house animation style, and it may be thoroughly satisfying in its own right, but Miyazaki is unparalleled. His ability to convey emotion through the tiniest of details is such a strength in this film that I was legitimately in tears at its end, all thanks to how alive and real these two lovers felt to me. The sound design hooked me in, but the love story hammered it home right into the center of my heart.
Effusive praise aside, the film is not without fault. Miyazaki does cast his net a little too wide from a plot perspective, and there are themes and side plots that are brought up and never fully resolved (one egregious example involves Jiro getting on the bad side of the Japanese Thought Police, only to have that particular tension not really go anywhere and disappear quickly). There is also the issue of the film's murky moral stance regarding the consequences of Jiro's inventions (which will be covered in greater detail in a second article), that I feel do not derail Miyazaki's vision, but do have some bearing on the overall quality of the product. Some could also quibble with the treatment of Nahoko as a person and her subservience to Jiro, but there are far too many factors in their relationship discussed and fleshed out within the film itself for me to consider that much of a knock against its scripting.
What lasted for me, and what will prove to last for years and years as I find myself revisiting it in the future is the pure, bald emotion Miyazaki pours into every frame of every second of The Wind Rises. If this is indeed his final film (I'm not holding my breath, not that it's a bad thing for him to keep working), he has gone out on the highest of notes, and provided us with an indelible piece of art to treasure.