“Airplanes are beautiful dreams. Cursed dreams, waiting for the sky to swallow them up.”
It’s hard to separate The Wind Rises from its creator, Hayao Miyazaki, iconic anime director and co-founder of Studio Ghibli. Barring a Jay Z-esque change of heart, The Wind Rises represents his last feature length film, and with this in mind it’s difficult to view the film as anything other than a grand artistic statement. An epitaph. A coda. A reflection on an amazing career.
The protagonist of the film, young Jiro (voiced by either Joseph Gordon-Levitt or Evangelion-creator Hideaki Anno, depending on the version) dreams of a future as an aeronautical engineer. His ambition is inspired partly by the impossibility of becoming a pilot (due to his shortsightedness) and by a literal dream, an ethereal encounter with Italian engineer Count Gianni Caproni (Stanley Tucci/Mansai Nomura). Caproni explains to Jiro that artists and engineers are only creative for ten years, and that he should make the most of his “time in the sun.”
The Wind Rises, then, is a contemplation of both Jiro and Miyazaki’s time in the sun (though the latter’s creative period stretched for far longer than a decade). Where Miyazaki’s legacy is a catalogue of beautiful films, Jiro leaves his mark in the form of the Mitsubishi Zero, the linchpin of Japan’s aeronautical warfare in World War II.
If Jiro is, in fact, an avatar of Miyazaki’s own creative spirit, then he clearly views his legacy with dark uncertainty. The creative process on display here is not the typical filmic presentation, defined by commitment and a revelatory burst of inspiration. Jiro’s creativity is defined by difficulty and adversity. Early designs fail. He is constrained by the dwindling budget of a country in depression, and a government that views its people with suspicion. He succeeds through persistence and doggedness.
The Wind Rises is no celebration of creativity – or at least, not an unambiguous one. Jiro produces an inherent destructive entity and regards it as such. It’s simultaneously beautiful and terrible. But while the questionable morality of fashioning instruments of war might have limited relevance to Miyazaki’s filmography, the way Jiro’s love for aeronautics transforms into a life-consuming obsession would appear to shed some light on the director’s thoughts on his own career.
Jiro loves deeply. He loves the purity of aeroplanes, the precision of design. He loves Nahoko (Emily Blunt/Miori Takimoto), a fragile young woman who he marries and cares for through her tuberculosis. Where love is so often depicted in fiction as perfect and pure, The Wind Rises understands that love can be selfish. Love can drive you to create something terrible out of a deep desire to make something beautiful. Love can pull your wife to you, even if she would better treated in a sanatorium. Love can be all-consuming, and that’s not always a good thing, whether it’s love of aeroplanes or the love of cinema.
This is a beautiful film, as we have come to expect from Miyazaki. Every frame is gorgeous, possessing the quiet calm of a cool breeze on a summer day. At times I did wish that the wind would indeed rise; the first act of the film is buffeted about by a gale in the form of the 1923 Great Kantō earthquake, which tears Tokyo apart as it brings Jiro and Nahoko together. Otherwise the remainder of the film is low-key, however, gentle and undramatic. It’s pleasant, but without the fantastical whimsy that defines so many of Miyazaki’s other films, it tends towards monotony in the middle stretch.
The Wind Rises doesn’t capture the same childish vibrancy that My Neighbour Totoro did, nor the mystical splendour of Spirited Away. It’s a more thoughtful film, quiet and contemplative. It may not stand alongside Miyazaki’s best, but it is a touching reflection on his years in the sun nonetheless.