While watching The Wind Rises, I couldn’t help but feel an extra weight upon myself as the realization that this may be Hayao Miyazaki’s last film set in. Miyazaki had planned to do a sequel to Ponyo (2008) but fellow Studio Ghibli producer Toshio Suzuki convinced him to take The Wind Rises manga that he had serialized in Model Graphix in 2009 and adapt it into an animated film. What we are left with is not only one of Miyazaki’s best directed and most beautiful films, but one of the greatest animated and anti-war films of all time.
The Wind Rises (known as Kaze Tachinu in Japan) is a combination of two different stories to make one. The film is presented as a biographical look at the life of Jirô Horikoshi, the designer of the Mistubishi A5M and A6M Zero aircraft used by the Japanese during World War II. Although the story is factual about Horikoshi’s working life, it is very much a fictionalised biography. Miyazaki takes some creative liberties by combining the events that take place in Tatsuo Hori’s short story, The Wind Has Risen (1936-1937), with the major events of Jirô’s life. The short story, based around Hori’s real life experiences, tells of a young woman who is dying of tuberculosis but is still wooed by a lover regardless of her illness. In a sense, the Jirô that we see in the film is a combination of the real Jirô Horikoshi and Tatsuo Hori. The story that arises from this combination is absolutely beautiful and demonstrates just how formidable a writer Miyazaki really is. Although the events from The Wind Has Risen did not happen in Jirô’s life, it works as a great metaphor for Jirô’s love for aircraft and their beauty.
If you have any knowledge of Miyazaki’s previous work, a brilliant designer getting swept up in the flames of war against his wishes is perfect material for his storytelling style. Many of his films present reccurring themes of humanity’s relationship with technology and nature, as well as people facing antagonists that are not necessarily traditional villains, but a moral idea, entity, or obstacle they either conquer or learn to live with. Anti-war themes have also been prevalent in his work with Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984), Princess Mononoke (1997), and Howl’s Moving Castle (2004) speaking out very loudly against war. His thoughts aren’t a secret either; upon being invited to the Academy Awards ceremony, where his excellent film Spirited Away (2001) won Best Animated Feature, he replied he “didn’t want to visit a country that was bombing Iraq.”
The film opens with a dream sequence in which a young Jirô (Zach Callison) is piloting a cartoon-styled airplane over a village and is then attacked by a giant warship baring the German cross on it. The warship begins sputtering out bombs, but when Jirô attempts to intervene, his plane malfunctions and he wakes from his dream. Right away, we’re not only presented with how helpless Jirô is to stop the war, but also how Miyazaki plans to treat the rest of the film. In the dream, we are presented with colourful, cartoon aircrafts that look like they belong in Howl’s Moving Castle. But this is taken away from us when the dream ends, as if Miyazaki is parodying the fantasy-like nature of his previous films and saying that they do not belong in the real world, which sets a more mature tone for the rest of the film.
Jirô’s fascination with planes grows after being given an English aeronautical magazine. He has a dream that night in which he meets the famous aeronautical engineer Giovanni Battista Caproni (Stanley Tucci) who insists that Jirô is a guest in his dream. These meetings with Caproni take place multiple times throughout the film and are treated as ways for Jirô to inspire himself when he is running low on morale. Caproni tells him in their first encounter that “engineers turn dreams into reality,” and from then on Jirô commits to being an aeronautical engineer.
Flash-forward a few years and Jirô (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) has grown up and is on his way to attend university for engineering. While riding the train, he meets a girl named Naoko Satomi (Emily Blunt), who quotes from a French poem he recognises: “The Wind is rising! We must try to stay alive!” This is from Paul Valéry’s poem “Le Cimetière Marin,” and it’s also part of the opening text when the film starts, so it is an obvious foreshadow for his later romantic relationship with her, but it also acts as a marking for beginning his hands-on relationship with aeronautics.
As the train travels on, the Great Kantō earthquake of 1923 hits them and causes mass destruction. Firestorms break out, causing water mains to burst and houses to crumble. Putting out the fires takes nearly two days and leaves over 100 thousand people dead and 381 thousand homes destroyed. When the earthquake arrives in the film, the land begins to roll and there is an odd human groan that indicates an earthquake. The groaning gets louder as the fires begin to spread all over Tokyo, which can feel odd if you were expecting just rumbling and fire crackling. It’s unsettling at first, but as the film continues with this idea of human noises generating sounds for things, it lends an ominous quality to everything and is very effective. The groaning from the earthquake is like a pre-emptive human groan to signify the suffering that will take place. If you let that idea sink in before you hear the sounds of the planes that Jirô builds later in the film, it can be quite startling.
The sputtering noise of the planes starting is unmistakably made from human lips, and as the engines fire up and the planes take off, you can hear a choir of humans moaning and crying behind the engine. As Jirô gets better at building planes, the noises become more plane-like as they try to cover up the immense suffering with a lust for engineering. Jirô is highly regarded coming out of university and gets jobs very quickly as a military aircraft designer despite his hesitations about Japan going to war and forming an alliance with Nazi Germany. It is very clear that Miyazaki is not celebrating what Japan did during the war; he is only celebrating Jirô’s brilliance as a designer.
Despite all of these negative themes, the film is not entirely doom and gloom. As expected from a Miyazaki feature, there are plenty of light-hearted and funny moments, especially with Jirô’s boss, Kurokawa (Martin Short). Looking at his design, he fits right at home in a Miyazaki film with his comically small stature and the way his Japanese military coif flops around as he bounces along. He spends most of the film yelling at Jirô to do things that Jirô has already accomplished and is a great character to help break up the heavy subject matter of the film.
Studio Ghibli has a reputation when it comes to their stunning hand-drawn art style, and The Wind Rises is no exception. Miyazaki’s sparse use of computer generated animation is very welcoming with the rising popularity in modern anime (Attack on Titan). It lends a more handcrafted and human quality to the whole production, which goes hand-in-hand with the way in which human sounds are integrated into the film as well. Jirô’s character is specifically great as he’s always shown wearing clothes that look too big on him. Perhaps this was unintentional or just the style of the times, but Jirô’s small frame in those large suits creates the idea that Jirô is still a young boy who just wants to make planes, but is being given larger roles than he intended to take on. As Caproni tells him in one of their dream meetings, “all inventors get wrapped up in war.”
This ranks up there as one of Miyazaki’s greatest achievements in filmmaking. The Wind Rises is enormously intelligent with its film language, and it is made even better by Miyazaki’s amazing script. It is heartbreaking to think that Miyazaki won’t direct another film again, but he can rest knowing that he ended his career on the best note possible.