By Don Simpson | December 28, 2013
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Writer: Hayao Miyazaki
Starring: Hideaki Anno, Mirai Shida, Jun Kunimura, Hidetoshi Nishijima, Miori Takimoto, Steve Alpert, Keiko Takeshita, Masahiko Nishimura, Shinobu Ôtake, Mansai Nomura, Morio Kazama
Jirô (Hideaki Anno) is a Japanese boy who often dreams of flying machines, but he knows full well that his poor eyesight will never allow him to become a pilot. With Italian aviation pioneer Caproni (Mansai Nomura) guiding him through a series of lucid dreams, Jirô recognizes that his true destiny is to become an aviation engineer. (Jirô is said to be a fictionalized interpretation of Japanese aviation engineer Jirô Horikoshi with a bit of novelist Tatsuo Hori thrown in for good measure.) Jirô begins to read English-language aviation magazines with the aid of a dictionary, eventually studying aeronautical engineering at a university in Tokyo.
On one fateful train trip to Tokyo, Jirô meets Nahoko (Miori Takimoto) for the first time. She saves his hat, he saves her nanny; there is an obvious connection between them, but they soon must go their separate ways. Years later, while Jirô is on a business trip for Mitsubishi, he finally sees Nahoko again. As if vivid dreams are not enough motivation for his creativity and productivity, Nahoko is revealed to be Jirô’s muse and soulmate. With Nahoko now a part of his life, Jirô becomes Mitsubishi’s wunderkind, practically singlehandedly changing Japan’s reputation from design copycats to leading innovators of the aviation industry with the development of the A5M (the immediate predecessor of the infamous “Zero” fighter).
Writer-director Hayao Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises studiously contemplates Japan’s economy between the two world wars, a time of tremendous hardships and turmoil — including the Great Depression, mass unemployment, bank closures, the 1923 Kanto earthquake and the tuberculosis epidemic. The key to economic recovery is technological innovation, especially as the world ramps up preparations for World War II. Germany, Italy and Japan find themselves with escalated demand for rapid advances in aviation, so they begin to form alliances (albeit sometimes in dreams) to support each other’s growth as war machines. Japan’s inability to produce metal and lack of skilled aviation designers, forces them to pay Germany for their technology…that is until Jirô comes along. Germany’s Hugo Junkers developes the first all metal-frame aircraft and Italy’s Caproni constructs a massive tri-winged plane — and both innovators serve as Jirô’s primary idols as he designs the “Zero” fighter.
An unabashed realization of Miyazaki’s lifelong fascination with flying machines, The Wind Rises discusses how some of the greatest technological innovations can be mutated into horrible war machinery. Jirô never consciously attempts to build aircraft to be used for death and destruction, he merely sets out to develop the airplanes from his beautiful dreams. Though Mitsubishi’s bid for a contract with the Japanese Navy drove the demand for them to build fast fighters and monstrous bombers, it is by no means Jirô’s fault that his beautiful dreams would be transformed into horrendous nightmares, his creation is merely a victim of circumstance. Jirô merely wanted to construct a sleek yet sturdy jet; in fact, his version of the “Zero” fighter is physically unable to carry the weight of any form of weaponry. It is presumably the Navy that solves the weight issues related to adding weaponry. As far as we can tell, the only time Jirô believes that violence is warranted is to stop bullying, and that is only when verbal negotiations do not work out; Jirô’s mother, however, teaches him that fighting is never justified, thus echoing Miyazaki’s pacifist sentiments.
Miyazaki visualizes air flight via the fantastic perspective of a child. In The Wind Rises, air flight is romanticized in comparison to traveling on land, especially by train; flying machines are magically able to do the impossible — such as fly under small bridges — and literally dance with the clouds. Yes, these aircraft were eventually utilized to kill countless people, but that is a different story than Miyazaki chooses to tell. Instead, Miyazaki concentrates on how inspiration drives technology and technology drives the economy. This is a story about Japan becoming a leading innovator rather than a copycat in order to resuscitate its economy. This is also a story about creativity and innovation, friendship and love. First and foremost, this is a story about making the most of our dreams.
In many ways, The Wind Rises functions as metaphor for Miyazaki’s own life as an animator, writer and director. He stresses the importance of reaching into your dreams for inspiration and motivation, as well as learning from your mistakes. Miyasaki’s mantra is that friendship and love are the most important aspects of living life to its fullest and being successful in a career. Attempting to legitimize his own retirement, Miyasaki also makes a point to explain that designers have a definite lifespan before they achieve burnout, averaging about ten years. Of course Miyazaki’s animation career has spanned six decades, and he has been directing films for 35 years (his directorial debut, The Castle of Cagliostro, was released in 1979).
As a longtime fan of Miyazaki’s films, his retirement is a bitter pill for me to swallow. And while The Wind Rises is a far superior animated film in comparison to its Hollywood counterparts, this film does not represent what I love most about Miyazaki — primarily, his whimsical approach to fantasy and the surrealist rabbit holes that he effortlessly drags us down. For the most part, The Wind Rises is a very straightforward and meticulously plotted drama with absolutely no rabbit holes to speak of, thus relegating the fantastic elements of the narrative to Jirô’s dreams. Though only loosely based on reality, The Wind Rises plays like a straightforward bio-pic made primarily for adults (especially when it comes to Western audiences). Yes, the animation is flawlessly detailed — even more so than any other Studio Ghibli production — but the story is a bit too subdued and contrived. Regardless, The Wind Rises is an exponentially more accomplished animated film when compared to any other animated films released in 2013. Hopefully the Academy will recognize that and just go ahead and give Miyazaki the much deserved Oscar. Miyazaki, the one true master of animated film, has only won one Oscar so far (Spirited Away).