If you were to look through Hayao Miyazaki’s entire filmography you will find there is one common theme that makes those films uniquely his, and that is the majesty of flight. If it wasn’t a witch on a broomstick flying through the sky or a giant Totoro gliding on the wind, it was a giant floating castle in the sky. The list could go on and on, but the point is that Miyazaki’s love for all things that fly carried over to every single one of his works in some form or another.
So it seems almost fitting that Miyazaki’s reportedly final feature film as director The Wind Rises is not only a biographical look at the life and times of Jiro Horikoshi, the man who was responsible for Japan’s aeronautical revolution just before World War 2, but it is also the first film from the renowned director that feels deeply personal on a level unseen before now. Read the full review after the break.
Based on the fictionalized life of Jiro Horikoshi, the film follows him from his younger years where he first began having dreams of creating machines that would fly through air, then into his teenage years while working at a university and then up to and through his many years working at Mitsubishi where he would continue to work as their star engineer leading up to his crowning achievement, the A6M Zero fighter plane which was the primary plane used by the Japanese air force during World War 2.
There is a modicum of sadness and an immense amount of humility that begins to wash over me as I begin to write, quite possibly, the final review I will ever write for a Hayao Miyazaki directed film. So, please forgive me if I come off as slightly nostalgic while discussing his newest film The Wind Rises (Kaze Tachinu), yet another instant classic from the master of 2D animation storytelling. There is much debate as to whether or not the harsh reception the film had in Japan was responsible for Miyazaki’s decision to retire, but this review, while perhaps touching on the subject now and then, will focus mostly on the film itself and on the legacy of Miyazaki himself and the contrasts between his previous features and his latest animated wonder.
This is a different side of the fabled director, one that still retains that never ending childlike sense of discovery and larger than life imagination that has helped fuel and define all of his work, but chances are most of his fans, both hardcore and casual alike, might be a little thrown when watching The Wind Rises. While Miyazaki does get to exercise his trademark flights of fantasy through Jiro’s multitude of dreams, the film overall has a much more grounded sense of reality to it and with that reality comes much more weight to the material overall.
Much like producer/director Steven Spielberg (who himself had a career front loaded with endlessly imaginative fare such as E.T., Close Encounters and Indiana Jones that later turned into much more personal projects such as Saving Private Ryan, Munich and Schindler’s List), Miyazaki is putting his immensely diverse skill set to use to tell a different kind of story, a very personal one. Putting aside the usual flourishes that help define what a Studio Ghibli/Hayao Miyazaki movie is, such as mysterious spirit worlds and fantastical creatures, Miyazaki is relying on an entirely different kind of tool set this time around…love and the passion that drives us derived from that love.
Love has always been present in his other features as well, but here it is the key ingredient that makes the entire production click. The characters are of the usual Ghibli concoctions, full of life and capable of nothing but the best intentions, from Jiro’s family and friends to the many colorful side characters we meet along the way (love Jiro’s boss), the film has no shortage of the usual stable of lovable characters we have come to expect from a Miyazaki feature. The love we feel for, and from, the characters is only the tip of the iceberg.
There is also the love that drives a person to pursue a lifelong passion. Jiro’s love of flight is what fuels his passion to pursue a career in aeronautical engineering. This is where the film really comes into its own and stands apart from nearly everything associated with either Miyazaki or Ghibli. Instead of taking the focus away from Jiro every now and then to introduce us to other new characters or some thrilling form of fantasy based grandeur, the film keeps us at ground level with Jiro at all times, never shifting from his goal to create a mechanical marvel that can soar through the skies.
Because of this we end up developing a much more intimate connection with Jiro than with any Miyazaki character to date. There is no fault to his previous works to be found because of this revelation, its just a different approach to a much more personal story. Detractors of the film who have attacked it for lacking the magical elements of the director’s previous work and have labeled it as somewhat of a chore to sit through are completely missing the point of what he is trying to accomplish with this film.
You don’t see critics attacking Spielberg for making Schindler’s List just because it doesn’t feature dinosaurs, lovable aliens or a mystical ark do you? No, and that is because he is allowed to apply his talents to tell other stories as well, stories that are perhaps more personal to him and are ultimately more important to him. Attacking or blaming the lack of the mystical and fantastical things missing from The Wind Rises for not being the usual whimsical and enchanting style of film THEY prefer to see from the director is just a narrow minded way of discounting something that THEY either didn’t have the patience for or just flat out didn’t understand.
