Sweet Dreams And Flying Machines: ‘The Wind Rises’ Is A Beautiful Farewell From A Master
Hayao Miyazaki isn’t just a sentimentalist or a fantasist — he’s an aviation nut. Flight pervades the director’s films, sometimes pure fantasy (My Neighbor Totoro) and sometimes stick-and rudder realism (Porco Rosso). And then there’s Kiki’s Delivery Service, with its girl witch flying a dust broom to rescue a friend from a surreal dirigible crash. It’s a Miyazaki film — may as well get a bit of both into it. Miyazaki has explained his attraction to themes of flight:
we humans both are able to subsist on this planet Earth and are stuck here because of gravity. So my feeling is that what flight expresses is a liberation from that gravity, so for me really, flight is a form of liberation.
Aviation is central to The Wind Rises, which Miyazaki has said is likely to be his last film; it’s a fictionalized biography of Jiro Horikoshi, the chief engineer for Mitsubishi Aircraft in the years leading up to WW II and the lead designer of the famous Zero fighter. And The Wind Rises has everything you’d expect from a Miyazaki film — beautiful backgrounds, lushly-drawn rural and urban scenery, just the right amount of nostalgia, and an emphasis on characters’ gradual development instead of on frantic action (especially noticeable since the day before I saw The Wind Rises, I’d seen The Lego Movie. They’re both animated features, and both thoroughly awesome, but the similarities end right about there).
The story starts out with Jiro as a child, dreaming of flying off the roof of his house in a human-sized version of a gas-powered model plane; and just like so many of his real and imagined prototypes, the plane falls apart in flight and ends up scattered in pieces on the ground — in this movie, planes are as likely to crash as to soar; gravity brings everything to earth eventually. And Jiro is just as airplane-crazy in his waking life, borrowing aviation magazines in English and working with a translation dictionary to learn what he can about the Italian aircraft designer Giovanni Caproni (voiced in the English dub by Stanley Tucci) — who he then “meets” in a dream. Caproni and his extravagant, fanciful airplanes are a recurring feature of Jiro’s dreamworld, giving the movie the chance to have a master figure tutor Jiro in the paradoxes of aviation, with Rule 1 being that even if you want to build beautiful airplanes, the most reliable contracts are still going to come from the military.
Soon, Jiro is a college student, returning to the University of Tokyo on a train where he meets Naoko Satomi (Naomi Blunt), who of course he eventually ends up falling in love with. (And now that he’s an adult, he’s voiced by Joseph Gordon-Levitt.) But first, the film conjures up the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, which destroyed much of Tokyo with fire. It’s an epic sequence, perfectly awe-inspiring; the sound of the fire consuming the city is an almost human moan. It’s a long, beautiful setpiece, visually prefiguring the later destruction of Tokyo by firebombing during WW II that we see near the end of the film.
Once out of college, Jiro gets on with the business of designing airplanes at the Mitsubishi factory; we’re constantly reminded that Japanese aviation is 20 years behind the rest of the world, and of course we get a couple of crashes to emphasize how fragile the airplanes of the time were. Jiro’s manager, the dwarflike Mr. Kurokawa (Martin Short), is the film’s most cartoony character, and plays gruff-but-loveable industrial father figure to the young engineer. Throughout, Jiro is a dedicated problem solver, in love with low drag and high lift-to-weight ratios; eventually, he and his friend Honjo (John Krasinski) are sent to Germany to learn as many secrets of German aviation as they can — and so they can have another conversation about the morality of designing machines that will be used for war. Spoiler warning: Jiro keeps building better and better fighter planes, although he does sound almost wistfully serious when, in a meeting on how to reduce the weight of the A5M fighter, Jiro suggests “We could leave out the guns.” Also, there’s a doomed love story, and a voice-acting cameo by Werner Herzog as a German pacifist on the run from the secret police.
And then there are the other hallmarks of Miyazaki filmmaking, which in lesser movies would be drawbacks but here merely make you shrug and say, oh, yep, it’s Miyazaki all right. There’s the strange contrast between the movie’s hyper-realistic physical world and those slightly rubber-faced human characters who populate it. There’s the odd nostalgia for European culture — the score sounds Italian, which isn’t entirely out of place, given film-Jiro’s admiration for Caproni. There’s the sometimes clunky dialogue — I’ll bet no kid in history ever woke up from a flying dream and announced, “Mother! I want to be an aeronautical engineer!” And there’s the tendency to whack you over the head with a line of poetry a few too many times — in this case, a couplet from Paul Valéry: “Le vent se lève! … il faut tenter de vivre! / The wind is rising! … We must try to live!” And just to make clear that Jiro is a poetic dude, we also get a the first stanza of Christina Rossetti’s “The Wind,” which feels like overkill. But these really don’t detract from the movie; you know it’s a Miyazaki movie, and he’s just going to have sentimentality like John Irving has bears.
Mostly, The Wind Rises is just a beautiful example of why cel animation is never going to be altogether replaced by computer animation — no CGI movie is ever likely to have the lush palette or quiet beauty of a Miyazaki film. The film’s last dream sequence is haunting — in a jump through time, we don’t actually see the development of the Zero or its success as (arguably) the most advanced fighter in the early days of WW II. Instead, we see Tokyo burning again, this time after American attacks, and Jiro wanders through a meadow strewn with wrecked fighters and bombers, telling Caproni how beautiful the Zero was… but “Not a single one came back.”
The Wind Rises has been criticized for being perhaps too kind to a designer of killing machines, but that seems to miss the point — Miyazaki’s version of Jiro Horikoshi isn’t blind to how his airplanes will be used, but he’s mostly interested in designing airplanes. Miyazaki makes no excuses for him, but instead leaves us to puzzle out the contradictions between Jiro’s love of flying machines and their use by the government that bought them; Miyazaki says he was inspired to make the film after reading a quote by the real Horikoshi: “All I wanted to do was to make something beautiful.”