Over the past thirty years, Japanese master Hayao Miyazaki has supplied the world with an astounding and remarkably consistent stream of animated works. While magic and the supernatural are typically key elements of the stories he tells, Miyazaki’s latest feature (and supposed swan song) has the veteran 73-year-old director trying something new. The Wind Rises (2013), is a mostly fictionalized chronicling of the life of Jiro Horikoshi – a real-life aeronautical engineer who built fighter planes for the Axis powers during WWII. It’s an emotionally complex tale, beautifully told, that challenges the dichotomy perpetuated between imagination and practicality.
The movie begins with Jiro as a child. He stares into the sky and dreams that perhaps, one day, he’ll be able to build “beautiful planes” the way his idol, Italian engineer Giovanni Caproni, once did. The two communicate through colorful dream sequences that celebrate the beauty and importance of inspiration. The exchanges between Jiro and his “mentor” become increasingly poignant as the film progresses and the boy grows into a man. Although Jiro does come to build planes as an adult, the reality of his work is far removed from the wonder that he had envisioned. Jiro works not as an artist, but as an architect of death – his imagination numbed by the rigidity of everyday work life.
The film’s subtlety makes it all the more powerful, evoking a certain meditative feel. Thick with the director’s self-reference and personal philosophy, this movie could have easily crumbled under its own ambition. Thankfully, Miyazaki never beats you over the head with the message. He doesn’t employ his characters to tell the audience what to think or feel; rather, the viewer is allowed to journey and grow alongside the characters, learning as they do. It’s not made immediately clear that Jiro is working for the Axis powers – that he’d given up his dreams of creating beauty and settled on the “reasonable”. There’s no big reveal either. He’s a normal man working a job in a field he loves, just as many would hope to, but we quickly realize he’s lost sight of what really matters to him.
While perhaps Miyazaki’s most substantive work, it’s also arguably his least “fun”. The director has a penchant for strong lead characters and his films are often carried by their presence. The Wind Rises contains no witches, no dragons, no ghouls – and it seems the historicity of the subject causes the auteur to rein in some of his typical quirks. Jiro could be described as stoic… intelligent… quiet… and boring. You may connect with his struggle, but you won’t care about the person. It’s a respectful distance that feels a little too respectful.
This inability for the audience to connect is particularly troublesome when Jiro is hastily given a love interest three quarters of the way through the movie. Everything about their courtship violates the feel of the rest of the film. Unlike the character development that allows us to to draw our own conclusions, the only way the audience knows this pair is in love is because it’s articulated rather than demonstrated. Jiro is too dry a character to allow the audience to feel invested in the romance after such a short period of time.
The art is as gorgeous as you’d expect from a Studio Ghibli production; rich watercolors shade beautifully penned cities and planes. The oceans and grass are particularly stunning – even hypnotic.
While Miyazaki’s first attempt at the (faux-)biopic may not possess the more explicitly fantastical elements that have defined his past works, the man’s legendary imagination shines through just the same. Though perhaps not the classic it could have been, the profundity of the film’s message and the beauty of the story telling make it well worth watching.
Mark is currently studying political science at San Diego State University. He hosts the Bad Men Podcast and writes about movies and basketball.
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