“This time I am quite serious,” Hayao Miyazaki told reporters in late 2013. Miyazaki had announced his retirement before, but was now assuring reporters that this was it – the then yet-to-be-released The Wind Rises would be his last. Perhaps accidentally, the statement has a certain applicability to the film itself. Though tied into the rest of his work with threads of consistency, including to the political commentary of Princess Mononoke, the aviation dreams of Porco Rosso, and the probings of innocence in Spirited Away, Miyazaki’s farewell is something different.
The protagonist is a fictionalisation of Jiro Horikoshi, a Mitsubishi engineer who was one of the chief architects of Japanese aircraft in World War II, who Miyazaki has brought back to life as a sensitive and considerate would-be lover, a diligent employee and a deeply idealistic dreamer. In an early scene of Jiro as a child, he returns home scratched and disarrayed and his mother first comments that he looks quite the hero before gently reminding him that, “fighting is never justified.” However, narrative belies her: upstanding and brave even as a child, we had already seen that Jiro was sticking up against bullies. This is not a definitive statement on fighting either way – the film simply doesn’t make one.
It then enters the first of a number of recurrent dream sequences. These are explorations of both Jiro’s psychology and, through the shifting terrain of his own mind, the relationship between individual, machine and war. In them we watch as Jiro first falls in love with aviation and then discovers that his love is haunted by war; or perhaps not even haunted by war but originated in it. The tension between making what are, to Jiro, objects of beauty and their impact is also examined in terms of the internal impact upon Japan: in one scene he discusses the military expenditure in the context of human hardship with his best friend, Honjo.
The imaginary sequences are consistent strengths throughout The Wind Rises – they are visually immaculate and have a perfect rhythm which moves both image and dialogue according to their own subtle, intuitive power. However, their presence seems to be intended to mitigate the relative absence of the characteristic dream-like quality of much of Miyazaki’s work by pocketing that intuitive power within literal dreams. There is a lot of slippage, both potential and actual, between a dream-like quality in Miyazaki’s films and a nightmarish one. It feels like a missed opportunity that The Wind Rises never taps into the latent possibility for a creating a nightmarish edge to the whole film. Flaming debris studs the snow around Jiro, fallen from airplane that was unmade mid-flight in a scene that demonstrates the value of a vaguely nightmarish tilt. Such scenes touch a very raw, instinctive emotion. They are slightly stressful, perhaps even psychologically nauseating – but they are fantastic filmmaking.
Outside the dream sequences, Miyazaki only comes close to this potential through incredible animation in a handful of scenes – most notably the depiction of the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 in which houses rise and fall, pebbles shudder, tiles slide off houses and the skyline is edged with fire, before we slip into another of Jiro’s stressful fantasies in which he hallucinates planes materialising out of a debris-riddled sky, cast against a mass of fiery clouds. It is a breathtaking reaffirmation of Miyazaki’s, and the studio’s, talent. The visual artistry is supported by the sound design, for which Miyazaki apparently preferred to have a number of elements – even trains, rumbling earth – made by voiced effects; people making sounds into microphones, essentially.1 Though not universally praised, they create an organic, resonant sound that provides an intensity and a satisfying sort of accessibility to match the visual splendour and skill onscreen.
Late in the film, Caproni, another historical fictionalisation that becomes an unsatisfying and overused foil in these dreams, asks Jiro if he wants to live in a world with pyramids. By way of explanation, he then tells a perplexed Jiro that, “humanity dreams of flight, but the dream is cursed – planes are destined for war. But I choose a world with pyramids anyway.” This is far from idealism: The Wind Rises hinges on a forgiving sort of historical determinism. The film does a rather curious thing for a historical piece, which tend to humanise their subject matter. Though primarily concerned with human nuance and personality, The Wind Rises abstracts its own historical fabric by focussing on the tiny space between the stitches – and, in this odd space, focuses on its psychological portrait and romantic plot.
The first is far more satisfying. The romance between Jiro and Naoko Satomi is mildly overwrought and feels underdeveloped. He meets her as a child, gallantly saves her and her maid, then is reunited with her years later by the grace of fate, saves her again, and they fall in love immediately. Gazing upon Jiro in a restaurant after years apart, Naoko’s eyes glint with circles of light that are jarringly added to the animation as she sees him. Their chaste but fervent intimacy is never quite explained, justified, or even depicted to any degree of satisfaction. It just is. And it is eventually ended by Naoko, whose fading health compels her to leave abruptly so that Jiro might “remember her as she was,” which feels slightly objectifying. We, too, have to make do with this abrupt departure but rather than fostering a sense of identification with Jiro’s loss it only makes evident how superficial the memory we are left with actually is.
Kayo, Jiro’s little sister, is a much more compelling and realistic character, and her rebukes toward Jiro are enjoyably sharp, yet affectionate. With her stubborn desire to study medicine, and her no-nonsense disposition, she, much more than Naoko, seems to carry the mantle of well-written female characters that Miyazaki has also become known for. These critiques of the romantic plot should not be taken as against the film as a whole, which is otherwise very complex, self-aware and sometimes unsettling.
It’s difficult – and not wholly appropriate – for a Western viewer to try and assert an understanding of the historical politics and national significance of the film. If, indeed, a definitive assertion could be made at all: within Japan, the film has been both accused of being anti-Japanese 2 and being too apolitical. 3 The critique of a soft-focus, humanised depiction of the indirect mechanics of war was also made in South Korea (though the film wasn’t released in the country) where The Wind Rises offended a number of commentators, who pointed out that Japanese war planes were made with forced Korean labour.4
Within the limitations of being a foreign viewer, it is still evident, however, that the film purposely eludes any definitive political interpretation. And against other critics who have described The Wind Rises as idealistic, I would argue that it is ambivalent, complex almost to the point of dissemblance – it is difficult to tell whether it is meant to be understood as a testament to an enduring human desire for beauty and love, or as an indictment of a collective momentum towards unwitting destruction. The lines of poetry that the title references, said by the child-Naoko to Jiro, were: “The wind is rising/We must try to live,” and what The Wind Rises finished with is the inchoate and troubling feeling that this is a more tangled and difficult task than it originally seemed.