Movie Review: The Wind Rises
Growing up can be a funny thing. In the last 5-7 years, I had grown shocked when such popular animators like Andreas Dejas and Glen Keane took their leave from Walt Disney Feature Animation. And then in the fall of 2013, one of the most shocking proclamations was made: legendary Japanese animation director Hayao Miyazaki claimed he was retiring…for real, this time!
After almost a decade of saying each new animated feature film would be his last, Hayao finally admitted that The Wind Rises was truly the end of the road for him, marking his 11th directorial work…and also one that seemed a real departure from his previous works… in a manner of speaking.
Unlike his past works,The Wind Rises focuses on a real-life figure: Jiro Horkoshi. While that name means nothing to Western minds, Jiro was a renowned aircraft designer in Japan during the second World War. One of his biggest claims-to-fame, was the design of the Mitsubishi A6M Zero. In historical terms, it was these planes that would be instrumental in numerous attacks on Pacific targets, including Pearl Harbor.
Airplanes and flight have largely seemed a point of fascination for Hayao Miyazaki, as seen in the majority of his films. Along with crafting his own flying machines for many of his fantasy pictures, his 1992 production Porco Rosso, took place amid the European world in the 1930’s, with numerous aircraft playing big roles in its storyline. Needless to say, it almost feels like The Wind Rises shares some animated DNA with Porco.
At the start of the film, Jiro is a young man who dreams of flying, but is frustrated that his near-sightedness means he won’t be able to soar above the clouds. It is in his own thoughts that he resolves to do the next best thing: if he cannot fly aircraft, he can design them. His dreams soon include famed Italian airplane designer, Gianni Caproni, after he has read about Caproni’s many works. Jiro soon becomes so enamored with the designer, that the two seem to “share” a dream, with the Italian giving Jiro guidance, and showing him aircraft that have not yet been built.
The overall film shows Jiro traverse across almost 30 years of his life, growing from a dreamy young boy, to an employee for the Mitsubishi Internal Combustion Engine Company Limited.
At work, Jiro is constantly being scrutinized by his diminutive boss, Kurokawa. Much like the character of Piccolo in Porco Rosso, much comedy is milked out of these situations, from Kurokawa’s constantly flapping hair, to his quick and snappy demands. Word was, some on the Studio Ghibli staff said the character reminded them of Miyazaki himself.
The process of the company’s airplane construction is also rather intriguing. Jiro’s friend Honjo tells how he wishes for them to develop airplanes that are as advanced as those in other corners of the world, but that by the time Japan has done so, newer innovations will keep them behind. Also as a show that the country is still behind, is that when it comes time to take their latest creations to be tested, a team of oxen are utilized to pull the aircraft.
In the film, Jiro is given the role of a man who seems to constantly be upright and in control of a situation, even when it seems to be falling apart. This may seem odd to some Western minds, but it is the concept of the film’s “hero” being in control that seems to be at work here. It could be that this is a way of Jiro thinking, “this didn’t work, but my greatest masterpiece will happen one day.” There’s a look and action about Jiro, that reminded me of Ashitaka in Princess Mononoke, and to a lesser extent, Haku from Spirited Away.
The one concept that has never really been a big part of Miyazaki’s films, has been romance. Or if there is, it’s usually been very subdued. However, the use of it within Rises becomes something that feels rushed, and rather implausible. The meeting between Jiro and Naoko Satomi has its moments, but unlike some of the stronger female characters we’ve seen Miyazaki give us in the past, she comes off as more of a prop to Jiro’s story. While the real-life Jiro did marry in his lifetime, the character of Naoko is largely fabricated. It’s possible she may have been created as a way to showcase the life of those in society outside of the factory walls.
It is also within the narrative structure of the film, that I found myself rather non-plussed. Japan has been known to do non-linear storytelling, but even in concepts like Spirited Away, and Howl’s Moving Castle, I was still able to not feel jarred as much from the story, as I was during Rises. It feels like the film could have been 3 hours long, but was truncated to only show certain highlights of Jiro’s career.
Another area that I found rather off-putting, was that I never really felt like I connected with many of the people that Jiro is surrounded by. The two most prominent characters that stood out to me, were Mr Kurokawa, and Jiro’s sister, Kayo. Maybe it was because they were two that seemed to get a little more ’emotional’ than some of the more subdued, extra characters. I was expecting maybe more interaction even with Jiro’s co-worker and University friend Honjo, but he seems almost as stoic and deep-in-thought as Jiro at times.
Of course, one thing we cannot discount, is that the tradition of painterly stylings by Studio Ghibli is alive and well in this latest feature. While the film relies once again on computer technology, much of the vehicular flight and movement appears to have largely been achieved by hand. Even in one scene, where smoke is released from a series of plane engines, it curls and swoops in graceful ways that computer simulations can’t replicate.
In each of his films, there seems to be an element that Miyazaki chooses to do differently from his other works, and in Rises, it becomes a notion of sound. Much of the sound of the airplanes we see, are comprised of human vocals making noise. This even seems to carry over into one of the most eye-opening sequences, when Jiro finds himself in part of 1923’s Great Kanto Earthquake. The sound of the event is one of a heavy-breathing, almost visceral human voice. Even in the eventual aftershocks, the Earth seems to ‘breathe’ like that of an angered being.
In the last few years, Studio Ghibli has given itself over to films that seem more real than fantasy. 2011’s From Up On Poppy Hill is almost completely devoid of these flights of fancy, and The Wind Rises also seems to be going down a more ‘mature’ path. Even so, Hayao’s swansong seems a little more “humble” next to his greatest works like Princess Mononoke, or Spirited Away. In a sense, it almost feels like a last great experiment, much in the same vein as Ponyo (which was done without the use of computers).
In select cities, the film is being released in both an English-Dub, and a subtitled version, which is the first time since Spirited Away that one of Studio Ghibli’s films has had this happen. If you’re a fan of Hayao’s work, then I strongly recommend taking the time to see The Wind Rises. Though it isn’t as full of previous flights of fancy, there’s a finality to it that almost seems to gel with Miyazaki’s claims that his retirement this time is permanent…and if that is so, he can be credited as one of the few directors that was able to go out on decent note.