“All I wanted to do was to make something beautiful.” Reputedly, Japanese anime auteur Hayao Miyazaki was inspired to make The Wind Rises after hearing this quote from Jiro Horikoshi, the subject of Miyazaki’s first biopic. Horikoshi was the designer of the Mitsubishi A6M, a notorious aircraft used by the Empire of Japan in WW2, who’s exploits included a certain attack on a Hawaiin naval base. This plane is a truly beautiful work, as graceful in its design as it was efficient in it’s purpose. Can the indisputable greatness of this man’s artistry be taken apart from the awful ways it was put to use, even by others?
This is a relevant and undeniably troubling question, but The Wind Rises has an excellent saving grace to keep it from our minds, at least during the initial viewing: It is able to draw us into the world of its story and the lives of its characters, their struggles and goals, hopes and pains, joys and sorrows. Jiro is an irresistibly likable character, with an engineer’s problem solving mind matched by a poetic soul. His creative process is viewed not in terms of a draft desk, but through a series of strokes of genius portrayed as whimsical dreams, in which he meets his imaginary mentor, an Italian aircraft designer named Caproni. Caproni offers Jiro his most important advice: “Airplanes are not for war. They are not for making money. Airplanes are beautiful dreams.” In The Wind Rises, they serve all three purposes.
The depiction of Horikoshi’s professional life is based largely on true events, while the depiction of his personal world is almost pure fiction; including his poignant romance with the ill fated girl Nahoko. They meet as young people sharing a train derailed by an earthquake, and Jiro is able to render invaluable assistance to she and her companion. Fate brings them together yet again years later, this time at a mountain hotel where they fall in love and decide to marry. Their happiness is short lived, however. Nahoko has tuberculosis, and their relationship becomes centered around the need to make the short time they have together of lasting value. Miyazaki’s treatment of romance is incredible in it’s pure, human realness. The last time we’ve seen this much delicacy from him was in Princess Mononoke, in which the leading couple separate based on a conviction of their own incompatibility. The superficial happy ending necessary in children’s films like Frozen is traded for a deep, truthful bittersweetness.
The style of The Wind Rises sees a departure from Miyazaki’s typically colorful, wildly imaginative fantasies. Jiro’s energetic dream sequences form a punctual reprieve from the bleak and quiet palette, almost minimalist compared to the director’s previous work. This is important to the film’s tone, deeply sad if never dour or despairing. Beyond the fatal nature of Jiro’s marriage to Nahoko, there is the ominous sense of a darkness lurking just off frame, the reality that Japan is rushing on indomitably towards its own destruction. Jiro is conflicted about the part he is taking in his nation’s crimes, but tells himself that he is simply trying to create beautiful aircrafts. In his final dream, Jiro surveys a vast wasteland of destruction, culminating in the twisted wreckage of his precious airplanes. His works of beauty have ultimately caused awful suffering before finally themselves being lost. Jiro seems philosophically removed from the moral consequences of his work, however, ultimately finding a kind of existential release as he and Caproni open a bottle of wine.
Is Hirikoshi responsible for the countless deaths he caused? I do not know. The Wind Rises seems indecisive of its view of the Japanese share of guilt in the Second World War. Like fellow Studio Ghibli film Grave of the Fireflies, it seems to have a sorrowful sense of Japan’s past evil, but a conciliatory attitude towards individuals, who are regarded as victims of evil rulers. For the American viewer, it should be a considerable reminder that even our enemies were human, and that not every Japanese or German citizen is to be considered fully as criminal as the leaders that used them.
Hayao Miyazaki has said The Wind Rises will be his last work, and one cannot help but wonder if he himself does not share Jiro’s meditations. Does he also ponder what intermingling of greatness and destruction his art will leave behind it? Looking back on his long legacy–Castle in the Sky, Kiki’s Delivery Service, Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, Howls Moving Castle, Ponyo, to name just a few–It is arguable that Hayao Miyazaki is cinema’s greatest animator. For his final film, it seems appropriate that he would trade his typically fanciful adventures for the quiet sobriety of a true, deeply tragic story. The Wind Rises is meaningful, poignant, moving, romantic, and thoughtful. It might even open eyes to the possibility of an animated adult film, to those who’s experience of animation is limited to American children’s movies. And though in many ways so different from his previous work, The Wind Rises, in its meloncholy beauty, is a fitting Swan Song for the great Japanese filmmaker.
The Wind Rises is rated PG13 for violence and smoking. It is playing in select theaters and will be available on DVD and VoD in the near future
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