Genre: Animation, Biography, Drama
Directed by: Hayao Miyazaki
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, John Krasinski, Emily Blunt, Martin Short
At one point in The Wind Rises, a character comments that artists are only creative for 10 years. Hayao Miyazaki, directing his last film after an illustrious career, is perhaps the perfect rebuttal to that statement. Easily surpassing the 10 year cut-off, he’s crafted countless classics over the years and made an indelible mark on cinema. If this truly is the end, he’s left us with a final sumptuous animation neatly summarising his own career in a story that revels in the creative spirit while questioning the value of beauty and the cost that frequently comes with it.
The subject of his final film is Jiro Horikoshi, the celebrated Japanese aeronautical engineer who helped his country take giant leaps forward technologically by designing the most cutting edge fighter planes of his day. Yet Miyazaki’s Horikoshi is a dreamer at heart swept away by soaring visions that touch the sky. It’s only through the military that he’s able to translate his passion into reality.
Taking the form of a loose biopic, Miyazaki dips in and out of his life starting as a child before heading right up to the end of World War 2. In between, he earns an education, is sent around the globe to learn from Japan’s technologically superior western allies and rivals, gains the chance to put his ideas into practice and falls in love with a physically fragile woman.
The cost of beauty is the central question. Given the chaos and destruction his creations wrought on the world, was it worth it? Miyazaki nails his colours to the mast in a dream sequence that sees Horikoshi glide away on a plane designed by the Italian engineer Caproni, his idol. Caproni asks if he would rather live in a world with or without pyramids. One world pushes human ingenuity to its wondrous limits, often with dire consequences for many involved; the other provides a safer and significantly duller existence devoid of imagination.
Horikoshi wrestles continually with this, Caproni serving as his conscience before the urge to make flying machines overcomes his revulsion at their eventual application. His overly defensive insistence that he’s just a designer allows Miyazaki to portray his unease. It’s also a broader indictment of the commercialisation and corruption of the creative spark that faces visionaries in every field. Ironically enough, Miyazaki and the studio he co-founded are rare exceptions, capable of delivering stunningly original films that turn a profit without the need to drastically compromise. Horikoshi has no such luxury. He builds things of beauty that others misuse, even joking about the planes he could make if he didn’t have to attach weaponry to them.
Another frequent theme is the comparison between the state of Japan in that period and its backwards nature compared to the west. A fact-finding trip to Germany with his friend Honjo reveals just how far behind the times his country has fallen. This spur of competition and a glimpse of what the Germans have achieved is a catalyst that propels Horikoshi onwards.
Like his protagonist, Miyazaki has often looked westward for inspiration and then turned it into something more. Here, Thomas Mann and The Magic Mountain loom large both through direct and indirect references. If planes are Horikoshi’s abiding passion, his love for Naoko Satomi comes a close second. Meeting her for the first time during an earthquake, she reappears later in his life but finds herself confined for lengthy periods to a sanatorium to try and recover her health.
Although their relationship provides for several strong moments, it’s also the film’s weak point. The love story creeps in to distract from his real passion, the focal point of The Wind Rises. His callous approach towards his wife ends up oddly romanticised. She visibly struggles to live with him away from the clean air of the sanatorium and at one point he even sits smoking inside next to her just so she can remain holding his hand. Satomi is always second best to his work but is never less than compliant.
It’s a sign of Studio Ghibli’s consistent quality that the gorgeous animation doesn’t come as a surprise. Their trademark style shines through providing enough detail to create their artistic world without having to fill in every line and shade each frame. It’s a bold style that avoids the hyper realism that would rob the space their animation creates for the imagination to roam in. Ghibli is equally at home in big and small moments. An earthquake and fire that rain destruction down on Japan are rendered so beautifully it almost hurts but it’s often the small touches – a paper aeroplane floating through the air, the riveting on planes or silhouetted oxen carting parts to the airfield – that stand out the most.
The Wind Rises is a final visionary statement from one of cinema’s great masters. Not quite up there with his finest work, it remains a layered and expansive effort that serves as a fitting swansong. Near the end, Horikoshi watches a fleet of his planes fly away knowing none will return. The beauty he’s created can only last for so long. Likewise, Miyazaki’s moment is now up. What a moment it’s been.
The Wind Rises in released on 9th May.