The same can be said for the protesters or detractors of the film in Japan as well in regards to whether or not a film should have been made about the man who created his lifelong ambition which was later distorted into a tool of destruction. The story of Jiro Horikoshi isn’t unlike that of Professor Robert Oppenheimer, who he himself was an idealist and genius whose dreams were used to create a tool of destruction…THE tool of destruction, the nuclear bomb. Miyazaki’s interest in Jiro has nothing to do with his legacy, at least not in glamorizing what his creation was ultimately used for, but more about the passion of the man and the remarkable thing he created, despite what it was perverted into by the military.
That is what makes the film such a personal work for Miyazaki, as anyone familiar with the director’s love for flying can attest to, that is what his fascination is with Jiro. Miyazaki treats Jiro’s story almost with a sense of pity at times, one can even sense Miyazaki himself feeling sorrow for the aeronautical genius. As both share a common love for flight, it likely hurts him to think how his love and passion for something so beautiful can be turned into something so terrible if put into the wrong hands.
The film itself isn’t nearly as heavy handed as this may be sounding however. Miyazaki is still a master craftsman at telling a compelling story and keeping things light enough as to never make the viewer feel anything other than an overwhelming sense of hope and prosperity. This comes in the form of the one thing that Jiro likely loved more than anything in his life, which was his wife Naoko. Almost as though he knew that we needed a break from all the political and technical shenanigans going on with Jiro’s professional life, the film finds its heart and soul exactly when Jiro finds that lonely girl painting atop a hill.
While the romance parts of the film never go into the full blown melodrama of something like From Up On Poppy Hill (which consequently has the stronger love story of the two Ghibli films), it goes a long way in making Jiro a much more relatable and well rounded person. The first half of the film does a fantastic job of setting up Jiro’s fascination with flight, but it is the second half where he becomes more than just a tool used by the military, he becomes somewhat of a tragic figure who is on the verge of losing everything he cares about just as he is about to attain everything he had ever wanted in life. Like usual, Miyazaki somehow finds a way to make us cry and smile at the same time and it all just feels natural.
Now, all this lavishing praise does not come blindly, for the film does hold a at least one minor problem area that doesn’t detract from the experience necessarily, but is sort of…annoying. There is this inherent and consistent lack of information on time and place. The film covers a broad landscape of eras and incidents that are passed by so quickly at times that it is difficult to re-center yourself and know exactly when and where we currently are in Jiro’s life. Aside from a specific date given at the outset of the film, it is up to the audience to keep track of how far ahead the film jumps at any given moment.
Sure, it’s easy to tell when we jump from Jiro’s childhood, to his college years, to his first job at Mitsubishi, but where the problems begin to mount is where the story is in relation to the events being depicted. Early on in the film there is a massive Earthquake that hits Japan (which is simply stunning visually), but there is nothing telling us where or when we are. Doing a little history fact checking after returning from the theater, it seems to have been The Great Kanto Earthquake, which occurred in 1923.
When dealing with a film that spans the lifetime of a person, it is important to chronicle at which points we are seeing their life and that ultimately detracted from the story slightly, which is a real shame. If there were some way to know why suddenly Japan is poverty stricken (once again, a quick internet search reveals it is Japan’s Great Depression) and how far in relation to the Earthquake it was (did it occur because of the Earthquake or was it because of the poor financial state of the country?), then perhaps these simple inquiries wouldn’t become stacked leading to frustration over something that is so inconsequential in the grand scheme of things. It’s not a damning oversight, but something that could have been alleviated with some dates thrown up on the screen from time to time.
Even with that minor distraction however, the film never ceased being anything other than yet another brilliant and beautiful film from an extremely multi-talented and legendary filmmaker. If his retirement plans hold (this isn’t the first time he has announced his retirement), this is a perfect film for him to end such an illustrious and remarkable career on. While it isn’t perfect and it lacks many of the elements that have made his films so beloved over the decades, it works on a whole other level as a look into the passion that drove him to make such amazing films that I will cherish forever and other generations will look back upon as examples of what the best of 2D animation and filmmaking in general has to offer. The Wind Rises is a fitting tribute to both Jiro Horikoshi’s monumental ambitions and as a testament to one of the greatest filmmakers who ever lived. In the end, love in all its forms, does in fact conqueror all.
The Wind Rises opens in English dub in limited theaters this Friday February 21, and wide on February 28.