Written by Zac Platt.
“All I wanted to do was to make something beautiful.”
Upon hearing those somber words had been uttered by Jiro Horikoshi, Hayao Miyazaki (the highly acclaimed Japanese animator behind Ponyo and Spirited Away) knew he had the subject for his next film. With The Wind Rises, Miyazaki gives a highly fictionalised biography of the chief engineer behind the dreaded WWII fighter plane, the Mitsubishi A6M Zero. Incorporating a romanticised vision of the first half of Horikoshi’s life with a 1937 short story about an ill woman in a tuberculosis sanitarium (from which the film gets its title), Miyazaki’s final film is a beautifully rendered portrait of regret. Despite the strong pacifist stance toward war and condemnation of the Japanese government that stirred up waves of controversy, The Wind Rises boils down to a film about the cost of dreams and the value of life.
It’s impossible to deny the passion Miyazaki poured into this film, and were it not for how often it gets distracted with the inconsequential, The Wind Rises could very well have been a masterpiece. Themes as heavy as the ones being explored here will generally justify a longer running time, but The Wind Rises often bogs itself down in unnecessarily drawn out scenes. The ultimate revelations of the film are beautifully subtle and peppered throughout the story, but all the time wasted on redundant characters and dialogue draw attention away from the quiet moments crucial to appreciating Miyazaki’s vision.
In truth, the pacing issues are only so much of a problem because the true story being told spends much of the film stalking in the shadows of this bright and optimistic world. On the surface the story is about Jiro growing up an aviation wunderkind and falling in love with the kind-hearted Naoko. We watch Jiro be mentored in his dreams by his idol Giovanni Battista Caproni as he slowly develops his dream design. The script leads you into thinking the film is headed for an inspiring payoff for all his years of hard work and dedication. But as World War II looms just out of sight and Naoko’s health worsens and worsens, a darkness seeps progressively further into the film’s fabric and teases Jiro with a haunting question. Were your dreams worth it?
Though it’s a far more grounded film than Studio Ghibli’s typically fantastical fare, The Wind Rises is no less imaginative or gorgeously realised. Despite the bleak view the cast has of Japan and its future, the film paints the country with glorious vistas and that same romantic edge the studio always has that makes any westerner swoon over the land of the rising sun. The saving grace for the aforementioned pacing problems is that each sequence is animated with so much heart you just can’t help being overcome with delight. Whether it’s the simplicity of Jiro and Naoko flying paper planes to each other’s hotel balconies or the calamity of the Great Kanto Earthquake, each moment is as dazzlingly magnificent as the next.
Unfortunately, our two protagonists aren’t quite as painstakingly crafted as the film’s visuals. Jiro in particular feels devoid of character for much of the movie and dangers towards being little more than Miyazaki’s mouthpiece. To be fair, he is given some conflict with his needing to work military contracts to fund his dream of designing planes, despite his strong objections to war and the Japanese government’s ambitions. But for the most part there isn’t really anything interesting about him outside of the horror his creation will one day unleash. The good-natured Naoko is a little more likeable and certainly more human, but in the end she mostly serves as a metaphor for Jiro’s great tragedy.
In a brilliant move, The Wind Rises opts not to show us the terror of the Zero fighters in action, Jiro’s witnessing the Nagoya air raids, or his horror at learning his planes were used for Kamikaze runs. Instead the film ends with the test flight of Jiro’s first successful prototype, but still explores the poetry of the character by showing us the consequences his dream had on the fictional relationship between him and Naoko. Though it was introduced rather late and abruptly, given it becomes the backbone of the story, Jiro and Naoko’s romance is extremely believable and easily the most heart-warming feature of the film. Jiro’s love and good intentions for his tuberculosis stricken wife are undeniable, which is what makes his prioritising his career so profoundly frustrating.
Where the story and subtext come crashing together for the climax is by far the film’s greatest success. Without ever showing any of the misery Jiro’s creations wrought, Miyazaki is able to capitalize on metaphor and foreshadowing to still give us that incredible moment of heart-wrenching realization that the real Horikoshi wouldn’t experience for years more. It’s a challenging ending that asks the audience to put it together, but the power of the payoff is undeniable. Days after it will linger in your brain, breaking your heart even more when you inevitably look up Horikoshi’s story and realise the true beauty of The Wind Rise’s metaphor.
To be sure, there are flaws in The Wind Rises. The needlessly slow pacing and largely unexciting lead distract from what is otherwise a brilliantly realized work of art. Miyazaki received plenty of criticism from both the political left and the right for making this film, but look past the controversy and you can’t deny that with The Wind Rises he made something beautiful.
THE REEL SCORE: 8/10